As the unemployment rate continues to climb (8.5% in March 2009, Bureau of Labor Statistics), many of us are seeking out new options for maintaining some sense of stability for the future. One very popular option is the MBA. As a career coach, I’m inundated with questions relating to how it can help your career. Some want to know what doors it will open, what fields they can go into, and how to use it to get what they want. These questions don’t just come from potential students. They come from graduates too, illuminating a misalignment of expectations. Obtaining a MBA should be an integral part of your plan, not the plan itself. To understand this misalignment, I spent several months talking with experts and successful MBA professionals to learn how they did it.
Analyzing the results from many respondents, including graduates from the top MBA programs as well as the lower tier programs, the path to real career success with the MBA follows a four step process: personal vision, career path, work environment and the MBA degree. So, let’s take a quick look at each step.
Personal Vision. Successful professionals have a willingness to create a vision and achieve it. They don’t wander aimlessly through life. They take time to visualize what they want and map it out. Shahid Sayed, a current MBA student at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta, Ga., has always sought to bring peace to his part of the world. A writer and film director, Shahid is working on his first movie, “A Jihad of My Own,” which seeks to educate Muslims about Americans. However, to do this, he realized that he must influence them by teaching them American ways. So, he enrolled in a MBA program and has been taking his new knowledge to schools in India to show them how Americans turn ideas into business, using simple marketing and selling activities. Shahid didn’t intend for his MBA to be his career. It is just one step along the way; that is, a step that must be taken to get to the next level.
Career Path. Knowing who you are and what you want are key pieces of information in preparing a map for your future. The successful MBAs have a sense of purpose. While they do change careers, they ensure their path is well defined. That is to say, they have thought out where they want to be years after they earned the MBA. David B. was a chemical engineering graduate of Penn State. He worked for a research company in Texas and earned success early. However, this success ran out quickly. Thinking the MBA would improve his options, he enrolled in the University of Texas’ Executive MBA program. Within two years of graduating, David was still in the same position he was before with no sign of career opportunities. Why? He had no plan. He knew the MBA would provide more options and open doors. He just didn’t realize that no one would bring the doors to him. If you want to realize your vision, you must create a map to get there.
Work Environment. Richard Boyatzis, professor at Case Western Reserve University’s Departments of Organizational Behavior, Psychology and Cognitive Science, told me in an interview that MBA students overlook one very important concept after graduating and taking that next job. Even if they have a clear vision and a defined career path, they overlook equipping themselves with all the tools they need to achieve their goals. This includes their working environment. If you surround yourself with work and people that you do not enjoy, you will become stressed and eventually fail to achieve your desired goals. In his book, “Resonant Leadership,” Boyatzis explains that stress will wear you down physically and emotionally so you lose your connection with people and become dissonant. Once you’re disengaged, completing tasks in your plan will be difficult in that experimentation and practice of new behaviors won’t provide sufficient feedback for improvement, support, interpretation and learning. Determine what type of environment you need to maintain and grow your ability to realize your vision and traverse your career path.
The MBA. The MBA is a useful tool, but as we have described in the previous sections, if you don’t know what you want to do with it, where you are going to use it and how you need to use it, it probably won’t help you build very much. The question you need to ask yourself is “will the MBA get me what I want?” By defining your vision, path and the environment you need to be successful, you should be able to determine if the MBA will be able to satisfy these requirements. If it will, then go get it.
In contemplating your options for future career success, you need to do a little planning. You can think of it as a journey to a place you can’t wait to get to. Before you take off, you must know where this place is located. Then, you need to know if you’re taking a boat, flying a plane or riding in a car. Next, you need to surround yourself with people who can see what you are trying to do and can help you get there. Having a sailor as a co-pilot may not be a great deal of help. Once your trip is planned, find out what can give it a real boost, such as a little extra octane in the engine (or a MBA).
Todd Rhoad is Director at BT Consulting, a career consulting firm in Altanta, and can be reached at email@example.com.
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