Ready to Lead
Today’s business schools are preparing a new breed of entrepreneurial-minded students for success.
Forefront of Innovation: Santanu Chatterjee, associate professor of economics and director of the MBA program at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business
Want to learn the fundamentals of successful business management? You could read a book. Take a tutorial. Glean what works through trial and error. Or you could earn your master’s of business administration degree.
An MBA is an esteemed credential, and for good reason. MBA graduates often discover it’s a ticket to career mobility – because government agencies, businesses, new ventures and nonprofit organizations recognize its competitive value.
“We are a service-oriented economy, and that is creating a huge demand for the MBA degree,” says Santanu Chatterjee, associate professor of economics and director of the full-time MBA program at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business. “The U.S. is at the forefront of innovation, management and technology, and this creates a great need for leadership. Employers are demanding more from students. In turn, this inspires us to make sure our curriculum fulfills employers’ needs when our students graduate.”
Wisdom and Critical Thinking
Allen Amason, an award-winning executive educator and dean of the College of Business Administration at Georgia Southern University, which offers MBA programs in Statesboro and Savannah, feels the changing economy is spurring demand for MBA talent. Although, he says, “Employers can’t always articulate what they are expecting from graduates. They just want people to be work-ready and be better strategic decision makers; they want employees who have that wisdom and critical thinking.”
What that wisdom entails runs the gamut from behavioral management to finance to marketing and more.
“If we check each of these technical boxes and give that student to an employer, it’s not quite everything they want or need,” Amason says. “They want the mortar between those bricks; they are looking for leadership, sophistication, business acumen, problem-solving skills – all of those things.”
The relevancy of MBA curricula depends not just on this broad knowledge base, but how well it prepares graduates to translate that knowledge into commercial solutions and meet market needs.
When Tabitha Press graduated from Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business’ evening MBA program, her employer, Alpharetta-based LexisNexis Risk Solutions, knew she was prepared. As a result of an on-campus recruitment event, she was offered a job in the fall semester preceding her graduation in spring 2016.
“While I had experience with data analytics, it was mostly working with data for data’s sake, but I took a fantastic marketing analytics class that taught me how to actually use data to make business decisions and determine marketing campaigns,” she says. “The thought processes I gained and the program’s rigor has helped me in my current role as I deal with different data points and help our clients move the needle to make better products.”
Press spent eight years working in the public sector before earning her graduate degree. “I knew I needed a high-quality MBA to pivot from my current work to getting a good job in big data or with a high-tech firm,” she says. “My degree was 100 percent essential in getting me where I am now.”
Press is representative of what Amason sees as an uptick in MBA enrollees who have significant professional experience. “We are seeing a lot of C-level people who have fairly accomplished careers who work for strong companies. These students are showing a greater willingness to invest in their careers because they can see a positive return.”
Emanating from that professional demographic is a generalized reluctance to enroll in two-year, full-time, on-campus programs. The trend is toward blended off- line/online learning.
“Students are thinking harder before quitting their jobs,” says Saby Mitra, senior associate dean of programs at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College. “But so much of an MBA is experiential and involves networking with peers; it’s hard to deliver these opportunities and replicate those valuable discussions completely online. So what I see is a much better use of time spent on campus, working with companies to solve real problems.”
Customization and Specialization
To solve today’s business problems, Georgia MBA programs are veering from generalized business foundations because, as Chatterjee says, “Employees want to know what more you can bring to the table.” The focus now is on customization and interdisciplinary specialization, approached through experiential and project-based learning.
Terry College has responded by offering dual MBA programs for graduate-level law, public health and engineering students who want to earn joint degrees. This spring Terry rolls out a new dual degree program combining a bachelor’s degree in engineering with an MBA degree, the first of its kind in the state.
Georgia Tech’s Scheller College just established a dual degree program so students can earn a master’s or doctorate in computing along with an MBA.
“Large high-tech companies require a certain level of technical depth,” says Mitra. “And that, combined with the leadership and communication and business acumen that comes from an MBA, is what the future looks like; the return on investment on this is widely supported.”
At Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, MBA students can take a five-course sequence focusing on healthcare. The heavy regulatory environment of healthcare has given rise to greater demand for healthcare consultants. Some 25 percent of students enrolled in Goizueta’s executive MBA program are either medical doctors or medical professionals, recognition of the vital importance of understanding the admin- istrative and funding aspects of the current healthcare delivery system. In addition, interest in social enterprise has given rise to a new course in nonprofit management.
To ensure students are prepared for what they will actually face in leadership roles, Georgia MBA programs aim to mimic real-world functionality and organization. Students are assigned to small teams, or cohorts, where they interact in face-to-face and online discussions, working together on project-based assignments and sharing ideas and their unique perspectives. As they intermingle, students benefit from the versatile experiential backgrounds of their peers, leading to better outcomes on the job.
At the Langdale College of Business Administration at Valdosta State University, MBA students learn in cohorts as well as through individual study. Enrollment retention rates are as high as 95 percent, says L. Wayne Plumly Jr., dean of the college. “The team-based system is not easy to get through, but students adore the program. As they learn from and support one another, they become dear friends.”
Valdosta State also offers an online accelerated MBA through Georgia WebMBA, a consortium of six University System of Georgia colleges and universities that also includes Columbus State University, University of West Georgia, Kennesaw State University, Georgia Southern University and Georgia College. WebMBA ranks in the top 25 online MBA programs in the world by CEO magazine.
