An Australian CEO's Views On Whether Or Not An MBA Will Get You That Big Job

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If you are of my vintage, circa 1960s, then you most likely left school after attaining your Leaving Certificate in Year 10 at around 16 years of age. Back then Australia was a growing country with job opportunities aplenty and only the brightest few stayed on until Year 12 and went on to University.

Today’s Australia is very different, with fluctuating fortunes and a highly competitive job market in both the skilled and unskilled sectors.

In 1980, in the week I turned 17, I decided that I wanted my freedom and independence. In just 7 days I got a job, left school and moved out of home. My entry level salary at the bank adequately paid for my rent, food and bills as well as the odd night out to see a band or go out for a meal. My first day of work was one of the proudest of my life. The first night in that depressing little flat in Bondi was one of my loneliest.

How different the story is now with the cost of living, housing and education all rising and many people struggling to make ends meet.

From the moment I joined the bank until 2002, I sailed through a number of sectors and roles without a hitch. As is the case with many women, I had to move out of organisations to move up and I took opportunities as and when they were presented. I admit that having children set me back in this path of progression, but in the main my career was on the up and up and by 39 I secured my first CEO role.

That moment of finally making it to the c-suite provided a point of reflection. The very traits that I had been derided for in my youth – being “headstrong” and “wilful” – were mysteriously rebranded as the essential leadership characteristics “determination” and “vision”. What a difference the right environment makes.

But a few years later I started to be overlooked for other executive level roles. Why? Because I didn’t have a degree. Despite doing my job well and having a solid reputation as a “can do” person, it became clear that I needed a piece of paper that would prove to the world that I was capable.

My first option to get the necessary qualifications was to enrol in an undergraduate degree, but the day I joined hundreds of scantily dressed youths for the most dreary of lectures, I knew that starting at the entry level of tertiary education wasn’t the right option for me. I sought the advice of a head-hunter who, without hesitation, advised that I needed an MBA (Master of Business Administration). In his view it was just the thing to make me a standout candidate. I railed against this, decrying that my track record should speak for itself. He told me that of course it did but it didn’t show future potential.

So, grumbling all the way at the ripe old age of 41, I enrolled in the MBA program. Because I was mature aged and without any qualifications bar a Year 10 Certificate, I was accepted with the stipulation that I must keep a distinction average (a minimum result of 70 out of 100 in every unit) in order to stay, otherwise I was out.

At the induction, I found out that I was one of the oldest students in the cohort, with most being in their early to mid-thirties. My fellow students were ambitious young things keen to get any leg up in the brutal world of working for a living. Pleasingly it was a gender balanced group with a people from a number of ethnic backgrounds too.

I took the necessary foundation units such as finance and accounting, organisational behaviour and economics, yet it was the electives I loved.

My favourite was Leading and Facilitating Teams with a dynamo guest lecturer from the USA. The major project was to be The 10 Best Questions to ask in a particular circumstance. My group of women consisted of a devoted singleton, a 30+ year wife, a Christian woman estranged from her Muslim husband and me, a three time bride. A more eclectic group of professional women you could not find. Over the course of that unit we laughed, cried and argued as we developed up the 10 best questions to ask if you were thinking about leaving your life partner. At the time it was difficult work to undertake. Since then it has proven to be useful on many occasions. I have handed it out to disgruntled wives and husbands who have used the questionnaire to explore their true feelings about their relationship with their partner. I hope it has found its way into the hands of professionals because the seemingly simple questions create a great deal of soul searching.

The most memorable lecture followed the taking of the Myers Briggs personality test. A characteristic of the test defines whether you are an introvert or an extrovert as part of the results. The lecturer asked all introverts to go to one side of the room and the extroverts the other. My group of extroverts were chattering loudly to those near and far while the introverts were either alone or in small groups. After about 5 minutes, the lecturer called for silence and asked each group to reflect on the other. We extroverts were quick to say how quiet the introverts were and the introverts were reticent to speak up at first and when they did reflected on just how needlessly noisy we extroverts were. The aim of the exercise was to provide an important insight into a fundamental difference between us at a very basic human level.

With many great learnings from those four years, I confess that the good parts outweighed the bad however it was a struggle. Financially it was challenging, but that was nothing compared to keeping up with the workload.

I rose at 4 am each week day and studied for a few hours. I worked all day and took classes a few nights a week. I studied all day on Sundays and also went to Summer School. My husband was supportive, especially as he had not long finished his own Bachelor of Science degree to give added weight to his technical college qualifications. My teenage daughters weren’t impressed that I was “MIA doing my MBA”.

During that time I met so many others like me who were juggling work and family commitments in order to give themselves a greater chance of making it to the top. There is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be where I am today without an MBA.

Mariana Zanetti, an MBA graduate of IE Business School in Spain claims in her book The MBA Bubble that “if you want to be rich don’t get an MBA”. Zanetti’s claim may be true however if you are aiming to run a business of which you are responsible to its shareholders, rather than working for yourself, you can’t get away from the fact that the workplace is getting more competitive every day.

Since graduating in 2009, I have complimented academic learning with undertaking the Australian Company Directors Course to add to my skills as Director and Chair as well as undertaking the Cranlana Leadership program to further develop my leadership capabilities. Mid-year I will attend a short course at Harvard to explore the relationship between women and power. I have also visited 35 cities in the UK, USA, Australasia and Europe to study them in detail in order to be more knowledgeable about my chosen area of expertise. With a commitment to continuous learning, I have carved out a career based on traditional qualifications at the same time as following my passion.

In these early days of what will no doubt be one of the more challenging times for Australia’s economy and work force, I suggest that those that are aiming for the c-suite, need an MBA as but one of the many qualifications you will need during your career if you want to make it to the top.

Marion Fulker

Marion Fulker has proudly held a MBA from the Curtin Graduate School of Business since 2009. She is the CEO of the Committee for Perth, a private sector funded think tank and an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at The University of Western Australia.

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