Simon J. Evenett, Professor of Economics and Academic Director of the St. Gallen MBA.
Are you best known for one type of expertise? Does everything you need to know about firms come in spreadsheets? Is your network a mirror image of yourself? Does your function require you only to deal with like-minded folk? Do you doubt whether you could flawlessly execute every one of your boss’ responsibilities? And your boss’s boss? Is the politics of your organisation a mystery to you?
The more often you answered “yes” to these questions, the more compelling the case for re-tooling at business school—taking advantage of the portfolio of programmes that any renowned business school will have to offer. Whether it’s a degree programme—like a MBA or EMBA, part-time or a career-break full-time programme, or an intensive module, there’s almost certainly a format that aligns with your background, career plans, and timetable.
Many successful financial professionals stand out in the early stages of their careers by mastering a few demanding skills. For those seeking leadership positions, however, these skill set need to be broadened. Ultimately, a first class business school education should enable you to make better decisions, to successfully build a coalition for change, and to execute across a wide range of functions. These are exactly the skills needed in the C-suite.
Let’s be clear what well designed business programmes are not. They are not like the courses you took during your first university degree, where the professor broadcasts to some relatively interested students who engage in rote learning, which they hope will carry them through traditional exams in an era of grade inflation. There’s no patience for that model in leading business schools: time is at a premium; participants have lots of experience to add to discussions (we don’t see them as docile students); content is delivered in multiple, easy-to-access formats; programmes focus on “must have” not “nice to have” skills and interactions.
Business schools offer much that is relevant to finance professionals seeking to advance their careers. For example, evaluating competing claims about corporate valuations is better grounded in reality once a professional sees the links between the internal and external factors driving a firm’s strategy and its balance sheet. When executed properly corporate strategy, corporate finance, and accounting—even organisational behaviour–modules should enable participants to see the same firm from multiple perspectives, going beyond spreadsheets—yet doing so in a way that enables professionals to identify what’s the most relevant factors in the mass of information out there. It disturbs me how often I talk to executives who are essentially reactive—because they can’t identify like drivers of change.
At the St. Gallen MBA, we work with our MBAs to ensure they develop an integrated, coherent perspective on the challenges facing managers in any business situation. We use specially-designed case studies that build upon real world corporate dilemmas. Corporate partners and alumni are actively involved in developing this broader business perspective—they are demanding and rightly so given the realities of today’s job market. No MBA is allowed to retreat into the comfort zone defined by their existing skill set. Nothing ventured, nothing gained is our approach.
A broad range of functional skills and wider understanding of the drivers of strategy and profitability enough to secure professional success. Employers expect superb personal communication, negotiation, and team working skills. As part of the MBA in St. Gallen, several leading employers in Switzerland (including financial institutions) offer one or two day-long workshops on these skills precisely because they value them so much. This sends a very clear signal to our MBAs—as it should to you.
I’ll be blunt here. Nearly 20 years of working with MBAs, EMBAs, and corporate executives has taught me that the very people who belittle personal development training are the ones that need it the most! They are the ones who look down on others with weaker functional skills than themselves, for whom only numbers matter, and whose friends are like-minded alpha types. If you’re a rough diamond it’s time to become a polished one.
A serious personal development programme encourages professionals to reflect on what they really want from their careers—as well as enhancing their inter-personal skills, like making effective pitches, seamless networking, and personal branding. Practice—and yes, the occasional embarrassment—plus effective support from professionals and team members is the recipe for success here. Still, like many things, you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. What business schools bring to re-tooling is an important part of the equation—what you are prepared to bring is just as important.
Over a hundred years of training managers at St. Gallen has shown us that re-tooling promotes faster career progression. Many of the banks we’ve worked with tell us that they like it when our MBAs with finance backgrounds take modules that widen their functional expertise within banking. This enables investment bankers to start the transition into private banking and wealth management, for example. Another payoff is that finance professionals learn—from other participants and from the cases reviewed in modules—about better practices in other sectors that could be adapted and transferred to their own function. These benefits plus a broad base of integrated functional skills and the confidence that a superb personal development programme can bring provide the foundation for career advancement.
While motives differ for re-tooling at business school, there’s enough common ground among participants that makes the experience a game changer for professionals, even those not contemplating a shift away from the financial sector. Participants develop life-long bonds that pay off time and time again—we all know how word on some of the best job opportunities travels fastest through informal networks. Plus, should you ever strike out on your own, the networks developed at business school are a trusted sounding board. After all, they want you to succeed, just like we do.