Management fads and insufferable classmates

Lucy Kellaway answers students’ questions from where to study to which language to learn
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We are often told that the old world order is changing and that if we want to one day rise to the top in business we must develop a truly global perspective. So is the best starting point a business school in Europe, America, Asia — or where?

If you look at it simply in terms of the changing world order, the answer is easy: you should study in China. But in reality it is more complicated than that. You aren’t taking bets on world economies — you are paying a lot of money in return for a qualification. The Asian schools are improving rapidly, but few are yet in the very top flight.

However, because business students are a mobile bunch, most good schools have a global feel to them. If you are already in London, then London Business School would be a good bet as 91 per cent of your classmates on the MBA programme would be international. Bingo! A global experience without leaving your home town.

Group work is meant to develop and demonstrate our ability to work as part of a team, but some classmates pay lip service to this yet dominate sessions, giving no one else the chance to shine. What can the rest of us do to be heard — and noticed?

If your teachers are any good they won’t be fooled. One of the first things anyone who observes teams looks out for is people who seek only to dominate. Even on trashy television programmes such as The Apprentice, bragging contestants who never miss an opportunity to push themselves forward at the expense of their team mates get rumbled and then fired.

Your noisy colleagues are bound to crash and burn at business school, but if they don’t, they will certainly do so in the world outside. Unless they plan on being the next Steve Jobs, they are going to have to learn to work with others. As for you, hold your own, refuse to be dominated and you will be fine.

Thousands of students get a masters in management in France every year. I thought of enrolling at a British school as a way of differentiating myself. However, with the coming referendum in Britain on whether the country remains in the EU in mind, will it diminish the value of my degree back home if the UK leaves Europe?

No. You are overthinking. Your strategic mind is already in overdrive. A British school may be a great idea — or it may not be. It depends on which school you choose, how much you like being in Britain and how much the endless rain gets to you. The referendum will make no difference at all, as even if Britain left Europe, the professors would continue to want to teach there and the students to study there. Look at tiny, go-it-alone Switzerland. It manages to have a top 20 business school despite being a member of no club and having a population of only 8m.

As a young Indian woman who wants to go to business school, do you think I would be better off studying at home or abroad?

On the face of it, the fact that you are young, female and Indian should have nothing to do with your choice of business school. You should do what everyone else does — go to the best school you can afford. Travel internationally if you can bear the cost, and would like the experience. If, on the other hand, you want to stay close to friends and family, then do so. But certainly don’t do that because you are a woman. Indeed, as a woman you will find yourself in less of a minority if you travel rather than stay put: by far the most male school in the FT’s top 30 is the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, where only 15 per cent of the students are women. Were you to go to Haas at Berkeley in the US, the figure for women is 43 per cent.

Business culture, management fashions and technology all change constantly, so is there really any point in paying a fortune to go to business school to learn what is in vogue now when it will soon be out of date?

If you took that attitude there would never be any point in learning anything — apart from the laws of mathematics and possibly a little Goethe and Shakespeare. You have also misidentified the problem with management fads: it is not that they go out of fashion, it is that few of them were much good to start off with.

But no matter. Business is couched in the now. If you want to be successful in business you need to understand that. And no one ever said that the main point of going to business school was your mastery of the latest fads. Instead, it is a way of speaking, a network of contacts and a fat pay cheque on departure.

I am considering going to business school next year as a full-time student, and hope to become an international business executive. What is the best language to learn? I’m a Brit, so I already speak English. My colleagues recommend Mandarin.

Do your colleagues want you to suffer? Mandarin is almost impossible. Even if you are a brilliant linguist (which I assume you are not as it seems you currently speak no foreign languages at all) it would take you two years to learn how to order a beer. The fortunate truth is that for you, there is no need to learn Mandarin or Spanish or French to become the international executive you aspire to be. You already speak the only language you need to know: English.

My masters in management degree in the UK provided excellent corporate connections in Europe (especially in London), with a professional network across the continent. While I want to stay in the UK, my visa expires shortly. I feel I would be better off accepting job offers in France or Germany rather than waiting, possibly in vain, for a company willing to sponsor me. What do you think?

A bird in the hand being worth two in the bush, and all that, you should take one of the offers you have. Unless a UK company has already shown enough interest in you for it to be worth hanging on, you should weigh up the two offers you have and go for the most attractive one. You might find you enjoy working in France or Germany more than the UK. Until you try it, you don’t know.

Lucy Kellaway is an FT associate editor and management columnist, and writes the weekly Dear Lucy advice column in the newspaper and online

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