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The Usual Suspects

(published in CNBC Business, July 2011)

When employment lawyer Thijs Glasz wanted to broaden the scope of his career outside of the law, the logical step was to join an MBA programme at a major international business school. But if he expected to be rubbing shoulders with fellow legal professionals, he was soon to be put straight. “There were nearly 250 students on the programme at Georgetown, but not one single other lawyer,” he says.

Over the past decade, MBA classrooms have become increasingly diverse. Schools attract students from the four corners of the globe and parity between the sexes is making positive strides. But when it comes to professional background, a high proportion are still drawn from the ‘usual suspect’ disciplines of engineering, finance and consultancy. It seems that it’s not just lawyers who are deterred from applying for what is now regarded as the world’s ubiquitous business qualification.

But does this really matter? To a growing number of deans and academics, it does. For them, limiting the student mix to a relatively narrow range of experience means that graduates are likely to leave their campuses locked into accepted patterns of thought and action. Whereas the recruitment of a more varied pool of students, drawing from areas such as the arts, academia or politics, helps to frame business decision-making in a wider context, making decisions more efficient, more effective and more likely to avoid the sort of lunacy that led to the global financial crisis.

Achieving this, however, is not easy. Jenny George, the outgoing dean at Melbourne Business School, while sympathetic to the idea of more broadly based MBAs, points out that the demands of the qualification can put a limit on absolute diversity. “You can’t get away from the fact that this is a qualification that calls for a high degree of numeracy,” she says. “It’s something that simply can’t be compromised on.”

A number of schools have tried to address the challenge of experience diversity by moving away from a reliance on the GMAT admissions test, regarded by many as focusing on quantitative skills. Stanford, for example, has adopted the GRE test as an alternative testing filter because of its emphasis on measuring a candidate’s capability for abstract, non-linear thinking.

Others highlight how the older profile of participants on executive MBAs, and the consequent emphasis on an individual’s CV, means that such diversity is less of an issue. As Saskia Treurniet of the global executive OneMBA programme points out: “There’s an emphasis on a participant’s track record and their willingness to take responsibility, which means that we’ve been able to build classes from such varied backgrounds as fashion design, NGOs, medicine, HR, media and entertainment. One of our participants, an international broadcaster, hit the nail on the head when she said that that a programme like this doesn’t call for a financial genius. What it does call for is someone who is open-minded enough to share with and learn from others.”

Delivery models also appear to help create a more broadly based MBA class. Bernard Garrette, associate dean at HEC Paris, argues that the part-time MBA is particularly good at attracting entrepreneurs who might not be willing or able to commit to full-time study. “Getting people like this into the classroom makes a difference,” he says, ”because they often have a different point of view from those coming from big company backgrounds. They can then bring their learning directly back to their start-up, and invest available funds in their projects, not just their studies.”

However, while the truly maverick MBA student from outside the usual talent pool does exist, they are still relatively thin on the ground. Where they are taking their place in the classroom, it’s often down to fancy thinking on the part of their host school.

After four years as a professional opera singer, Laura Mohre decided that she wanted a complete change of direction and approached the ESMT school in Berlin to join its full-time MBA programme. “There’s often a perception that the MBA is exclusively for applicants who are very numerate and have significant management experience,” says programme director Nick Barniville, “but we take the view that it’s for someone who has taken on responsibility early in their career, whether it’s in business, the professions, the public sector or even the arts.” In Mohre’s case, the school wanted to make sure that she understood the business environment to better decide whether an MBA was right for her. “We helped her get an internship at insurance giant Allianz”, says Barniville, “after which she came back and re-applied. It all seems to be paying off because she’s performing very, very well.”

People from non-traditional backgrounds rarely have an MBA on their career radar. But Mohre’s example shows that when someone like her comes along, schools should take them very seriously indeed.

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About symondsgsb

Matt is chief editor of MBA50.com, a website dedicated to the world's outstanding business schools. He is an internationally recognised business and graduate school expert, consulting to the world’s top business schools, and has written for many of the world’s leading publications including : Forbes, The Economist, BusinessWeek, BBC, Newsweek, CNBC, America Economia, Washington Post, The Independent, Boston Globe, Handelsblatt, 21st Century Herald, South China Morning Post, Vedomosti, San Francisco Chronicle, Expansion, Beijing Daily. Matt was Co-Founder of the QS World MBA Tour Matt is co-author of Getting the M.B.A. Admissions Edge, a B-school admissions bestseller sponsored by Goldman Sachs and McKinsey. His new individual school guides will be available in the fall.

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