Do your homework

by 14 Oct 2008

The MBA is a popular choice of further study for business executives who want to change, fast-track or consolidate their careers. Choosing the best university to study at means different things to different people. Teresa Russell reports

Once you’ve made the decision to undertake an MBA, many more decisions are required. Where will you study? Will it be full-time, part-time or distance education? Should you do a 12, 16 or 20-unit MBA? How will you pay for it? What value will you extract from it? What needs to change in your current lifestyle to make room for study time? Do you have the support of significant others in your life to do this over the long haul? The list goes on.

The answers to these questions are different for everyone. However, Vincent Tackoen, global mobility manager for Sinclair Knight Merz, Kate Svoboda, L&D consultant for Challenger Financial Services and Catherine Ward, recruitment manager for Optus, all have interesting stories to tell about their MBA journeys.

Why bother?

Vincent Tackoen left school in Belgium and completed an undergraduate Bachelor of Business Administration in 2000. He worked for two years in the banking industry in Europe and then for five years for consulting firm Air Inc as an expatriate remuneration consultant. “I travelled 300 days per year, living between Boston and Brussels then decided I needed to broaden my knowledge. I wanted to take the next step in finance and economics and become more efficient in the corporate environment,” says Tackoen, who took 16 months to do a full-time MBA at Melbourne BusinessSchool, graduating in January 2008.

Kate Svoboda worked as a speech pathologist in the NSW public hospital system for five years before getting a job as a learning and development officer for BreastScreen NSW. “Although speech pathology can be a very satisfying job in terms of patient outcomes, the public health system can suck the life out of you because of its lack of career path and poor remuneration.

“I wanted to do a generalist post-graduate qualification that would open up other career avenues for me,” says Svoboda, who studied her MBA by distance education through the University of New England from 1997 to 2001.

Catherine Ward earned a BA (Psych) from MacquarieUniversity straight out of school and worked in a project management environment for several years before getting a job in a recruitment agency. She joined Optus five years ago as a recruitment consultant.

“I wanted to progress my in-house recruitment career and develop greater commercial acumen. I didn’t realise at the time that I needed to be able to relate to the business in their terms, but it has been great for me to get that experience,” says Ward, who is three subjects shy of completing her MBA at MGSM that she started in 2003.

Choosing a university

There are many resources available these days: in excess of 40 MBAs available in Australia from 30 different universities. MBA degrees are ranked annually by the world’s financial press and summarised in Australia’s MBA Guide as well as on individual business school websites. Although the universities place great stock in these rankings when they beat their rivals, prospective students may not.

Tackoen had already done a business degree in Europe and worked in the US. “The US economy had already started to slow and I wanted to study in the Asia-Pacific region. The culture shock of studying in Asiawould have been too great for me,” he says.

Tackoen Googled “MBA Australia” and got on to the Melbourne Business School’s website. “I was impressed by the faculty that was teaching the MBA and discovered the MBS has a great brand in Asia. The Australian lifestyle was also very attractive. Cost played no part in my choice, as I had saved up for it,” he says.

Svoboda decided she needed to do her MBA by distance learning, because she was working, didn’t own a car and didn’t want to be committed to specific nights of study. When she researched distance education providers, there were not many in the country at the time.

She spoke to the enrolment officers at each institution. “Most courses required me to select a major before I started, but I wanted to try a range of subjects first. I chose UNE because it offered a graduate certificate, graduate diploma and MBA as you went along. I wanted to have something to show for my efforts if I opted out early,” she says.

After seeing a large number of resumes cross her desk, Ward knew she wanted a “tier one” degree. Because she lives in Sydney, she only considered studying part time at AGSM (now known as AustralianSchool of Business at UNSW) or MGSM.

She researched the universities using the MBA Guide, by talking to faculty and graduates at information evenings, as well as colleagues who were studying. “I liked the tailored program that MGSM offered and there was a level of comfort going back to MacquarieUniversity. HR was my key focus early on, but I wanted a general management qualification. Money was a consideration, but not the most important driver,” says Ward, who gets “generous support” to study from Optus – in terms of both financial assistance and study leave.

Impact on life

Studying the MBA has had a marked impact on each person’s life. Despite the fact that Tackoen already had an undergraduate business degree, he says that the world has change drastically since he last studied.

The MBA has helped him look at the HR function through a finance lens, a marketing lens and from all the other business management perspectives of an organisation. “You gain respect from your colleagues for that ability, rather than for the title of MBA which often comes with an arrogance that is never justified,” he says.

Svoboda credits the completion of her degree with getting an L&D job in the financial services industry. “It got my foot in the door and gave me credibility to move industries,” she says. The study has also left her with well-honed research skills that she often uses when getting to understand new L&D topics.

