Wanted: business beginners with depth
A liberal arts background may be preferable to MBAs among employers looking for management track hires. Here's why . . .
Change is inevitable and ubiquitous. So it's no surprise that for the Christian beginner in business, whether a freshly minted 'BA' or 'MBA,' the rules and the workplaces are changing.
Several years ago, Fortune 500 CEOs challenged the business education establishment, particularly the MBA providers, with their requirements for a future employee. Then, as now, employers confronted educators with the demand they get it right. Three outcomes were defined. Prospective employers insisted that the graduate must be able to communicate (writing and speaking), to get along with others (work with teams), and to tolerate uncertainty (deal with crisis and ambiguity).
Needless to say, the educators (people like your authors!) got it wrong. Schools primarily focused on quantitative analysis, accounting and finance, and economics. For the MBA intending to spend a lifetime in front of a computer, functioning as an analyst or even as a chartered accountant or CPA, this worked well. For the majority of graduates, however—those who wanted to be executives, make money, manage corporate divisions, create start-ups as entrepreneurs, or even lead charitable organizations, this made no sense.
Shortly after the quantitative fad ended, the "leadership" fad began. This phase in management education recognized a need in the working community, but has yet to be defined adequately or researched properly. At about the same time the rest of the world was discovered. Many U.S. educators had not realized that globalization was happening and that business people in other countries were joining in alliances, getting rich, and hiring their graduates. The leadership and international themes continue today, although the next fad may be emerging (Peter Drucker thought it might be "positive psychology"). When some current MBA degrees from top schools cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the buyer had better be wary and understand that this purchases a network and a brand, but little else. The quality of education often may have negligible connection to the cost of the degree, if our own longstanding observations are accurate.
So, three questions may be helpful:
- What is the workplace like?
- What do I need to know before I get there? and
- What does my faith have to do with anything?
Some of the answers may surprise you.
What is the workplace like?
One of the benefits of being a dean and a professor in programs that serve executives is that we get to study their working lives while they learn from us. Some of our students have held quite senior positions, so we're able to take advantage of this and reflect their experience back to you. In two different institutions where we've worked, there have been programs to connect younger business graduates with working professionals. This has been invaluable for the entry-level graduates. If you are studying in such an institution, seek out these "adult" learners from full-time day jobs who are studying in evening programs and soak up their thoughts. Additionally, any real-world experience you can garner, whether through internships, course projects, or even job shadowing, will strengthen your preparation.
The first major observation of these executives is that the workplace is now incredibly diverse and complex. The people you work with every day will probably be very different from you and your current friends. I (Wes) remember when I first began as a young manager in an engineering firm, how fascinating it was to build a friendship with a young engineer from India, even as he went through the process of negotiating his marriage with his family back in India, to a woman he had never met. I was newly married, a Christian and a former naval officer with a leadership background but no real technical skills. He was single, a Hindu, a mechanical engineer, and our supervisor was a middle-aged Jewish engineer with children our age. What a fascinating mix of personalities and backgrounds! When we first met his new Indian wife and then watched them grow as a couple, it was truly a cultural learning moment. And this was many years ago. Today in the business world the people with whom we work include an even greater diversity, including those who are gay and lesbian, Wiccans, Muslims, and intensely committed hedonists (those for whom the party starts on Thursday evening). If you're from a somewhat sheltered, homogeneous environment, stand by for culture shock.
The second insight our executive students have provided is that change is breathtaking. Many work in project environments where they labour day and night for six months, then prepare all weekend without sleep to complete a proposal for Monday morning, only to find that the entire program has been cancelled. A completely new project, with new colleagues, then begins that Monday afternoon.
What do I need to know before I get there?
This is the bad news part of the discussion. If you don't have solid work experience, there is probably little from your undergraduate preparation that will help you in the marketplace, especially if you took only business courses and are not broadly educated. A growing body of research suggests that liberal arts graduates, or even creative types trained in the fine arts, are more useful to, (and desired more by), employers than narrowly-trained business majors. (If you're from a university or college that combines the liberal arts with basic business courses, you might be in better shape). We have been reluctant to accept undergraduate business majors to our MBA programs unless they have at least two years of productive work experience—running the cash register at a fast food place doesn't count. Wes has taught at the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands and found that MBA students there, though generally younger, were competent because of their diverse international backgrounds and demanding short-term work experience in consulting companies and financial institutions in other cultures. Many employers these days assume they will be responsible for the actual preparation of their new employees and that the new hire will not be useful to them for at least eighteen months. A top employer in Southern California refused to hire MBA graduates because he insisted that his Human Resources staff had to retrain them in the company's own methods and business philosophies.
The growing tendency to hire liberal arts graduates suggests that they have better preparation in critical thinking and communication skills, a reflection of the three requirements Fortune 500 CEOs suggested years ago. Again, being able to communicate, to get along with others, and to tolerate uncertainty. So it might be a good idea to emphasize these strengths—if you have them—in your next resume mailing.
What does my faith have to do with anything?
We have consistently found that issues of faith are more easily discussed in the business world than in some other places. Much has been written lately of spiritual hunger, effectively for anything spiritual, in the corporate world. There are many doors that are opened by the intensity and pace of competing in business that can lead colleagues to question meaning in their vocation and daily tasks. In one university, our students could discuss their spiritual hunger more easily in the management school than in the School of Religion.
Many secular employers believe that people of faith, usually Christians, have higher ethical standards than other employees. We worked in one highly successful university accounting program (successful in terms of hiring percentages), with sought-after graduates. Because the institution was Christ-centered in its mission, employers became increasingly aware of the ethical and moral foundations that our graduates brought to their companies. It didn't hurt that previous graduates had performed well in these companies, and had helped establish this brand for our institution. In one MBA program, roughly half the students were not Christians. When pressed on why they applied to a program that clearly celebrated its Christian commitment, many claimed they were drawn to the university's reputation for an emphasis on moral leadership and ethics.
All to say, you may find the world of work more welcoming to faith than even your current university!
Two final suggestions:
See where the dots connect. For followers of Christ this should be easy. Where do you see your strengths and the job's opportunities connecting? By volunteering for a job outside your comfort zone or outside your department, what might you learn that will make you more valuable to the company or add to your own bank of knowledge? Figure out how to build bridges between teams, departments, and clients. (You may want to even keep a journal of how these opportunities play out). Over time you will begin to discover some themes emerging in terms of where you find flow (enjoyment)—recognizing that where you focus your time, effort, and mental acumen will determine who you become. In the end, this is more important than what you do; and
- Value relationships—from the sanitation worker to the spouse of the boss. Be socially aware of how you come across and how people view your contribution in the work place. Listen to people. If you're doing the talking, you're not listening and learning from others. Make a genuine attempt to get to know people, and say "thank you" on a regular basis!
The workplace in this new millennium is a wild and crazy environment. Be creative, trust in your ability to learn and adapt, and don't be afraid of living your faith and loving people who are different.