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Is an MBA still relevant – even for a family business?

Jo Kelly is managing director of campuspr limited. Leeds University Business School is a client of campuspr.

'MBAs are so common these days they are hardly worth the paper they are written on. And unless you are an investment banker or a blue chip high flyer, you'd be better off learning about business in the real world instead of spending thousands for the privilege of sitting in a classroom for hours on end.'

Common enough complaints, especially when you consider there are now more than 100 UK universities and colleges offering all manner of Masters of Business Administration courses with thousands of students graduating each year, often at considerable personal cost. So why is it that more and more 'students' working in family businesses are enrolling on MBA courses? What, if anything, do they get out of it?

On one level the most valuable aspect of studying for an MBA is simply time away from everyday troubleshooting to think about the way the business is developing, to  give yourself the space to find answers to questions which have probably been bugging you for months. Should we expand into a new product area or market? Do I really understand my competitors' strategy? Why can't we seem to improve the quality of our product or the timeliness of deliveries, despite working everyone so hard?
Successful organisations are invariably the result of long hours on the job. And anyone in family business knows that the family is both the business's main strength, and its potential weakness if family politics don't gel. Being so close to the business for so many years can make it difficult for family members to see potential problems before they are engulfed by them, let alone to find solutions. Just getting away for a day or two every so often can give you the distance you need to view your business in a more detached way.

Of course no two families or businesses are alike, and no one MBA can provide all the answers.  But ideally, an MBA programme will give you the tools to solve problems. As well as bouncing them around informally,  you can probably tackle issues directly as good programmes will encourage students to work on genuine company-based assignments.

Whatever crisis your business faces, there is every chance that a faculty member at a good business school has seen it before. And, hopefully, resolved it. But don't forget the other students. Executive MBA programmes are designed for busy people working in business. You will find yourself in the company of like-minded people facing similar concerns. And these days your fellow learners are as likely to be entrepreneurs in family run concerns as middle managers in multinationals. Swapping experiences is frequently cited by students as the most valued part of the MBA experience.

But what if your business is running along quite smoothly at the moment? Look to the future for a moment. Most founders want to create an enterprise that will grow and be carried on by family members. Children, nieces, or nephews join the ranks and it is assumed that they will take over the business. But only rarely is succession actually planned. Eventually someone asks, "Who is going to take over the business?" If this question has not been thought out in advance, it can create anger and confusion and may tear the family apart. Often it results in the business failing because the successor management team has not been groomed to take over the business and lacks the skills and experience to run the company.

One approach is to require them to leave the business for a period and work elsewhere to gain management experience which can be an excellent learning curve. But it is not always practical, especially in a small organisation. Instead, requiring them to earn an MBA can be a real test of both commitment to the business and intellectual rigour. And you can bet they will come back to the business with a fresh outlook and brimming with new ideas.

Remember, entrepreneurs can learn something from venture capitalists, whose first question is always: "What is my exit strategy?" They begin every business undertaking by thinking ahead to the future. Most family-owned businesses don't start to think about their exit strategy until the founder is ready to retire. Worse still, if the owner becomes disabled or dies and has never identified or trained the next manager or management team, there may be no options at all for a successful transition.  The family might be forced to sell the business that many of them depend upon for their employment.

It is never too early to begin the succession planning process. And in doing so, you can convey to family employees that working for the family business is not a free ride or an entitlement. Family members need to understand the business, what it takes to make it succeed, and be prepared to work hard to accomplish the business goals.

A good MBA programme will expand students' knowledge of the fundamental elements of business and management and their inter-relationships. It will refine investigative, analytical and decision-making skills, and will also develop the interpersonal, communication and leadership skills required to achieve results in today's global business environment.

By the end of your MBA, usually one year full time or two years part time, you should be walking away with not only a high standard of qualification but also the knowledge to become a self managed learner, better equipped to face the management challenges of the 21st century.

But that shouldn't mean being spoon-fed the latest management theory. At Leeds University Business School the MBA programme relies on the idea of learner-centred development. This recognises the value of the resource which the students themselves bring to the learning process. A good MBA should be mutually beneficial to both student and school alike. Indeed, your experience on the MBA will make a valuable contribution to the design and shape of the programme in the future. In turn, it will equip you with the skills and knowledge you need to fulfill your career ambitions.

Choose your venue carefully. Leeds is one of some 30 schools to have its portfolio of full-time and part-time MBA programmes accredited by the Association of MBAs (AMBA). Accreditation is a measure of the quality of an MBA programme and is often used by managers, employers and professional bodies to rate MBA programmes and business schools. AMBA grants accreditation only after an extensive review of the MBA programmes and when choosing a course that is right for you it is well worth bearing this in mind.

Another measure of quality is the links a school has built up with business and commerce. At Leeds, directors and senior managers from leading organisations advise the business school, provide placements and projects, and make contributions to the MBA programme as visiting speakers and guests. Recent participants have included Barclays Bank, British Aerospace, British Telecom, Eurotunnel, GE Capital Bank, The National Health Service Executive, PowerGen, SAP, Unisys and Wang Global.   

A good business school should not be an ivory tower. Rather it should be operating in and contributing to the real world of business.

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