I've had to entertain a good deal of talk about business school this year. My friends and I have ripened, both in age and experience, to the point at which most prospective students apply. We're all four to six years into careers where we've tasted varying degrees of success. But we know there's something greater around the corner. And business school is, for many, a land of greater promise than the one we inhabit now; a land that can restore us to the full glory that we were all raised to believe we'd have.
Now, my friends are a thoughtful bunch. They're supremely educated, and they've done all the impressive things they need to do to become compelling candidates, even for elite schools like Harvard and Stanford. They justification business school with great conviction and this often spills over into evangelism. They point to the Wikipedia profiles of those who run our world, establishing the linear relationship between degree and power of decree. And they back-up their certainties through the liquidation of assets in preparation for tuition; a sacrifice that's for many is dwarfed by the salary that they will forego for the next two years.
Yet for those I know, I'd say that business school is probably not the right path to pursue. I'd have that suspicion in the face of anyone trying to sell me something as confidently and aggressively as they do their own decision on this. But let's look at what business school provides to an emerging leader. It's hardly passion; passion can be innate, but for many it's a hands-on process of trial-and-error. It could be the network, but is it really? If you're already working at a top flight consulting firm or bank, you'll have been surrounded by a phenomenal, expansive network for many years, particularly if you were funneled in from a leading academic institution. There's a case that you'll pick up skills, but if you're the sort of self-motivated individual who can succeed at the numerous professional and academic hurdles that came before, you can also pretty easily teach yourself financial modeling, accounting, or whatever else you think you're deficient in. And even more importantly, many former business school students will tell you that they did the majority of their skill learning on the job.
There are two other related justifications, which is often used by business school proponents as trump cards, but these too ultimately still rest on weak foundations. They are the notions that business school enables career switching, as well as providing a "stamp" that is increasingly necessary for being considered for many desirable jobs. My thoughts here are simple. Those who I know simply would not enjoy working for employers who are not capable of seeing round pegs and sanding off their square holes in response. Skills can be easily taught, but in a global war for talent, abilities - like those that these friends possess - are in short supply, and those who are winning that war are already seeing past the resume and designing highly-complex means to do so.
Business school may be the right decision for any one individual, but I find it increasingly hard to see why the real leaders of the future will continue to choose this path. An MBA is a form of insurance; a highly-conservative move to hedge against risk. It does establish a salary floor, and there's certainly value in that. But let's be honest about what it is: it's a move for the individual who's not confident enough that they possess what it takes to accelerate their career on their own.