Business, like life, assumes that to find your perfect fit you have to kiss a lot of frogs. Does having an MBA, or searching for MBA candidates, remove some of the warts from the equation?

The first MBA offered was from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration in 1908. The degree was created in response to the increasing industrialisation sweeping the United States; businesses were demanding a more ‘scientific’ approach to business administration and management. Now, more than a century later, the degree has grown into an unprecedented international brand.

Over a decade later and an MBA still offers students the opportunity to gain a 360 degree view of an organisation. Karl Hofmeyr, Professor of Leadership at GIBS, puts it this way: “The MBA is a broadening degree that teaches students all the different elements of a business in a very integrated and challenging way. This broad exposure to business [allows students] to lead at a higher level. They can be more strategic because they now understand how all sides of the business fit together.”

Nevertheless, the MBA is now criticised for being over-subscribed. Current MBA student and Regional Manager for Business Services at Nedbank, Mathew Allan, says: “I think the MBA qualification has been diluted significantly because every single tertiary institution, whether academic or private, is now offering it.” This view is further enforced by Debbie Goodman-Bhyat, CEO of South African executive recruitment firm Jack Hammer: “I think an MBA is a great additional qualification, but it is no longer considered to be this extraordinary advantage that it was in the past.”

This, however, has not dampened the spirits of people wanting an MBA qualification, with record numbers enrolled in MBA institutions across the country.  Marina Knox, Citadel Director: Human Capital, gives some insight into why companies continue to prize MBAs: “An MBA personifies tenacity, a person’s willingness to sacrifice and do the hard work in order to improve themselves.” These are strong qualities in a person and can serve to enhance their appeal in the eyes of a current or future employer.  

Like anyone involved in the dating game knows, ensuring your attractiveness to potential partners is essential; so it behoves both MBA graduates, and their employers, to align their expectations to ensure they create a happy and fruitful long-term relationship.


You’re on the road to a top MBA, or you already have one. But, in this day and age, that may not be enough. While an MBA holds the promise of catapulting a graduate’s career, how can an MBA put their best foot forward and attract the attention of that devilishly desirable employer?  Like any other dating game, there are rules. And an MBA needs to follow them to stand out.  

Committing for the right reasons

Before even embarking on this relationship, potential MBAs have to be clear about what they want to achieve. Finding value from a degree like an MBA requires a very clear vision for the future. Doing the degree solely to get a raise, a promotion or a new job, may leave graduates disillusioned.

Nedbank’s Allan says: “Be very clear about what you want to achieve. It is an incredibly expensive programme that may not deliver the kind of value you are looking for.”

Goodman-Bhyat, drawing on her experience at executive recruitment firm Jack Hammer, adds: “People should only invest in the degree if they are genuinely interested in acquiring the knowledge that they are going to be given in the material and content. Otherwise they could be horribly disappointed to find that the degree ends up being meaningless in the context of career advancement.”

In other words, doing the degree has to fulfil a very personal need in the applicant. Allan sums this up by saying: “You have to be very clear about what you want from this qualification and how you are going to utilise it once you have achieved it.”

100% commitment

For long-term success, all relationships need 100% commitment. An MBA is no different. An MBA degree is an arduous process that requires complete focus and discipline. CEO of SA Tourism and a GIBS MBA alumnus, Sisa Ntshona, says: “Sometimes I look back and think how did I do it? You get out of your social circles, family circles and you are literally focused on your MBA for two years. It is a huge sacrifice.”

The rigour of this degree means that applicants must have more than just their own personal buy-in. They need the unwavering support of their family and their employer. Allan offers this advice: “As a starting point, get the backing of the people around you because it is an incredibly tough degree.”

Once your support structure is on-side, Ntshona recommends: “You have to be all in. Don’t have one foot in and one foot out. Choose the right programme that fits your lifestyle and your work commitments. Ask yourself why you are doing it? Then do the course, do the thesis, commit all the way through.”

Sparkle with the big brands

With an ever-growing pool of MBA qualifications to choose from, one of the best ways to get noticed is to qualify with a top-tier MBA. Allan says: “We really are at a tipping point. In five to 10 years I don’t believe an MBA is going to add the same value to me as an individual, or for me employing people. I think people will really need to have a differential MBA where you are getting your qualification from a top institution.”

This sentiment is backed up by GIBS Professor Hofmeyr, who says: “I think companies are looking more carefully at where the person has done the MBA. There are world-class MBAs being offered in South Africa, and those [individuals] will be given preference.”

Apart from giving MBAs an edge, each school comes with its unique set of values. Lerato Motshudi, Alexander Forbes Medical Advisor, says: “There is something different about the character that each school builds. Each school seems to have a different set of ethics, values and view of life and work.”

Temper your expectations

Often the image on that dating site is far removed from the reality of the person who arrives for the date. Similarly, the expectation of what an MBA can do for a career can be horribly disappointing; leading to undue frustration.

Goodman-Bhyat believes students are often taken in by the hype published by business schools around their MBA programmes: “People should be aware that universities are commercial enterprises. When it comes to their degrees, applicants need to look at the marketing as they would any other type of advertising. They must not believe everything they read in terms of what the degree is going to do for them.” 

Hofmeyr elaborates: “There is a danger that MBAs assume that once they have graduated that the world is going to open up to them. It is no longer that simple. The reality is that you still need the experience and relationships that will enable you to take on more senior leadership roles.”

Make the first move

Having a very clearly-defined career path is critical for anyone participating in an MBA programme as this will help MBAs to make the best use of their learnings. Marius Meyer, CEO of the South African Board for People’s Practices (SABPP), says: “I would expect an MBA student to come with an action plan before the course even starts. A business asks ‘why am I investing in this person if they are not going to apply the skills?’ I would build in from day one to have a [review] after every course module.”

Alan agrees, noting that it is important for MBAs to work closely with human resources (HR) and also with line-managers, to ensure they have a clear plan around their career progression. “From my side I have a very well-defined and well-structured career development plan in place with my organisation that is being driven quite extensively by my executive. This will enable me to effectively utilise my MBA a lot more.”

Upsell your skills

“What we have noticed is that people, shortly after having completed their MBA, often change career directions.” This interesting observation is made by Goodman-Bhyat. “[The degree] provides a catalyst for some kind of shift or change.” It is for this reason that the CV becomes a very valuable tool for any MBA graduate.

Goodman-Bhyat offers some advice to MBAs who are looking to move onto their next corporate relationship: “People will say that they’ve got great leadership, or they are great on delivery, but they seldom really point to the evidence, the initiative or the work that they have done.”

Meyer backs up this view: “What is important to me is to really make competencies visible on a CV. So instead of saying ‘I have an MBA’ say ‘I have the following competencies’. You need to give tangible evidence of outputs and results to the main competencies. Having those competencies would impress me far more than saying you have an MBA.”

Be a proactive partner

Businesses want MBAs to prove they are adding value to the partnership. Certainly, Ntshona believes MBA graduates need to take their qualifications seriously: “I think companies are tired of being taken for a ride. They are not necessarily seeing a correlation between your degree and your performance.”  

Meyer explains what companies are looking for: “If a business invests R200 000 into an employee, they want to know what this person will bring back. [MBAs] need to show the rands and cents value of the investment at the end of the process. If an MBA can prove the return on investment (ROI), then I think there would be much more positive engagement from the business’s side.”

Offering some pro-active advice, Meyer adds: “If I did an MBA, I would arrange a meeting with the executive committee to present what I have done and tell them what value I can add to the business over the next 18 months. If an MBA came with that attitude, it would impress any business leader. [MBAs] need to be much more proactive around showing how their skills can enhance a business.”

Citadel’s Knox confirms that “what companies want and value or recognise is the ability [for MBA graduates] to apply insight and thinking. They want to ‘see’ the skills, knowledge, and expanded thinking in action.”

Meyer also encourages MBA graduates to form personal relationships with experts in the different areas of the business. “This will ensure that education is translated into skills.” But it is important, he stresses, that MBAs drive this process. 

Using your Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

A love match needs more than raw ambition, it also needs EQ. Ntshona believes interpersonal skills are the biggest learning any MBA will take from the degree. “An MBA enables you to interact with different people across different industries and it enables you to grow skills that you don’t actually learn in the classroom.”

And it is these skills that will really launch an MBA’s career to the next level.  Allan says: “Unless you are able to team up your MBA with some sort of emotional intelligence it is going to be very difficult, especially when you are trying to manage different groups and teams within the business.”

Knox agrees, noting: “Emotional intelligence and savvy are critical. Anyone can be academically smart, but the ability to relate to people and self-insight are key elements in any candidate.”

Take it slowly

Importantly in today’s busy and demanding world, MBAs need to take it slowly. Hofmeyr says: “I don’t think you should expect to be CEO on graduation; you need more experience and more exposure in the trenches in the business before you can be a CEO. Senior leaders have a level of experience that has been gathered over a period of time.” But, he adds: “How do managers learn? 70% experience, 20% relationships (which includes being coached, being mentored, working with colleagues and leading a team), and 10% is formal training and education.”

