Illustration by Sian Morley-Smith
The head of strategy at a FTSE 100 firm recently shared his views, not all of them favourable; about MBA grads he has interviewed and recruited over the last few years.
Our source, let’s call him Mr.X, was a telecoms and media specialist at one of the major strategy consulting firms for nine years before moving in-house.
His exposure to MBA grads began in consulting, an industry where “MBAs are the foot soldiers,” and do the “bread and butter” of the work, he said.
“First I worked for MBAs, and when I’d been there long enough I started hiring, managing and running teams of MBAs,” he told us.
As a senior consultant, Mr.X interviewed around 300 MBAs, during several trips to Insead and London Business School amongst others. They were a mixture of first and second round interviews and usually took place in three-day marathons, working ten-hour days, with interviews typically lasting 45 minutes.
While his criticisms are pretty harsh, we also thought they serve as a useful guide to how not to come across at job interviews and in your workplace!
Mundane, boring and ambitious
So, what exactly is Mr.X’s beef with MBA grads? He summed up MBAs as “mundane, boring and ambitious”.
“I tended to find that all the things I hoped they’d know, they didn’t know,” he said. “They have good coverage of a lot of stuff but they don’t have a deep understanding of anything. For example, many have spent ages studying finance, but don’t have a clear judgment of what makes a business an attractive investment and why: they can mechanistically build a model, but leave their judgement at the door.
“The more general point is that they learn hundreds of frameworks but they forget how to think for themselves.
“I interviewed the then president of the Consulting Club at one school, who had been diligently training his classmates on how to do case studies. Throughout the interview his approach to each question was to find which framework in his library he could apply and regurgitate. I asked him a question that didn’t fit the standard framework and he had nothing…
“It’s great that you go off and learn different frameworks that help you solve problems, but you should be developing your own instincts and ultimately have your own point of view.”
Mr.X also once came across a candidate with an MBA and a Doctorate in Philosophy. “As an interviewer you get bored of doing the same case study questions so I thought, ‘Great, this is an interesting combination, he should have an interesting point of view.’
“I asked him his views on Shell’s human rights responsibilities but the answer he gave was just book learned stuff. The guy apparently had no interest in the world or ability to think about stuff on his own.”
Mr.X’s third gripe is that MBAs are too concerned with ambition and status, rather than with learning and doing interesting work. “It’s all, ‘When do I meet a senior client?’, or, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this analysis or writing this document because I’m senior.’
“They’re always looking for the next ladder against which to prove themselves... the next set of well-defined rungs. They’re ultimately very risk averse: everything in life has to be defined against this measurable ladder. They lose interest if they don’t think a particular role is helping with their master plan for the universe.”
Mr.X himself chose not to do an MBA even though the consulting firm where he worked offered to pay for one. “I was doing interesting stuff. It was a one off opportunity to help a client shape their industry during a period of market disruption… you don’t get many businesses that state explicitly that they want to do that.
“I wanted to see it through in the real world rather than spend time studying and discussing case studies.”
Mr.X holds a science degree from a top UK university, and picked up his business knowledge and skills as he went along. “I worked with people who are good coaches and figured stuff out when problems required it.
Mature, bold, analytical
There are of course exceptions to this alarming picture!
“The good ones have an international perspective, they’ve seen different things and explored different ways of looking at the world and have experiences beyond their years.”
“Their gut reaction to a case study is: ‘That’s an interesting problem,’ and they’re willing to stick their neck out and say what they think the solution is. They’re also willing to debate their assumptions.
“At interviews I often selected candidates who may not have done the best job in the case study in terms of laying out a framework and sticking to it, but who were more human, trusted their own instincts; and that I could imagine working long hours and sitting on a long flight with.”
The best MBAs are also “highly analytical,” not only in their approach to solving problems, but in their awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses “The good ones are always working on improving themselves,” said Mr.X
The multinational firm where Mr.X now heads strategy has an MBA recruitment scheme, but Mr.X doesn’t use it to hire into his strategy team – a decision he has recently reviewed and reconfirmed.
“If we don’t have control over hiring, I fear we’ll get bad traits… we look internally for people with potential or we go through head-hunters.”