Way back when, over ten years ago now, I wondered whether I should take additional time (not to mention a lot of money) to pursue an MBA. This was around the year 2000, as the dotcom boom was in full swing, and engineers were dropping out of the workforce in order to pursue day-trading full-time. (This is not an exaggeration, as at that time I was taking night and weekend classes at UCLA Extension, and had several classmates who did exactly that.) What had begun as an interest in Marketing (and by association Sales) while in a customer support role eventually determined how I’d spend the next ten-plus years in the working world.
(By ‘customer support’, it was a technical support position, but that could include other roles such as a Field Application Scientist or a Field Service Engineer. If you were wondering, I include FSE’s in this discussion as recently I found out a colleague who now is a successful salesperson was once an FSE, who transitioned successfully into an FAS role and then now a sales role.)
The logic used to determine whether to obtain an MBA is relatively straightforward, a cost-benefit analysis. Nothing fancy like an NPV calculation using the time value of money, just a Ben Franklin approach of a piece of paper.
But that process presumes that a lot of research has been done already, that motivations have been explored in detail, that there has been a full investigation of the time and costs involved, and that the topic has been fully explored in sufficient detail in order for there to be the confidence that the right decision had been made.
If that sounds like a lot of work to you, it is. And as someone once quipped, ‘Hard work never killed anyone, but sure scares everyone to death.’ It takes a lot of time to do the research on whether an MBA is the right choice – while simple enough to pull up a newsmagazine article on MBA programs (here’s a recent one from BusinessWeek) it isn’t as easy as that. The biggest unknown is where you eventually want to go career-wise, and how you can manage to get there.
Thus we have the importance of reading, and informational interviewing. There is nothing new here, it is something that Richard Bolles has been saying since 1988 when I first picked up his classic text. Read up on everything you can find about the requirements and other details about where you want to go – and then when you’ve reached a point where you can’t find out anything more from the sources you have, then schedule a few interviews with people who would know the answers to these questions, and then talk with them. Of course that will leave you with more questions. But then please do not take the lazy way and just ask more people, which is very inefficient process anyway (people with the knowledge you seek don’t have much time, and your own circle of friends and acquaintances is by definition limited). Do the hard work and take those questions to do more research, and more reading.
What I learned through this process included the importance of underlying principles. I pursued a certificate through a university extension program, and after more than two years of night and weekend classes finished it successfully. (And here after three years of graduate school – one year for a secondary teacher training program / M.Ed., and two more years for an M.A. in Molecular Biology – I thought had finally finished my formal education.) In that certificate program there were concepts that were completely new to me, which made those two years fly by. It was as if as a consumer I was conditioned to receive sophisticated marketing messages, but never had considered the academic underpinnings of such a discipline as a discrete topic of study.
So that particular certificate program was completely worthwhile for me, and was time well spent. But I was able to do this while holding down a full-time job, and it was affordable. What about an EMBA program, that entails much more time, and a lot more money? (One typical offering is an 18 month program with two full weekends every month – from Friday night through Sunday night – and a study commitment of 16 hours per week, at a cost of over $100K.) Compared to the certificate program, what else is there on offer with an MBA?
The program I took did not cover financials, and did not have the collective shared experience of working with a cohort of students (intensely, over the course of 18-24 months) with a similar aptitude and career-path that could help in that important career-building network of associates and connections. A respected friend told me that he felt the certificate program had 60-70% of the content of a dedicated MBA program, and that assessment I agree with. Is the missing 30-40% worth it however? Would it truly be a worthwhile investment?
Thus I return to a fundamental question: where do you want to go? What is it that you want to use the MBA for that you needed to spend these kinds of resources needed to obtain it?
One path would be a business development role. It sounds attractive, and to some it is, working on business deals (looking up the job qualifications, the term ‘deal sheet’ is often found). Yet what kinds of skills do ‘making deals’ involve?
Valuation is paramount (of course). What is the offering (whatever it is) worth? One example would be in-licensing a particular required enzyme for development of a key technical milestone needed by R&D, and without it the product offering would suffer in its performance in some dimension using an alternative, or would take a lot more time to bring the product performance to where it needs to be without that enzyme. Does this require the skills of a talented biochemist?
This requires the skills of understanding the value and astutely structuring an agreement so that both sides feel that this is something they must participate in. There are many, many variables involved; but suffice it here in this space to use a few examples. What percentage royalty? On what payment terms? On what particular applications, both present and future? In exchange for other intellectual property or other proprietary technology? Or in exchange for some other asset?
And then once the overall ideas are hammered out, comes the real work – the language of these specific terms, in reams of legal contract language. This is where a lawyer’s eyes can be so valuable to an organization, yet the BD person’s role is closely involved.
And this is only one part of their role. How about engineering the moving of manufacturing overseas, or finding an OEM partner, or acquiring another line of business, or arranging the purchase or lease of additional real estate. All these fall under the role of business development (I am sure I’ve left out other functions so do not consider this list to be comprehensive) and this role thus requires an MBA degree.
Another path would be executive financial management. You’ve earned your stripes as a CPA and are climbing the ranks of finance as a financial controller for a corporation. (This example is generic to business, not specific to the life science industry, by the way.) Aiming for a CFO (“C-level”) position, an MBA would be appropriate, and as I am not qualified to describe here what they do in detail, I’ll leave it at that.
Another path would be to ascend the ranks within marketing (or even sales) to an executive management position. Within marketing in the larger corporate world, an MBA is an attractive credential; within Proctor & Gamble for instance an MBA is an essential requirement for a budding marketing career. (As an aside, if you are not familiar with their history you would be well-served to understand their role in the development of Marketing as a discipline in the 20th century, for example introducing the concept of brand managers in 1935.) Yet within the subset of life science companies, there isn’t such a hard requirement, and there are many Marketing VP’s who do not have the credential, and many Marketing Product Managers and Market Managers who do not have them either. So while not a requirement, an MBA could serve a useful purpose here in these roles.
Sales is another question altogether. An MBA in a sales career context would be a marker for interest in career development on the commercial side, but there are many other factors in play when top sales representatives pursue sales management roles. The value of an MBA for a sales executive would be to assist in understanding more completely the roles of finance, marketing and operations, yet their primary job responsibility is to make their organization’s numbers. That’s it. They need to work closely with finance, marketing and operations, and the MBA will assist with this interaction, but driving in top-line revenue is the all-important (and all-consuming) goal.
One last item. While doing research a few years ago on this topic for myself, I came across Josh Kaufman’s work (he has since wrote a book called Personal MBA). He has put together a great list of 99 best business books that span the topics an MBA will cover. His experience is unique, entering into the hallowed ranks of a Brand Manager at P&G without an MBA credential, with a background in engineering.
I’m sure there are those reading this who have an MBA and will give me many things where their experience and training have helped them in their current role. Yet there is a valid case to be made that an MBA isn’t the right path for everyone.