MBA Gives You the Inside Edge
Joan Ramsay
The Globe and Mail, November 2010

img-mba-edge-crayons-madison-macarthurThink an MBA won't win you points for an executive job or internal promotion? Think again.

These days, “there's a higher expectation around credentials and accomplishments in general because the clients are really raising the bar in what they're looking for,” says Paul Maroney, a search director with executive search firm Madison MacArthur in Toronto. “... MBAs can speak to that.”

When skills and experience are comparable, 81 per cent of senior executives across Canada are more likely to consider an applicant with an MBA for a high-level job than a candidate without one, according to a recent poll by Environics Group Research.

That doesn't surprise Ken Werker, managing partner in the Vancouver office of executive search firm Odgers Berndtson.

“If you're talking about all things being equal, it [an MBA] definitely gives you an advantage,” he says. That's because MBAs offer an “enhanced skill set” that includes such things as critical thinking, specific expertise and well-developed networking.

Mr. Maroney agrees. “It provides a baseline of training and business expertise that can be … used in any industry and any sector,” he said in an interview. “It gives candidates a leg up in terms of their toolkit.”

Although companies don't necessarily list an MBA as a requirement for executive positions, Mr. Maroney says, “it can be used as a kind of shorthand” for focus, maturity, commitment and sophisticated business insight that would be applied to the job. That means that if a company gets 50 applications for a job, and five have MBAs, those five will likely move to the top of the pile, he explains.

MBAs and promotion

While MBA programs offer a good grounding in both soft skills, such as multitasking, time management and interpersonal relationships, and business-specific skills, the degree “becomes less relevant” for an experienced employee looking for promotion, says Andrea Garson, vice-president of human resources for Workopolis, Canada's largest online job site.

That’s because many soft skills can be learned on the job, she says, while other characteristics important to hiring have already been identified in the candidate. “Work experience, fit, ... volunteer or extracurricular activities that help shape who you are, honesty and integrity ― they can’t teach you that in school.”

According to the Environics poll, senior executives recognize the value of hiring from within, with an equal 26 per cent saying an MBA is either not important or not very important for a senior promotion. However, 39 per cent said it is somewhat important and 8 per cent said it is very important.

“The bar is always higher for external candidates across the board,” Mr. Maroney agrees, because they lack the track record or goodwill built by an internal candidate. However, he adds, less important doesn't mean not important, adding that an MBA “brings a greater level of knowledge and sophistication to the company.”

Barriers to achievement

The majority of senior executives also recognize that there are significant barriers to enrolling in MBA programs. Cost tops the list of obstacles at 52 per cent of respondents, followed by the time it takes (37 per cent).

The cost of an MBA program in Canada ranges from a low of about $4,400 to a high of almost $60,000, with the average between $20,000 and $22,000, according to As for time, a program can take anywhere from 10 months to more than two years, depending on the institution and specialty, it adds.

Companies can ease those burdens by giving chosen employees tuition support and release time to get an MBA, Mr. Werker says, adding: “It's a great talent retention tool for grooming leaders from within.”

Even then, signing on for an MBA while working is “quite a sacrifice,” Mr. Werker notes, requiring dedication and hard work. And search firms take notice, he adds. “It gives us a positive indication about their character.”

Where you get your MBA matters less than if you get the degree, the majority of executives polled by Environics said.

Half the respondents felt the school makes a small difference while 34 per cent said it makes no difference at all. Only 15 per cent say the MBA school makes a big difference. Furthermore, 85 per cent said MBAs from Canada's top business schools are as good as or better than those from their U.S. counterparts.

The poll, done for Queen’s University in Kingston as part of a larger survey in February of 400 senior executives across Canada, is considered accurate within 4.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.