MBA: Ticket to the Top or Corporate Middle Management?

By November 16, 2011

When my husband Brad was first accepted into Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business I was not excited. I remembered shouting at him, “An MBA is just an expensive ticket to middle management!” Eight years after that comment, he and I both have MBA degrees from Kellogg hanging in our home office. While I am very glad to have an MBA from Kellogg, my original judgment about it is still unchanged.

The Sales Crucible

Eight years ago, when we moved back to Chicago, I wanted to change careers. I had been working in consulting but I disliked the constant travel and the inability to truly be a part of an organization I was helping. I wanted to get into the business side of media. In fact, I wanted to run a media company.

I started calling people out of the blue who held positions I was trained to gravitate toward at these media companies. The position titles contained phrases like “corporate strategy” and “marketing specialist.” I remember flaunting my undergraduate experience at Northwestern and my job as a consultant, thinking it would impress the people I spoke with, but I was wrong.  I was told over and over again, “If you want to go further in a media company and make more money, you need to go into sales.”

Sales? That was what I did when I was a kid and went door-to-door selling magazines for a school fundraiser.  Sales is not something that an adult does and it’s certainly not something that you do when you have been in the high profile world of management consulting. To add injury to insult, they were telling me to go into radio sales. They told me that radio sales is extremely competitive and involves selling something intangible.  They told me if I could make it selling radio, I could do anything in media I wanted.

I could not get their advice out of my head.  I started looking around at the CEOs of large (and small) companies and immediately noticed that most of them had some type of sales background. The fact that I had cold called them all in the first place and liked it seemed to be an indicator of where I could find future success.

These early advisors also gave me the advice that if and when I should consider going back to graduate school it should be to enhance what I had already found a passion doing, not to help me decide what I wanted to do. This turned out to be very important advice.

I took the leap and got a position in radio sales. I worked for two years as a sales person and then was promoted to help run the department as a sales manager and ended up with the organization for seven years. There are no books or classes that could replicate the experience I gained closing deals, learning to read buying signs, and recruiting and inspiring a team. This experience defines who I am as a professional and gave me the confidence to start my own business.

The MBA Path

Why did I finally decide to get an MBA? I looked around at my fellow sales colleagues and saw there weren’t many MBAs, mainly because in sales you make a lot of money so there isn’t a perceived need for this degree. I looked around at the MBAs and saw there weren’t a lot of people with a sales background (the lack of sales education in many MBA programs is still confounding to me, as sales is the driver of any for-profit organization).  I saw it was an opportunity to build a more unique skill set and I wanted to add academic credibility to the sales experience I had developed. My husband Brad had done the full-time program at Kellogg and I went part time three years later.

Full time MBA

A full-time MBA program is a place where very smart, overworked 20-somethings go to relive college in one last hurrah before many more years of work. On the plus side, students leave with a tremendous network of friends, their batteries are recharged, they usually have a job that is a step above what they left, and have pictures from vacations to fun, exotic locations. On the down side, students have missed out on two years of salary. Plus they have debt equivalent to a mortgage payment that starts during the January after graduation and ends when they start putting their own kids through college.

Part time MBA

A part-time MBA program is a place where smart, overworked 20- and 30-somethings go after their normal, long day at work has come to an end. On the plus side, students do not forgo a salary and often their job covers some of the cost of the MBA. Students are able to test out academic solutions to the real world business problems they face during the day. On the down side, students are not making friends by running in late to class and running out to be awake for work the next morning. A student’s job will most likely stay the same, or they might choose the very painful route of searching for a job while attending class and holding down a full-time job.

An MBA on its own, without direction or real-life experience, will not magically catapult someone to the top spot of a company. I know a lot of people who headed to a post-MBA job and were disappointed because they had unrealistic expectations.

I am glad to have my MBA and proud that it comes from Kellogg. The MBA lends an academic framework for complex business problems I face each day, but it is my sales experience that has ultimately been the driver for my true professional passion, which is to start and grow a company.