Mastering Business Leadership: Is an MBA Worth It?

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Published November 22, 2023 · 2 Min Read

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Executives already have experience in leadership and operations, but an MBA could still enhance their careers. Explore information on pursuing an MBA in a leadership role.

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A master of business administration (MBA) develops advanced skills like organizational behavior and financial management for leadership positions. Still, an MBA is not required to lead a business. In fact, less than half of Fortune 500 CEOs hold this degree.

Among some experts, opinions are split on whether an MBA helps or harms leaders. Specifically, critics believe the MBA can create self-serving leaders without the personal touch necessary for respected, down-to-earth figureheads.

For example, Harvard Business Review reported findings from researchers at HEC Montreal and the University of Rhode Island suggesting that CEOs with MBAs were not necessarily more effective leaders than CEOs without MBAs. MBA graduates tended to place their needs ahead of their subordinates', like increased executive pay and borderline impulsive expansions to increase revenue quickly.

So, is an MBA worth it? It could be. Explore the pros and cons of an MBA for business leadership with this in-depth guide.

The Advantages of an MBA for a CEO

Some people are natural leaders, and even those with innate leadership skills do not inherently know all facets of business. An MBA offers value by filling in the gaps with courses in strategic thinking, financial literacy, effective leadership, and business ethics.

Additionally, MBA programs typically offer vast networking opportunities. A 2018 Graduate Management Admission Council report indicates that most full-time and executive MBA graduates agree that their MBA programs helped them develop their professional networks.

Although not all companies require executives to hold MBAs, many CEOs from highly recognized businesses do, including:

  • Tim Cook: CEO of Apple, MBA from Duke University
  • Satya Nadella: CEO of Microsoft, MBA from the University of Chicago
  • Mary T. Barra: CEO of General Motors, MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business

The Counterargument: Successful CEOs Without MBA

An MBA can enhance technical business leadership abilities, like data analysis, supply chain management, and project management. However, CEOs may already possess many soft skills, like communication, interpersonal, and strategic thinking. These leaders can often learn the technical side of business without going through an MBA program.

For instance, Rosalind Brewer, the CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc., never earned an MBA but served on the Board of Trustees of her alma mater, Spelman College. Since then, she's held numerous executive positions in well-known companies such as Starbucks and Sam's Club.

Another example is Mark Zuckerberg, the leader of Facebook and Meta, who dropped out of Harvard after quickly gaining success with the original Facebook platform. Not only has Zuckerberg remained the CEO of his company, but he's also the ninth-wealthiest person in the world, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

The Role of Continuing Education For Leaders

Regardless of whether a CEO decides to pursue an MBA, continuing education plays a critical role in their development. In today's business landscape, leaders must keep up with industry trends, understand financial management, and incorporate emerging technologies into their organizations' everyday tasks.

Learning agility is the ability to learn and understand new concepts for personal or professional benefit. CEOs and other executives practice this skill by engaging in professional development opportunities, like networking events, industry conferences, and organizational meetings. The following resources could benefit emerging CEOs:

From the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, CEO Academy is an online program designed to advance CEOs' executive careers. The two-day program covers skill-building in innovation, team assessment, and delegation. This annual conference connects business leaders worldwide with opportunities to network with peers, meet potential investors, and build leadership skills. MIT provides online courses in trending leadership topics and industry-based skills for executives. For a monthly subscription fee, LinkedIn users can take online courses in various topics, including digital marketing, logo design, handling workplace conflict, and business analytics.

Is an MBA Right For You?

If your goal is to become a CEO, you might grapple with whether to pursue an MBA or master's degree.

First, consider where you are now and where your career will take you. Do you want to advance within your current organization and eventually take a leadership role? If so, talk to your leaders about the necessary steps to reach your goals. An MBA may not be a required part of the picture.

Also, think about the costs associated with an MBA. An MBA can be costly, but so can certifications, professional development, and the time it takes to climb the corporate ladder. The investment for an MBA might be worth it to you to advance your career quicker.

A Path to Business Leadership

The journey of an MBA student varies for each person, as does the journey of each CEO. Some CEOs believe their degrees propelled their success, while others found success without pursuing MBAs.

Although an MBA can strengthen a person's weaker areas, there are other paths to business leadership. For many effective business leaders, a willingness to continue learning through authentic experiences and professional development opportunities allows them to reach their full potential.

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