Should you go back to school for an MBA?
An MBA is just one of the routes that can help you navigate your career, as Ellen Arnison reports.
"Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time,” wrote Max Ehrmann in his 1927 poem Desiderata. Nearly 90 years later and the idea of the worth of a career has, if anything, gotten stronger.
Why does professional development matter?
Professional development is a crucial part of maintaining career value and ranges from keeping abreast of legislative changes to returning to university. CAs have already invested much in their globally recognised qualification so they will, understandably, be keen to protect their investment.
Financial services recruitment specialist Robert Half carried out a survey recently, which showed that almost 40% of financial executives plan to increase their investment in professional development and training in the coming year.
“Professionals today are eager to find ways to advance their career,” said Luke Davis, Vice-President of Robert Half Financial Services. “The most successful training and development programmes are those that are tailored to the individual.”
From online certification to peer learning, there are as many different professional development solutions as there are career paths after becoming a CA.
“The CA is the premier business qualification,” commented Andrew Penker, Director of People at ICAS. “Further qualification, such as an MBA, comes in after that, where members have outgrown the technical level of competence that they have to function as an accountant and they need to learn more.
“ICAS knows there is a drive for high-quality professional development. That’s why we created our Make Your Professional Development Count programme.
“As a CA, you are a world-class professional and must maintain the highest levels of professional competence. But, after that, how do you develop as a leader and how do you become accountable for your career?
“Our members have a range of options, including in-house services and exercising personal preference in the provider they trust with their professional development.”
Why would CAs consider an MBA?
Bob Marshall, MBA Programme Director at the Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow, often sees CAs doing an MBA when they wish to move on from their specialism.
“The business experience (and numeracy skills) that a CA has accumulated helps ensure that they will benefit more than most from the interactive learning process employed on an MBA programme,” he said.
However, the decision about which avenue of professional development or training to pursue is a very personal one.
Suzy Kerton CA, who was named in the 2016 35 CAs under 35 list, is an MBA student at Imperial College Business School in London.
She said: “I was CFO at a small software company and I could see a challenge in being so young in that position, maybe not having credibility and people not listening to me. I felt an MBA would help with my personal development and career ambitions.”
How long before you see a return on your investment?
For Michael Lock CA, the decision to study for an MBA at Warwick was an easy one, as it helped him to make a move into investment banking. Within a year of starting his course, he had secured a position as Private Equity Associate with Kingsley Capital Partners.
“I saw the payback on my MBA on day one when I managed to make the switch, but for someone in a managerial role, say, the benefits [of doing an MBA] may take much longer to become visible. It might be that further down the line their MBA will help them become CFO or CEO.
“And it’s not cheap. If your company is paying for it, what are they going to expect in return and for how long?
“It’s a great chance to relaunch or redirect your career,” Michael added. “Much like the CA, it doesn’t shut any doors and you can do anything you want after it.
"People could be seven years qualified [as a CA] and they are in a finance role but they decide to move into an investment bank or be a management consultant – but that move is difficult. The MBA helps. It brings everyone back to the middle again. If you’ve gone down one street, you can come back again.”
When would an MBA be unsuitable?
Broadly, professional development decisions are driven either from a need to fill a skills gap or to address a specific issue, such as the desire to change career direction or to move beyond the limits of current expertise.
With fees for an MBA ranging from £16,000 to £73,000, professional development of this kind is not to be embarked on lightly.
Bob Marshall explained: “An MBA will benefit everyone due to the intellectual process, but it is not advised for those intending to pursue a specialist function career; for example, an early-career CA in audit who wishes only to rise to Finance Director level would be better off considering an MSc in finance.
“The financial commitment is indeed significant, but an MBA differs from other masters-level courses in that it is seen as an investment. The aim on exit is to move up on a career ladder to senior or top management.”
Andrew Penker agreed: “An MBA is not an automatic progression. People should look at what their organisations and professional bodies already provide.
"Some people need a specific piece of learning and some have come to a transition point in their career. The second group might find their need could be met by a mentoring programme to help them understand what they should be doing next.”
Is mentoring an important option?
Andrew cited ICAS’s global virtual mentoring programme, the first of its kind for any accounting association.
“You gain a greater insight through connecting with someone who has walked the same path. Sometimes, the solution you think you had previously is not what you require in the end,” he said.
If, after consideration, an MBA is what you need and will give you a return on your investment, there are still a few factors to consider. For example, expense, commitment and available time.
Is there a downside to an MBA?
Michael Lock CA said: “It teaches you how to deliver in an intense project-based environment with tight deadlines which not everyone will have worked in.
"There is an inherent pressure. It’s a competitive environment and if there’s a group of people gunning for the big three consulting firms you might find yourself caught up in that even if you don’t really want to be.”
He also pointed out that, as the courses are so much about learning from others, the makeup of your cohort can affect your experience.
How important is the MBA network?
The network that comes with an MBA can be one of the most valuable benefits.
“MBA participants are continuously networking with their peers, the Business School staff and external contacts, such as guest speakers," Bob noted.
Michael agreed: “Yes, obviously, you network with your classmates but there is always the wider network of your business school. Just like ICAS, you can always approach someone who has done the same training.”
For Suzy Kerton CA, the fellowship of her classmates is also important. She sees many advantages from bringing her CA skills and experience and blending them with people from a range of backgrounds and countries.
“It makes you think about what all the opportunities are. If it’s something you’re thinking about, don’t be afraid to take a leap of faith.”
The full version of this article is available in the December 2016/January 2017 edition of CA magazine.