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Can an MBA make you free?

Can generalist MBA programmes provide graduates with the versatility and confidence required to break away from conforming and unfulfilling careers? Xavier Duran believes so and explores more in this Original Thinking Blog.

New claims about the benefits of doing an MBA seem to make headlines with predictable regularity. From strong professional development and networking potential to the bolder claim of creating the business leaders of tomorrow, MBAs usually expect great rewards from their studies. But despite the proliferation of this benefits list with promises of growing confidence, remuneration or seniority, the continued resilience and popularity of this post-experience qualification would suggest there must be some truth to what MBA programmes promise to deliver for their graduates. It is both in its broad curricular scope and in its inherently dynamic and evolutionary design, that the MBA qualification remains popular and resilient. Having worked and interacted closely with thousands of MBA students and graduates for 20 years, I am inclined to give credence to many of these benefits and, perhaps somewhat audaciously, even add to these in claiming their role as a passport to freedom.

French Jesuit missionaries working in the Great Lakes region of North America in the 17th century often recounted their encounters with local indigenous tribes who abhorred the stifling and conforming culture that allegedly ‘civilised’ European settlers spread across their lands and people. Far from viewing them as innocent or savages, the French missionaries marvelled at the level of intellectual and philosophical sophistication of tribes like the Wendat, who took pride in the individual and human-centric freedoms that structured their societies. These contrasted to the socially constructed hierarchies and norms that, in the opinion of these local tribes, kept European settlers, soldiers and officials unhappy and unable to fulfil their individual potentials. Perhaps in part influenced by some of these exchanges, Humanism and Enlightenment principles were soon to place individual freedom and reason at the centre of intellectual Western discourse. Despite some historical bumps and false steps, the Western hemisphere has since experienced a few revolutions, civil rights movements, a process of globalisation and an obsession with productivity and economic growth that have contributed to the gradual adoption of a more meritocratic system and facilitated social mobility. Crucial to this yet incomplete journey to freedom and equality has been the role of education, which has lifted millions from the poverty of their ancestors while providing more opportunity for individual fulfilment.

However, this long journey to social and economic progress has partly been enabled by concurrent processes of increased division of labour and specialisation. Good as they may be for productivity and prosperity, these processes may also generate social and cultural expectations of conformity of their own. From our toddler years, we internalise societal expectations on the need to focus on excelling at something and conforming to rational pathways that will lead to it. Many children (often simply reflecting parents’ desires) frequently say they want to become doctors, engineers, accountants or footballers. On the way there, they will resolutely do what’s expected of them and abide by the 10,000-hour rule to become the best they can be: experts in something specific, less so in everything else. In this journey, they will conform unenthusiastically but diligently to what their families and communities expect of them as part of a well-devised plan but too often sacrificing their true passions. This is well summed up by Supertramp’s 1979 hit ‘The Logical Song’ which outlines the evolution of childhood’s innocence and enthusiasm, which turns to adolescent confusion and culminates in adulthood’s cynicism and conformity. For all the prosperity and social mobility benefits they may bring, the cult of the ‘expert’ and the pressure to pursue societal standards of success may ultimately partly explain the conformity and apathy seen nowadays in people of all ages. Unfortunately, from increasing levels of deteriorating mental health experienced by students in higher education to pandemic-driven epiphanies leading to ‘the great resignation’, the pressures of conformity frequently find a way to manifest themselves.

Ironically, higher education may sometimes reinforce this culture of conformity through the proliferation of narrowly scoped courses. It is thus no surprise that many experts continue to sing the praises of generalist degrees. Nobody should discount the value of broad liberal arts or general business undergraduate programmes: what these degrees lack in specialisation and depth, they more than make up for in the breadth of knowledge and critical insight they provide. Often leading to further subsequent specialisation, these general degrees may take the pressure off conforming to narrow career paths for youngsters, whilst providing them with the necessary time to grow their personal and intellectual maturity. These generalist early learning interventions have frequently become good forecasters for fulfilling and successful careers. Judging by the large proportion of Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) graduates amongst British politicians and journalists, for example, one may infer that a generalist education often leads to successful and influential careers (and that the UK may be ruled by generalists!). Similarly, one may conclude that the broad education provided by an MBA, even if later in one’s career journey, confers similar benefits in business: a recent HBR study showed that 29 out of the 100 best-global-performing CEOs were MBA graduates. Similarly, around 25% per cent of current CEOs of FTSE100 companies studied MBAs.

To an extent, and despite its broad curricular scope, arguments of conformity were also historically made about the expectations of an MBA leading to a career in consultancy or investment banking. In this sense, rather than liberating graduates from the expectations of narrowly defined career paths, the MBA may have simply routed them towards another set of equally conforming (but lucrative) expectations. Luckily, this is no longer the case, as MBA programmes have fully embraced their generality to celebrate diversity and versatility. It is still possible to use an MBA as a way to enter a career in consultancy or investment banking, but it is equally (and increasingly) possible to use it to change industry, country, function or to set up a new business. Furthermore, we increasingly see applicants attracted to the MBA to gain knowledge and skills as they wish to move out of traditional corporate roles to build socially impactful and entrepreneurial careers. As they embrace the versatility it provides, many applicants are no longer attracted to the MBA for the jobs and industries it will give them access to but for the opportunities to get out of current boring and conforming jobs: the MBA may thus be a passport to freedom.

Finally, be it full-time or part-time, the MBA can serve as a lifeline to those who, having invested much of their career to a narrow, unfulfilling path, want a second chance at realising their full potential and their passions. It’s never too late to change direction if it is to make us happier or more fulfilled. Just as most Europeans who spent time with 17th-century Wendat people decided not to return to their unhappy ‘civilised’ settled lives or a substantial amount of people currently leave their unfulfilling jobs as part of a post-pandemic ‘Great Resignation’, regardless of our age and professional status, many of us continue to explore ways to be happier and freer. The MBA and the general education it provides as a post-experience qualification may well be the way there.

Blog posts give the views of the author, and are not necessarily those of Alliance Manchester Business School and The University of Manchester.

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