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MBAs often cite their reason for going to business school as wanting to have a bigger impact in the firms they work for. They want to contribute more, to make a difference and to be recognised. Yet this is often forgotten with students quickly seduced by the corporate hospitality of the on-campus recruiters, the dinners, the pay cheques and the bonuses.
Figures published annually by the European Union show that small and medium enterprises – SMEs – make up 99 per cent of existing European enterprises. These should not be viewed as modestly-sized family-run businesses but rather a layer of companies that can thrive and grow with the assistance of MBAs.
MBAs can enhance these enterprises through specialised knowledge. Their strong core understanding of business acquired through the compulsory modules of their MBA helps them to contribute across the board. Most importantly, MBA students have a desire to succeed and deliver for the company that employs them.
Although recruiters from the traditional sectors will always remain business schools’ mainstay, the schools should do more to attract SMEs on to campus. The annual fast track 100 list is full of companies that would be welcome homes for future leaders.
But common misconceptions abound: that SMEs cannot afford MBA-qualified professionals, or that the work will not prove sufficiently challenging enough, or will limit long-term career prospects. These are just myths.
That is not to say that SMEs can match the first-year package of McKinsey or Goldman Sachs but SMEs can offer real-world decision-making opportunities that could have a dramatic influence on a company’s performance. Furthermore, SMEs can provide greater exposure to senior management, thus providing increased chances to learn corporate leadership skills.
Those MBAs that return most satisfied from internships are those whose efforts have been recognised and implemented, rather than those disillusioned by having work lost in the ether of corporate dialogue.
However, many business schools, much to the detriment of the future careers of their MBAs, do not focus on this market apart from on businesses that are already on the ascendency. Undeniably, careers services have limited resources and an annual recruiting calendar to stick to. This leaves them little time to find the SME saplings that would bear fruit.
Also business school rankings, such as those of the Financial Times, are primarily calculated on the earning power of their alumni three months after graduation. With SMEs finding it hard to match the salaries of corporates, it is easy to understand why business schools might have different priorities.
However, the current limitations of the job market mean that it is vital for business schools to open themselves to a wider audience. This could be achieved through closer integration with organisations that specialise in the SME market. The schools would therefore form early relationships with high-potential companies and ensure that their students are among the first recruited when the companies grow.
Business schools could revamp their programmes. Lectures on entrepreneurship are often limited to writing business plans and raising VC funding. Bootstrapping, the science of building a business with limited means or funds – and a daily reality for most enterprises – is often reduced to a single class.
Through embracing SMEs, business schools will gain fresh perspectives from those with experience outside the traditional attendees and corporate experiences. It will be the SME private sector that leads the economic revival and MBAs are the prime candidate to lead the charge.
Daniel Callaghan is chairman of MBA & Company and co-author with Adam Riccoboni of “Buy Me! Ten Steps to Selling Yourself in Business” (Michael O’ Mara).