Monday, 14 November 2011

MBA early career challenges: handling others and reconceiving yourself

MBA courses are meant to prepare their students to become effective business leaders, and give a lot of attention to that goal. This mid-late career focus makes it reasonable to wonder how MBA graduates are equipped for their earlier career, when they take their classroom knowledge to a managerial role with significant responsibilities. Beth Benjamin and Charles O'Reilly of Stanford University conducted a qualitative investigation into early-career challenges for 55 such “manager-graduates”, to understand the near-term needs of a newly minted MBA, and hence how their course could leave them better prepared.

Their interviews, exploring especially challenging episodes in the early career of these manager-graduates, illustrated how an educational experience emphasising analytical problem solving, graft, and individual success, inevitably shapes a more task-oriented approach. Often knowing 'what' to do, the manager-graduate is less sure on 'how to do it', notably in the social dimension.

Aggressively outdoing his peers to wind up with a promotion, one interviewee entered his role only to have several team members - once his peers - walk out. His learning from this was to “treat your peers as though they might someday be your boss or direct reports.” Another trap was assuming that others share your approach, motivation and skills towards work issues; this can lead to overly relaxed expectation-setting or misjudging how to motivate others for a new direction. One interviewee baldly stated "[Business School] doesn’t prepare you to manage a wide swatch of people", such as those whose life doesn’t revolve around business excellence.

Another theme of the research was the need for manager-graduates to shift mind-set. They needed to flourish when their role didn't provide opportunity for direct personal achievements, by embracing being a "caretaker for something larger than myself". They also needed to cope with, and learn from, personal disappointments, which can be a real challenge for a perennial straight-A student unused to such situations.

All the challenges represented some form of transition point, where the manager-graduate had to drop old assumptions, turn to different skills, renegotiate relationships or take a new approach. Such transitions are vital times for spurring learning forward, but can be problematic if they come before the individual is ready for them.

Benjamin and O'Reilly fear the MBA system doesn't accomplish this preparation, as "teaching leadership principles without sufficient application opportunities runs the risk of making complex leadership concepts appear simple and obvious"; for instance, we should be empathic leaders - but how do we manage that? Although applied learning does occur in MBAs, they feel there is a need for better integration, to understand the how in the context of the what, to provide their students well-practiced strategies to carry them through the situations of stress that will undoubtedly define their early career.

ResearchBlogging.orgBenjamin, B., & O'Reilly, C. (2011). Becoming a Leader: Early Career Challenges Faced by MBA Graduates The Academy of Management Learning and Education, 10 (3), 452-472 DOI: 10.5465/amle.2011.0002

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