Graduate Management News

The Alsop Perspective: B-School to Boost Credibility

At a recent conference in New York, a senior executive from Avon Products Inc. told the audience, “If I hear someone in HR say they want a seat at the table again, just shoot me.” Rather than whine, he said, they should develop more self-confidence by broadening their business skill set, including the ability to use metrics to demonstrate the bottom-line impact of their workforce management strategies.

I, too, have long heard people in human resources, corporate communications, and other staff positions complain about their exclusion from top-level decision-making and a lack of respect from senior colleagues. Such managers often aren’t taken as seriously as people in, say, finance or supply-chain management because they lack a broad understanding of their company’s operations. Many also speak their own jargon rather than the C-suite’s language, feel uncomfortable working with numbers, and have difficulty showing the operational and financial implications of their decisions.

Why, I wonder, don’t more of these dissatisfied managers go back to business school? Clearly, a business degree, particularly an MBA, could be the ticket to help them move from the transactional to strategic level and increase their credibility and influence.

A Hard Credential

That’s why the University of Reading’s Henley Business School teamed with the UK’s Association of Professional Staffing Companies to develop an MBA specifically for recruitment executives. “Recruiters aren’t always taken that seriously,” says Ann Swain, the chief executive officer of the association who brought the idea for the degree to Henley. “This MBA will give them a keener understanding of how a business operates and teach them how to run big projects and run companies.” About a third of the three-year distance learning program will be tailored to recruitment issues, with the remainder devoted to standard MBA courses to provide a solid grounding in finance, operations, information technology, and marketing. The focus will be international because the recruitment industry has expanded well beyond the UK, Swain notes. “The course material will be equally relevant in the UK, Hong Kong or South Africa.”

To bolster the credentials of staff managers, other business schools offer dual-degree MBA programs in combination with human resource management, corporate communications, and other types of master’s degrees. Graduates of such programs often see the impact immediately. For example, Carolina Pais-Barreto Beyers just received her combined MBA and master’s in corporate communications at Duquesne University and has already been named assistant director of the Pittsburgh Central Keystone Innovation Zone, a nonprofit organization that focuses on technology and economic development.

The nonprofit was seeking someone to handle both communications strategy and finances. “It wasn’t able to hire two people,” Beyers explains, “so I know the combination of my MBA and communication background was the determining factor in my hiring. I still wouldn’t call myself a numbers person, but I am now more fluent in the language of finance and accounting.” She decided to seek the MBA, along with the communications degree, to move beyond her public relations “sweet spot” and increase her “credibility and career flexibility.”

Corporate social responsibility represents a relatively new and growing management area where an MBA also can be beneficial in boosting credibility. CSR managers are often seen as idealistic tree huggers with limited business acumen, and their programs are sometimes dismissed as peripheral to the company’s mission. “There’s still a feeling that CSR is angel work and not as hard-core as finance or brand management, but for CSR to be truly effective, it has to be seen as a business strategy,” says Kellie McElhaney, faculty director of the Center for Responsible Business at the Haas School of Business at the University of California in Berkeley. “The MBA gives the credentials and knowledge to implement strategy. It’s a calling card positioning you in the power base of a company.”

MBA or Specialized Master’s?

Still, there is often debate over the merits of an MBA instead of a specialized master’s degree. In a discussion on the website for the Society for Human Resource Management, for example, the audience is clearly divided over whether to pursue an MBA. “An MBA concentrates on the bottom line. People are secondary,” one skeptic wrote in his post. “HR management also cares about the bottom line but takes a much more people-centric view. The individuals who make up an organization are our charges. We must balance the good of the organization with the good of the workforce.” But a health-care recruiter with an MBA degree from the University of Chicago wrote on the website that HR executives focus too much on policy and procedure and too little on business strategy. MBA programs teach the valuable “hard skills of accounting, finance and statistics,” she said, and enable HR managers “to effectively communicate with peers in other functions.”   

I expect the MBA to win that debate. New technologies for managing HR processes are providing much more valuable workforce data, but HR executives will need the knowledge to analyze the information and link it with other business metrics. Without a business degree, many could be hard pressed to do supply-and-demand modeling to forecast future workforce gaps, for example, or to calculate the ROI for their training and development programs. But armed with an MBA and sophisticated quantitative information, HR professionals may finally earn that coveted seat at the table.

Ron Alsop is the editor of Workforce Management, the leading magazine on workplace and talent management issues. He is a former Wall Street Journal  columnist and editor and the author of The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace and The Wall Street Journal Guide to the Top Business Schools. The Alsop Perspective runs quarterly in Graduate Management News.

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