Would Someone Please Supersize the McMBA?

I am NOT the smartest guy in the world but I know the value of an education.

I’ve been noticing a lot of posts recently about business schools and the value of having a MBA degree. Some say they’re great, others say they’re useless, still others claim that it’s not the degree itself that’s important but rather the networking and connections that occur during the business school experience.

I personally believe that any and all formal education is essential for personal growth. Coming from a background where neither of my parents even graduated from high school, I can tell you for a fact that it’s a necessity in today’s world.

I have my own opinions about the value of the advanced degree. I also have an opinion about those so-called “Executive MBA” programs. These are the non-traditional abbreviated programs designed for the “busy executive” whose high-powered position does not allow for the time to pursue an advanced degree through a normal academic experience.

These programs are indeed a “valuable” source of revenue to the colleges and universities that prostitute their names and reputations. They are valuable to the attendees as they provide a source of networking opportunities for future job hopping as well as a nice sheepskin (suitable for framing) that validates their intelligence. These programs are also a value to the companies that shell out the big bucks for the cachet of top shelf “credentials” for their executive staffs. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.

I am not knocking these programs per se, but I will refer to them as McMBA’s. At, least that’s how I feel about some of the graduates of these programs that I’ve encountered.

I received my MBA from a small private college that was extremely academically oriented. I went the non-traditional route as well – three years of evenings and weekends. Come to think of it, I finished the last two years of my undergraduate degree that way as well. Thank God my employer offered tuition reimbursement. Raising a young family during those years would have been extremely difficult had I paid for my education out my own pocket. The stress of not being available to my family was bad enough. I have no regrets. It was an enlightening experience.

At the time that I was pursuing my pilgrimage through night school, my company was also sending several higher-level officials through one of these McMBA programs at a major university. One of the chosen few happened to be my boss, Gene Jones. If you’ve read 160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic, you’ll remember that I devoted an entire chapter to him. I’ll never understand how he was chosen for the program but I’d bet that it involved a lot of political maneuvering on Gene’s part. He was after all, already a master at that.

Gene always seemed to have difficulty even writing a coherent sentence. We wondered how he ever had managed to graduate from college let alone high school. If you knew Gene, however, you’d know that this program was right up his alley. At first, he merely pranced around the office, beaming with the fact that he would be “getting his masters” from a prestigious university. Believe it or not, the tweed sport coat with leather elbow patches followed shortly. I’m surprised he didn’t start smoking a pipe and wearing an ascot. Each week he would regale us with the brilliance that he gleaned from the top-notch professors and major business leaders. There were quite a few people in our office attending night school at the time. We all just shook our heads in disgust. What a waste of an educational opportunity.

Gene knew that I was pursuing an advanced degree as well and decided to make me his “collegiate colleague.” He always wanted to compare notes but our scholastic experiences were so utterly different that we did not have much to share. He was surprised that I was on an actual semester system and received grades. He boasted about the non-traditional nature of his program and how his was more of a “pass/fail” affair. Of course, there was always special tutoring for those who might fail. I wondered how much the university had soaked our company for his. Speaking of soaking, our company also reimbursed the attendees of the executive program for mileage to and from the university, meals on campus, and liberal amounts of time off for study – even though the program was held on weekdays. The rest of us had to receive a grade of C or better in our classes to get reimbursed and there was even an annual limit on that. Both Gene and I knew all of this and I wondered how much of his socializing was just about his need for self-aggrandizement.

He constantly raved about the university where this program was being held and even strongly suggested that I transfer my degree program there. There was no way that anyone of a lower level could have afforded that. With the annual limits on our tuition reimbursement program, it would take ten to fifteen years to complete a degree at that institution. Gene’s boasting and bragging became very irritating because of his obvious intention of demeaning my pursuits by crowing about his. I got so fed up with it that I penned a memo to our VP of HR. I wrote about Gene’s elaborate and constant praise of the university and the program as well as his persistent suggestion that I transfer there. Although, I was not at the appropriate corporate level for selection, I requested to be allowed to enter the executive program because of Gene’s unrelenting endorsement of it. I knew that the request would be rejected but I suspected that something else might happen as well. My plan worked. Gene suddenly stopped the socializing. My guess is that he was told to knock it off.

