Masters Of Barely Anything?

B-schools' worst failing, says the author: Promoting the idea of the CEO as savior


A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of

Managing and Management Development

By Henry Mintzberg

Berrett Koehler -- 464pp -- $27.95

The Masters of Business Administration is one of higher education's most respected degrees, both a touchstone of managerial ability and a ticket to the higher reaches of Corporate America. Now, though, comes an apostate -- a respected professor of management studies who challenges the very basics of business education. In the scathing Managers Not MBAs: A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development, McGill University business professor Henry Mintzberg says today's B-school is essentially a sham.

In this provocative but often repetitive work, Mintzberg posits that MBA programs not only educate "the wrong people" -- namely, those lacking sufficient experience -- they actually fail to teach management. Rather than producing good administrators, B-schools foster an arrogant, "elitist" class who understand little yet think they can solve any problem. Mintzberg suggests replacing what he sees as broad and superficial MBA training with specialized programs, granting degrees such as a Masters of Business in Finance, or Retail, or Consulting. He also advocates revamping the current Executive MBA programs that offer midcareer, weekend schooling for those with full-time jobs. As a substitute, he favors attendance by teams from the same company, with study focusing on issues the execs are actually grappling with at work rather than on unrelated cases on wide-ranging topics.

Mintzberg makes some fair points -- his charges of elitism seem particularly well-taken. But his book suffers from some misconceptions, and its prescriptions for change could create new ills. What's more, the author exaggerates, suggesting that MBA schooling is responsible for everything from unlawful corporate shenanigans to the corruption of society.

Management education should be for those who already have some background directing personnel, says Mintzberg, and most MBA students do not. "Trying to teach management to someone who has never managed is like trying to teach psychology to someone who has never met another human being," he argues. This lack of experience among students is a basic premise of the book -- and it's overstated. According to B-schools and BusinessWeek's own findings, most students at the top 50 U.S. programs have four to six years of work experience, often including at least a year or two of project management, team-leading, or service in a position with the title "manager." And though Mintzberg asserts that he has never met an Executive MBA student who is actually in a senior position, BusinessWeek's surveys show that students in these programs often have such titles as vice-president, regional director, and chief operating officer.

Mintzberg sees a big problem in how B-schools promote "heroic management" -- the notion that a CEO savior can come in from outside and fix anything. His favorite target is Harvard Business School, whose case studies, employed to the near-exclusion of other approaches, provide narrow snapshots of the kinds of problems usually faced only by top executives. That methodology, he persuasively argues, leads MBA students to think of themselves as "superstars," capable of high-level decision-making. Instead, the author suggests, Harvard produces more high-profile failures than you'd think: In Inside the Harvard Business School (1990), former professor David W. Ewing listed 19 alums who had excelled, among them former Bendix CEO William Agee and former Continental Airlines CEO Frank Lorenzo. But as of 2003, Mintzberg says, 10 of those had left their jobs on bad terms. Some were forced out, while others steered their companies into bankruptcy through bad decisions. Only five ended up with good records.

Mintzberg believes business schools should produce not heroic managers but "engaging managers." These are leaders who assist those under them, seek input from everyone when forming strategy, and reward everyone when the organization succeeds. But Mintzberg's recommendations are flawed. For example, the company-team approach he suggests for executive education -- one that he has used at McGill -- may lead to a kind of tunnel vision. It's a model that offers limited opportunity for intermingling of execs from various industries and only restricted study of other fields.

Finally, Mintzberg overplays his critique by making management education the scapegoat for all that ails corporations -- and much that afflicts society. After railing against the "corruption of established institutions," the author observes that "greed has been raised to some sort of higher calling" and that "MBA education plays a significant role in this." That's a heavy load to lay on educational programs -- especially since, as Mintzberg acknowledges, most CEOs and other top executives don't even have MBAs.

By Jennifer Merritt

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