The popularity of the MBA has endured through the COVID-19 crisis; perhaps because there are few qualifications that are better at equipping people with the range of skills needed to meet the challenges the world is facing now.
The Graduate Management Admission Council’s (GMAC) annual survey of corporate recruiters released in June 2021, found that recruiters project a robust demand for business school graduates in the future, with 91% of responders planning to hire MBA graduates in 2021. It also found that the median salary of MBA graduates is 77% more than professionals with bachelor’s degrees, which suggests that employers are still willing to pay a premium to secure MBAs.
This is partly because employers know that just studying for an MBA is a testament to character and endurance. They know it is expensive, requires a huge investment of time – often at the expense of a full year’s income – and is intensely rigorous with dozens of core courses and electives, extensive group work, hundreds of hours of contact time, and numerous individual assignments.
They know that the modern programme from a top school incorporates more than just classic business skills, too. The UCT GSB’s programme curriculum, for example, includes “Markets in Emerging Countries,” “Business, Government and Society,” and “Social Innovation and Entrepreneuring”, to say nothing of a focus on personal mastery and communication alongside the more traditional courses in accounting, finance, business analysis, and marketing.
According to GMAC survey respondents, 96% of tech recruiters plan to hire MBA graduates in 2021. “Technology companies are placing a high value on leaders who are not just technically skilled, but also have strong strategic, interpersonal, communication and decision-making skills, as well as an understanding of the importance of diversity and inclusion and sustainability in their organizations – these will be critical to driving organizational growth and innovation,” said Peter Johnson, Assistant Dean of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
Here’s why these skills count in South Africa:
1. Asking questions to plot an informed path through the challenges
Existing in a fluctuating world of many threats and vulnerabilities without the aid of strategic thinking would be like trying to win a boxing match while lurching helplessly from one unexpected blow to another. Strategic thinking in the South African context is pivotal.
Strategic thinking accepts all the economic, resource, market, and political realities and then actively seeks out solutions and opportunities by asking questions. What opportunities exist in automation? How will another year of load shedding and wage strikes affect the economy? What does national debt mean for sustainability? Which industries stand to gain the most from the African Continental Free Trade Agreement?
At the UCT GSB we raise the issue of strategy in our core leadership course, but also in “Organisation, Leadership and Values” and “People Management,” but essentially it is a skill that is continuously called upon and therefore honed daily as it is made up of critical thinking, analytical skills, problem-solving, etc.
2. Making yourself understood where and when it counts
People underestimate communication skills until there is a breakdown in communication and things go awry. Research into 211 hospital reports of sentinel events (unforeseen events leading to harm or death) found that, in 160 cases, communication failure was to blame. For organisations, communication failure disrupts workflows, hinders innovation, and can lead to massive PR nightmares.
Communication excellence is a defining goal of the MBA programme at the UCT GSB. We emphasise it from day one where sessions are dedicated to business and academic communication. Courses then lean heavily on written papers, oral presentations, and presenting cases. The annual John Molson Case Competition in Canada allows business schools graduates to showcase their communication skills on a world stage.
In South Africa, with its 11 official languages and its painful history, communication plays a more nuanced role, the understanding of which is critical for business success and sustainability.
3. Developing the muscle to respond, adapt and make better decisions
While the MBA has increasingly been challenged by specialised master’s programmes, one of the key goals of an MBA is to create “all-rounders,” people with a wide range of knowledge, insight, and skills who can perform multiple roles and tasks in an organisation. Technical skills are no longer enough. The Executive MBA programme at the UCT GSB aims to equip leaders and executives with the necessary soft skills and organising principles to enable them to build resilience and make better decisions.
The Harvard Business Review said last year that the best business leaders are versatile. They are best equipped for dealing with paradoxical demands like “think globally, act locally” and disruptive change and the sometimes crushing need to adapt.
We reinforce versatility throughout the programme and emphasise the need for students to be flexible in their approaches and thinking and to respond to the “realities on the ground” rather than stick to defined models and approaches. The course work also exposes students to vastly different subjects from the politics of markets, to digital marketing, to neuroscience and the brain.
4. Understanding the importance of diversity and inclusion
There are many strong candidates who meet the entry requirements for the MBA but lack financial resources. The UCT GSB is committed to making funding and scholarships available to talented, motivated and deserving individuals who meet the entrance criteria for the MBA and who demonstrate that they have the potential to create a transformative impact on business and society. Scholarship opportunities further any school’s objective of attracting talent and increasing student diversity to better represent the market that they serve. The benefits of diversity are well documented, and diversity in the classroom prepares students for diversity in the workplace. Students learn that it fosters personal growth and empathy, aids tolerance and teaches them to be open to new ideas.
Taken together, these four capabilities help ensure that MBAs are fit for the (uncertain) future. These are undoubtedly challenging times. There is work to be done as we rebuild our economy, while also seeking to make it more inclusive and just. But these are also times of simmering opportunity. South Africa is still the most developed economy on the continent. Our finance, real estate, business services, manufacturing, and retail trade companies are among the best in the world. Africa’s GDP is expected to grow by $44 billion over the next 20 years, and South Africa is still considered the gateway to the continent. To take advantage of this, people who are agile, highly skilled and self-aware will be required.
Employers know they need look no further than the MBA. As Sangeet Chowfla, president and chief executive of GMAC, commented in the Financial Times recently, “[Business] school classrooms have long been preparing MBA students for a dynamic and often uncertain environment. Employers place a premium on that.” DM/BM