Changing Careers: B-School Can Help Only So Much

No matter how good you are at what you do, sometimes it’s time to change direction. Yao Ming might have had a pretty good run as one of the world’s top basketball players, but he’s now hung up what are very likely an extremely large pair of boots to concentrate on his business investments and managing his beloved home team, the Shanghai Sharks. So far, Yao has shown no sign of considering a business school education to help in this new career, but a number of other sports stars and celebrities have taken this route over the years.

The George Washington University School of Business has decided that dropping former footballers and baseball aces into a class of bankers and businesspeople just won’t get the best results. Consequently it has developed a specialist executive MBA program called STAR—Special Talent, Access, and Responsibility—geared to the needs of athletes and other celebrities. Participants are assigned personal mentors to help them with the transition into the world of business, and spouses are encouraged to take part in courses to help the whole family adjust to a new lifestyle. So far, the program has already attracted the Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes and several former NFL players.

Other sports stars, however, seem to believe that spending more time with fellow athletes would mean missing much of the benefit of going to business school. "I think one of the biggest advantages of the business school experience comes from mixing with people from a wide range of backgrounds," says Craig Buntin, a former Olympic ice skater currently taking his MBA at the Desautels Faculty of Management at Canada’s McGill University. "If you’ve got true diversity of work experience, culture, and nationality in the classroom, you get a whole new set of perspectives. And that’s vital if you want to be part of the next generation of business leaders."

Tyra Banks at Harvard

Some big-name celebrities also appear to think that rubbing shoulders with established business leaders on campus is a good way of learning the lessons they’ll need to turn their own companies into global brands. For example, former supermodel and current entrepreneur and TV personality Tyra Banks has signed up for the Owner/President Management executive education program at Harvard Business School. Banks has said she believes that the program—three weeks on campus over a three-year period—is the best way to invest in herself and grow her media empire. In a CBS interview, she said it also ensures that she can hold her own when discussing net present value or discounted cash flow.

How much a stint at business school really helps a celebrity change career direction is, of course, open to debate. After all, the glamour attached to the name of a track and field star or a camera-friendly supermodel may have just as much influence on a potential employer as a better grasp of balance sheets or marketing strategy. If that’s true for celebrities, it raises serious questions about how useful business school is for those of us who lack bold-faced names. So how much real use is the B-school experience to the humble corporate foot soldiers looking to reinvent themselves without the benefit of Olympic medals or NFL trophies?

"While an MBA is great icing on the cake, most recruiters are more interested in the cake itself," says Graeme Read, group managing director of the professional and managerial recruitment firm Antal International. "If you’ve got Wharton, Stanford, or Harvard on your résumé, that’s certainly going to make you an attractive prospect, but most hiring decisions are still made on the basis of what you’ve demonstrated you can do in your career to date. In the sort of uncertain markets we live in now, few organizations are keen to back someone to do something they’ve never done before just because they’ve spent a few years and a lot of cash on a business school qualification."

Satisfied Career Switchers

Of course, this is not to say that every MBA graduate is doomed to go back to the job he was doing before he began his studies. Indeed, there are more career switchers than career enhancers enrolled in top full-time MBA programs. And a Graduate Management Admission Council report comparing the two groups found that career switchers are more likely than career enhancers to be extremely or very satisfied with their degree programs, and to believe they have developed greater skills as a result of attaining their MBA. So celebrities become business tycoons, while engineers become consultants, consultants become bankers, and bankers … well, whatever bankers do next will hopefully make them a little more responsible and risk-averse than they might have been in the past.

Most of the career changes that happen are accomplished on the back of skills the individual already possessed that business school has sharpened, augmented, and put in a wider context. Perhaps that means a winning mindset rather than bench presses for former Arizona Cardinals running back Jason Wright, who has retired from the NFL to pursue an MBA at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

But if you want a real life-affecting change, then you may need to be prepared to look within to achieve it. While a business school can help you formulate your new business plan and plug you into a network of mentors, fellow entrepreneurs, and potential investors, the real basis of success—for the famous and inconspicuous alike—won’t be found in any classroom, but inside yourself.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE