Gary Burnison
Gary Burnison: "The best questions interviewees ever asked me were not 'how' we do something – but 'why' we do something"

What value does an MBA have today?

In talking to senior hiring managers, an MBA holds value – but less than it did a generation ago. On the positive side, it does say to an employer you understand how business works and the language of business. An MBA is considered a requirement if you want to work as a professional manager at a big branded company or major consulting firm.

The areas where an MBA is not required are entrepreneurship, working in a small to medium-sized company or at a Big Four accounting firm.

However, there are more MBA graduates now than 20 years ago, so it is important to maximise the skills and knowledge gained from your degree to differentiate yourself in the job market. So, here are my tips to show you how to do this.

Ask questions about the company

Oddly enough, in a job interview, getting hired is not about answering questions about yourself, it is about you asking questions about the company. Questions will reveal that you are a person who will dig deeper for answers. As an MBA student, you are actually prepared to ask insightful questions about a company. Look at decisions the company made, ask the interviewer why they made these and where the next opportunities are for the organisation’s growth.

Ask why

The best questions interviewees ever asked me were not “how” we do something – but “why” we do something. These are people that make me think about our business. As an MBA graduate, that is what you are armed with, the knowledge to ask the critical questions that drive a company to not just “do things right,” but to “do the right things”. In the process you could uncover some potential problems for an organisation.

A classic case is a company which sells a product but loses money on each sale. The company could look at ways to improve its selling techniques, but it could be selling the wrong thing the right way. This is “doing the wrong thing right” and the result is complete disaster.

For example, the main focus of the imaging company Kodak was on producing and selling film for cameras, while the world was moving towards digital technologies. Although, the company was aware of this digital trend, eventually it could not keep pace with its competitors and Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

Consider what you are measuring

Undoubtedly, you have clearly learned how to measure results from your degree to assess performance. But, ask yourself if you and the organisation are measuring the right things? For example, a mistake companies make is to reward the people who put in the most hours, rather than ones who are the most efficient and productive. Remember to analyse the quality of work, as well as the quantity.

Demonstrate “learning agility”

If you are applying for a job, ask the prospective employer to give you a tough business problem their company is trying to deal with. While you may not have all the facts to have a specific solution, you can suggest the process and methods you would use for arriving at a decision. For example, you can provide value by knowing when to suggest a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether a business function should be outsourced or to analyse a build-versus-buy decision for a new IT system.

We call this “learning agility” – the ability to draw on a broad base of knowledge and adjust to business situations in real time.

Companies that can change course and focus in a timely way are learning agile. A case in point includes Netflix, the online subscription video service, which expanded its business model to produce original programmes such as “House of Cards”. The move has transformed the trajectory of the company making it a formidable competitor to the traditional pay-TV channels. With many customers cancelling their expensive cable subscriptions, the company aims to attract viewers seeking cheaper alternatives. Netflix now has over 48m customers all over the world, according to the Financial Times.

Today’s workforce is moving fast and very complex, so there is a strong premium placed on those who are “learning-agile”. Make sure you use your MBA knowledge and business acumen to develop and show this ability.

Use your network

Talk to your contacts from business school – such as professors, former classmates and the alumni network – to connect with employers and professionals. Ask for career opportunities and advice by talking to professionals who are in jobs in which you are interested. Make new connections on a regular basis and as often as you can.

To have an MBA and not apply it every day in your professional life is a wasted opportunity, so it is up to you to make your degree pay out over a career.

Gary Burnison is chief executive of Korn Ferry, executive search firm.

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