Ward has been promoted several times during her MBA studies and is now in charge of recruitment at Optus. “I now have a much broader business understanding, well developed commercial acumen and great time management skills. I feel I bring a lot more to the table now,” she says.

From a personal standpoint, Tackoen met his life partner through his MBA. “She was MBS’s corporate recruitment adviser, but, as my new wife, she is now advising me on much more than my career!” he jokes. Ward also met her partner at a Public Performance for Managers lecture more than a year ago.

The downside

Tackoen struggles to find any downside to studying his MBA, because he had saved enough money to pay for the course and his living expenses. He then took just six weeks to find a new and senior role managing a team of five responsible for the global mobility of a large engineering firm.

Both Svoboda and Ward have felt the pain of giving up personal and recreation time to fit their study hours around full-time employment. “I remember going to a weekend school class and being horrified to see a woman with a very small baby in a basket sitting in class. I don’t know how people who also have to juggle family commitments do it,” says Svoboda.

The cost

Australian MBAs cost from $13,800 to $50,000. More prestigious business schools charge more per subject and are often 16 to 20 units long. Cheaper MBAs are 12 units long. Ward says it is important to ensure you calculate short-term costs against the long-term benefits of doing further study, including the networks you build, the skills and knowledge you acquire and promotions you would otherwise have not received.

“Go for it,” says Ward. “It has been really rewarding for me both personally and professionally.”


Peter Shaw, Partner at Maddocks, Sydney:

Executive MBA from the AustralianGraduateSchool of Management

When Maddocks commercial partner Peter Shaw decided to do his MBA he was told that whatever he learnt in an MBA, his clients would view him differently. And he agrees: “Clients don’t understand law degrees, but they do understand business degrees because they expect their people to do them,” he says. Shaw graduated with an Executive MBA from the Australian Graduate School of Management in 2005 and says the qualification gives his perspective on clients businesses more weight, which they respond well to.

“They will look at you differently and will hear you differently, because you speak with the authority of having done a business degree,” he says. While admitting that this reasoning is about perception, Shaw says that perception is important in being heard by clients.

But Shaw didn’t do the degree to add weight to his views. He argues that law firms are big businesses run by lawyers who don’t automatically have the skills to run them. He says an MBA puts a lawyer in a position to do more than practise the law, but also to work on the business, with its substantial staff and revenues, as well as the usual business issues that run through them.

“I saw it as a chance to be of enormous value in being a better partner in a law firm, and better run our business as lawyers,” he says. It was also a chance to better understand the world his clients work in and to personally have a more positive impact in terms of the commerciality of his advice, he says.

MBAs take up a huge chunk of time, though. Shaw says that while the degree involved reading huge amounts of information, it was different to what he did within the firm. “It’s not another article, another contract, another statute: a part of the value is in focusing on new information. It’s not as hard, once you’re into it, as it may look from he outside,” he says.

On balancing his workload, this Maddocks partner says he found ways to stay fresh while working on his MBA, without allowing the additional load to impact on his home life or his professional one.

“Many people do the group work [included in the MBA studies] after work in the evening. But we worked out that it would be better to have a 7am meeting in the city before work’” Shaw says. “We’d have our discussions while we were fresh. We weren’t doing it late, drifting off because we were tired, or doing it on the weekends and annoying our families.”

Rod Lyle, Partner at Clayton Utz, Melbourne:

MBA from the MelbourneBusinessSchool

Rod Lyle left MelbourneBusinessSchool with a distinction in his MBA and placed in the top 5 per cent of his graduating class. This, and the fact that he undertook it while he was managing partner of Clayton Utz’s Melbourne office, is enough to prove it’s possible to work full time in a law firm and achieve an MBA.

Lyle was inspired to do the MBA by colleagues and friends who had found it beneficial to their careers and intellectually stimulating. Wanting to enhance his skills at Clayton Utz, and believing that legal training alone was not enough for good management of a firm, he enrolled in the course at MelbourneBusinessSchool. This, he says, is a school with a good reputation and one that gave him the flexibility of studying part-time over three years.

Although time-consuming, Lyle says the course was far from tedious and that the day-to-day work he was doing at Clayton Utz complemented the course.

“The fact that I was in management helped me with a lot of the concepts in the MBA. The practise helped with the theory of the course and vice versa,” he says.

He recalls enjoying working in “syndicates” with others in his course on the subject assessments. “The idea is that it teaches you to work in teams, get along with people and produce a common product with a common objective,” Lyle says.

The intellectual stimulation – as his friends and colleagues promised – was indeed something Lyle enjoyed.

This partner, who has also completed a Managing Professional Services Firms course at Harvard, says the course ultimately enhanced his skills as a manager and made him better able to work with and support his clients.