Whatever the company expected from this major investment in Gene never occurred. Thank God we all moved on. Gene stayed put. What a schmuck!

My next encounter was at another company where the president was also the recipient a McMBA. He had inherited the family company and had big plans for growth. Tom liked the fact we were brother MBA’s. Well sort of. He approached me shortly after my hire as operations director and asked me if I could put together an IPO for the company. Huh? I told him that I’d have to study up on that. “But you have an MBA!” he shrieked, “Didn’t you learn anything about IPO’s?” “Yeah, contact an investment banker,” I answered. Our relationship ended shortly thereafter.

My academic immersion into studies of financial analysis, organizational theory, economics, etc. provided me with some real insight into different ways of looking at and analyzing issues. It helped me fill in the blanks in the old formula that we were all taught at one time or another on how to solve a problem. Remember?

1. Identify the problem
2. Gather data
3. Analyze the data
4. Develop a solution
5. Test the solution, etc., etc.
6. Implement and follow-up

You may have learned these steps a bit differently or learned more sub-steps, etc. but you get the picture. I regret to say that another encounter with a graduate of a McMBA program proved that not to be a universal truth.

George had received his from an East Coast university and had been promoted to VP of operations. He had previously been the plant manager at our most profitable manufacturing facility. Upon his promotion he had been given the task (notice that I did not say “tasked”) of helping another plant become more profitable. I was corporate controller at the time and familiar with the processes at all of our operations.

George sent out an E-mail outlining his plan. He had compared the ratio of revenue to indirect labor at his old plant with that of the underperforming facility. Voila! The answer was to simply cut indirect labor to the same ratio as that of the profitable operation. George scheduled a meeting at the unit and requested a list of names and salaries of all of the indirect employees. The purpose of the meeting was to begin the chopping process. I was invited as well.

The manager of the errant unit flipped when he read the plan. I did too. There were significant differences in production methods, layout, cycle times, products etc. between the two operations. George was comparing apples to oranges. I helped the plant manager cool down and then spent a day outlining all of these differences and detailing the costs associated with each. The plant manager and I spent another day developing an alternative scenario that focused on improving production – you know generating more production at a lower unit cost. It was a rather detailed analysis. The plant manager had been pushing for this for a year and was now hoping that George could help secure the necessary capital expenditures to make it happen. I sent a lengthy E-mail and a plethora of spreadsheets off to George.

A few days later, I called George and asked him if he had read any of the material. He replied that he had read the overview in my E-mail and that it made sense. He also mentioned that he was too busy to read all of the financial data but would try to do so before the meeting.

The day of the meeting came. I went to the plant and met with George and the plant manager. George asked for the list of names and salaries of all of the indirect employees. He had prepared his own spreadsheet with a target for indirect labor expense. That target would bring the unit’s ratio down to that of his old plant. He was in a hurry to go through the list of names and was upset because it had not been completed. I respectfully reminded George about our previous conversation. He ignored me. When I tried again, George cut me off and asked brusquely, “You’re supposed to have an MBA. What did you learn there?” “How to think critically,” I answered in the same tone.

The cuts went into effect immediately. Production dropped and downtime increased. Set-up crews, material handlers and mechanics had been cut to the quick. The union went wild. It took six months to recover back to the old production levels and required bringing back all of the laid off workers. What a nightmare for the plant manager.

I suppose when you have the position power, you may go straight from identifying the problem to implementing the solution. The steps in between are just a waste of time.

Sometime later, the CFO mentioned that George called him after the meeting at the plant and accused me of “criticizing” him.

I am NOT the smartest guy in the world but I know the difference between critical thinking and criticizing.

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