Embrace being single  

Finally, if you feel you no longer belong in the environment you are in, “stop complaining and create an environment you do fit in”, says Ntshona, who believes a lot of MBA graduates battle to assimilate back into the work place after completing their MBA. Often, he says, graduates return to their old desks, doing their same jobs. “I chatted to a lot of my peers and we were all frustrated. It was slightly depressing.”

It is probably for this reason that many MBAs move on shortly after graduating, either finding a more challenging position or launching their own business.  Hofmeyr says: “We encourage people doing GIBS’ fulltime MBA to start their own businesses… Surely one of the biggest challenges for SA is people who get up and start businesses and employ people. The MBA is a wonderful launching pad for that and any business school should be encouraging their graduates to go out and start a business.”

"Be very clear about what you want to achieve..."

Businesses want MBAs to prove they are adding value to the partnership.


Relationships are a two-way street. As with the MBA graduates, there are also rules for companies when it comes to attracting and retaining these highly qualified individuals. Employers can no longer educate people, raise their hopes and expectations and then fail to follow through.

Choose the right candidate

An investment into an MBA graduate is sizeable, from the course fees to time off work. So companies are advised to ensure the candidates they choose to support are indeed the best candidates. SA Tourism boss Ntshona says: “Organisations have budgets of millions to upskill people, and then two months before [the end of the financial year] they look around quickly, and slot in some people to do the course. I think the choice has to be a lot more deliberate.”

Allan from Nedbank agrees, saying: “The starting point for businesses is to look at the history of performance. A top performer is always going to be a top performer and an underperformer is always going to be an underperformer.” He agrees companies need to carefully select potential candidates. “I would rather take someone who is younger, eager and looking for more than just the qualification they hold,” says Allan. “I would find people who are battling to come to terms with managing businesses and groups of people. I find those are the types of people would get real value.”

Planning for the future

It’s no good wooing an MBA and then not planning your life together. In fact, this seems to be where businesses fall most short when it comes to developing MBA talent.

SABPP’s Meyer believes that many companies simply don’t have a clear view of what graduates are expected to do or contribute to the business. “Companies need to start guiding graduates to apply their knowledge and skills,” he says.

Line managers, and HR to a degree, need to actively support MBAs, agrees Allan. “I am very lucky in that somebody to whom I speak on a continual basis has taken an active interest in my MBA. They want to see me utilise it fully. I think if it was just left up to me, it would almost be a waste of my time, because you just get thrown back into the mix and you do the same thing.”

Meyer advises companies to have a concrete plan in place, one that is not left to chance. “One solution is to build into the personal development plan of graduates an ROI strategy. This forces engagement between the company and the graduate.” Meyer believes that ROI reviews are a proactive way to get MBA graduates to actively apply their new skill set within the organisation from the get-go.

Expecting a prince and getting the frog

When MBAs graduate, they often expect to be welcomed back to the workplace with a tickertape parade and confetti. Ntshona offers this advice to both MBAs and employers: “It is not only about the paper, but the experience. People have been stretched and pulled. They now see the world differently. They have different skills. They have more confidence. They have improved thought processes. Their loyalty is sky-high. They expect to be fast-tracked.”

Psychologically it is important to note that MBAs feel they deserve rewards for their sacrifices, be it with more money, promotions, international opportunities or leadership opportunities. Often, however, these hopes are completely unrealistic, and it is up to the company to not only manage these expectations, but to pre-empt them.

Hofmeyr says: “[Companies] need to have regular discussions with the graduate and, as far as possible, understand and manage their expectations of the MBA. Companies need to understand there may be unrealistic expectations, but at the risk of exaggerating, this is a life-changing experience.”

Making your MBA feel appreciated

Everyone needs to feel needed, but it seems that many companies don’t always take the time to acknowledge their MBA graduates. Ntshona expands on his frustrations when he finished his degree: “What really irritated me was that I could not understand how this organisation could make such a significant investment into me and then not want to reap the reward.” Although bound by a work-back contract, he spoke to his boss and served his notice. “I wanted to explore something else. I needed to hone the skills I had learnt and practice them.”

Allan feels the same way: “Organisations in their entirety need to start utilising their people skills and human capital differently. You cannot expect to put individuals back into the same position and hope they return double-digit growth on what was previously delivered.”

 This is echoed by Jana Marais, Editor of Media 24’s Finweek, and a GIBS MBA alumna: “People want to be challenged, given opportunities to grow and make a positive contribution to the business.” While Alexander Forbes’ Motshudi offers this advice to companies: “Acknowledge what MBAs are bringing to the table. Diversify their exposure and give them opportunities to contribute in different ways. Those who stay with their employers are those who were given something different to do.”

It’s no good wooing an MBA and then not planning your life together.

"...this is a life-changing experience..."


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