“The group interaction adds accountability and helps build an understanding of the work flow,” says Whitney Hembree, a 2014 Valdosta State MBA graduate. Hembree and her dad, a CPA and CFO at Archbold Medical Center in Thomasville, were enrolled at Valdosta State and graduated at the same time.
Hembree is now a senior brokerage coordinator at Cushman & Wakefield. “They were impressed I was working on my MBA and were looking for someone to manage a team and bring a new perspective,” she says.
“The younger generation is a lot more collaborative,” Plumly says. “Currently, given the age of many senior leaders in business, they will be retiring soon and leaving big gaps, and giving the potential for younger people to move up in companies fairly rapidly – if they have the correct knowledge and degrees and motivation.”
Experiential education, which requires students to apply theories to solving actual business problems, has supplanted the old-school method of learning through case studies of one particular discipline such as finance, operations or marketing.
“Dealing with a real company dilemma, students get a sense of the ambiguities and uncertainties involved and get tested on their skills right away,” says Rob Kazanjian, Goizueta’s vice dean of programs. “It’s a real value for both students and the companies.”
All full-time Goizueta students participate in a reveal night where client companies present projects. About 180 full-time MBA students are currently teamed up to work on projects from more than a dozen organizations – each paying $20,000 for the students’ consulting expertise. Most client organizations are based in the Southeast, and the school leverages its Atlanta location by working with leading firms such as The Coca-Cola Company, Delta Air Lines and The Home Depot. Local executives manage each project.
“The companies are invested in us and come back year after year,” says Kazanjian. “They know we have high standards and a lot of expectations for deliverables. We also maintain deep connections with our alumni in the community. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
To further ignite students’ passion for leadership, three years ago Goizueta hired Lt. Gen. P. K. “Ken” Keen, a retired U.S. Army officer, as associate dean of the leader development program. He heads a leader’s reaction course, challenging students to tackle team-based scenarios similar to those encountered by officer can- didates for the U.S. Army. The course takes place at Fort Benning in Columbus.
The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well among many MBA students, and to advance that spirit, Goizueta has started a pitch-the-professor opportunity for students to make a formal pitch of their startup ideas to faculty. Selected students incubate their entrepreneurial ambitions at Atlanta Tech Village, a collaborative venture hub in Buckhead. In addition, students may have the chance to make pitches to potential corporate investors.
MBA studies are also embracing soft skills.
“Another thing we hear from employers is their need for leaders with communication and presentation capabilities, and the ability to deal with conflict and manage a group and not just think about themselves,” says UGA’s Chatterjee. “A lot of MBA programs have lost sight of this aspect.”
Terry College is introducing a new semester-long required course that covers these skills and others, including effective career management. Mastery of these skills also helps smooth the path for students entering into on-site business internships.
But can an MBA be all things to all people? Whether it’s to meet marketplace demand or stay current with the competition, many Georgia colleges offer multiple ways to obtain higher education without making a radical lifestyle change.
Terry College, for instance, offers three tracks to fit students at different levels of their career: a full-time, campus-based MBA; a 23-month professional MBA with evening classes; and an 18-month executive MBA with Friday and Saturday classes. Their motivations differ, too. According to Rich Daniels, Terry College director of executive and professional MBA programs, students in the full-time MBA program are willing to give up their careers for a while to “remake themselves,” whereas students in the professional and executive MBA programs want to fill in experiential gaps by focusing learning on finance, marketing, analytics, management and the like in the classroom. And there has been a shift toward the latter two programs, as more students want to keep their jobs while simultaneously studying for the MBA.
Georgia Southern's Amason recognizes that since the recession, MBA programs have lost favor in the eyes of some companies and, in turn, prospective employees. “People are questioning whether it is worth the investment, and maybe some criticisms leveled at MBA programs are valid; maybe we need to revisit our delivery method, our admissions, our curricula and possibly restructure for the future.”
Ultimately, students simply want a credential that will help them move up into leadership positions. And it comes at a cost of time, commitment – and money.
Terry College has recently increased its scholarship budget, and 97 percent of students receive some sort of financial aid. Graduates typically earn a payback for their investment in about two years. Still, it takes a chunk of cash for any graduate degree.
“People are different people by the end of an MBA round of study and have higher expectations of what they can accomplish,” says Daniels. “Employers should understand this and realize MBA graduates are prepared for different employment opportunities – and should be paid for it.”
MBA Programs in Georgia
Albany State University
Augusta University – Hull College of Business
Berry College – Campbell School of Business
Clark Atlanta University
Clayton State University
Columbus State University – D. Abbott Turner College of Business
Emory University – Goizueta Business School
Georgia College – J. Whitney Bunting School of Business
Georgia Institute of Technology – Scheller College of Business
Georgia Southern University – College of Business Administration
Georgia Southwestern State University
Georgia State University – J. Mack Robinson College of Business
Kennesaw State University – Coles College of Business
Mercer University – Stetson School of Business and Economics
Piedmont College – Harry W. Walker School of Business
Savannah State University – College of Business Administration
University of Georgia – Terry College of Business
University of North Georgia – Mike Cottrell College of Business
University of West Georgia – Richards College of Business
Valdosta State University – Langdale College of Business Administration