For executives in finance and management consultancy, a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) has long been seen as a passport to career progression. Business schools double as recruiting grounds for many blue-chip firms keen to utilise the financial, marketing and planning expertise an MBA graduate can bring.

The onset of the global financial crisis, however, raised new questions about the value of corporate qualifications. Executives feared the cost of undertaking an MBA was not equal to its benefit in the labour market. To this end, MEED has polled three private and public sector companies to gauge the value of MBAs in today’s marketplace, and to ask how corporate graduates can stand out from the crowd.

Qatar Foundation

Name Hassan al-Hammadi

Position Executive director, human resources

Qatar Foundation is a non-profit entity with initiatives ranging from the Doha-based Education City to joint ventures in energy, telecoms and publishing. As the foundation’s business interests have grown, so too has its demand for trained managers.

The fund manages a portfolio of interests and seeks candidates capable of pairing their MBAs with demonstrable work experience.

“When we begin the hiring process, we look at the job requirements and then source candidates who match those requirements,” says Hassan al-Hammadi, executive director of human resources at the foundation.

“Most of the middle-management and higher positions are designed to give preference to MBA candidates, as an MBA helps you to acquire the broadest range of people and management skills. Essentially, it’s a post-experience qualification in general management and it usually requires three or more years of work experience, although it is common for MBA students to have four to eight years of work experience.”

The niche skills required by each of the foundation’s divisions vary, but the body places a high value on applicants able to display a range of soft management skills. Proof of an MBA alone is not enough to gain an edge in the recruitment process, says Al-Hammadi.

“An MBA graduate has the required intricacies of planning, goal-setting and interpersonal skills, and is a team player,” he says. “The candidate is expected to understand and appreciate the importance of building relationships with employees to create a positive working environment, and of developing intuition, commitment and discipline. Knowledge of work culture, competence and the ability to delegate tasks is also desirable.

“All this comes with experience too, and an MBA will not necessarily certify that you have all these qualities,” he adds.

The Qatar Foundation favours competency-based interviewing and has invested in a number of assessment centres designed to judge the skill sets of MBA graduates.

Applicants are rigorously tested to ensure a good match between their abilities and the requirements of the job. “The level of competence needed in these areas varies depending on the institution and on the skills of the candidate,” says Al-Hammadi.

The foundation also places a premium on MBAs gained from business schools recognised by Qatar’s Supreme Council of Higher Education. These include elite facilities such as Harvard Business School and the London School of Business, along with Qatar University and HEC Paris, which offers an executive MBA in Doha in partnership with Qatar Foundation.

Qatari employees selected for management training are enrolled in courses at approved institutions, which shows the foundation recognises that MBAs can be a fast track to career advancement.

Students are expected to acquire a better understanding of the complexities of today’s business climate, says Al-Hammadi, and to apply this expertise in the workplace.

“They should be able to differentiate between choosing a conventional approach and a radical approach, and excel at planning and goal setting,” he says. “An MBA course will help to enrich their knowledge base and capitalise on their experience.”

Deloitte

Name Rana Salhab

Position Partner, talent and communications, Deloitte Middle East

Hiring policies at global business advisory firm Deloitte reflect its business: geographically diverse, with strengths in a range of sectors.

“We believe in diverse teams in terms of nationalities, academic backgrounds and experience, as such teams bring more value to our clients,” says Rana Salhab, partner, talent and communications at Deloitte Middle East.

“Most of the MBA graduates Deloitte hires will go into our strategy and operations consulting practice, whose needs are being fuelled by the significant growth of our consulting business.”

Business schools worldwide have long been a recruiting ground for Deloitte. As such, the consultancy does not favour specific institutes or prize international MBAs over regional degrees. Instead, it seeks to judge how candidates will translate management theory into the workplace by testing applicants on 12 core competencies. These include management and leadership skills, exceptional client services, problem-solving ability, communication skills, strategic thinking, market knowledge and management of quality and risk.

Candidates should also demonstrate the ability to manage other employees and to help them develop, build relationships with clients and manage change and ambiguity. Past work experience can be particularly helpful here, says Salhab.

“We aim to recruit from leading universities with top MBA programmes, but also note each candidate’s unique profile, experiences, personality, leadership potential, attitude and any achievements they may have made during both their studies and their careers,” she says.

“When considering MBA candidates, we don’t only look at their academic credentials. The type of work they have done and where they’ve done it also gives us an indication of their skills and competencies, and predictions on their fit for the roles they will assume in our firm.”

Deloitte does not close the door to MBA graduates without work experience, but will offer them different roles within the company. According to its website, MBA graduates typically join the firm as senior consultants, subject to experience.

“For MBA holders with limited or no experience, we look for characteristics that demonstrate potential to develop in the future,” says Salhab. “For MBA candidates with managerial experience, we look at the ability to generate business, manage a book of business and execute projects.”

New hires aside, Deloitte is also a firm supporter of career development for its own staff. The company invests in MBA training and other formal and informal education programmes for employees. Support for MBA students can range from part-payment of tuition fees, to an allowance of paid study days. The programme varies by market and country.

“An MBA or executive MBA from a leading university adds value to anyone’s career at the right time,” says Salhab. “It is best coupled with solid experience, as the exposure one gets in learning about best practices and working on case studies is more relevant at that stage in graduates’ careers.

“The wide scope of modules normally offered under an MBA programme is attractive to employers as graduates are exposed to financial planning, people management, marketing and many other areas that employees should hone their skills in when assuming leadership positions.”

Kanoo Group

Name Pieter Vorster

Position Senior manager of human resources and administration for the UAE and Oman

For the UAE’s Kanoo Group, a diversified family-owned conglomerate, MBAs must go hand-in-hand with real-world experience.

Without that expertise, graduates will struggle to translate their skills from the classroom to the boardroom, says Pieter Vorster, senior manager of human resources and administration for the UAE and Oman.

“If you haven’t worked before, an MBA will not help you,” he says. “You won’t know how to apply your MBA knowledge. If you get a person with 5 -10 years’ experience with an MBA, you know this person will use the knowledge from the programme in his job.”

Many graduates value the networking opportunities offered by business schools almost as highly as the management theories imparted. By opting for a part-time MBA course and fitting it around employment, candidates can get the most from their investment, says Vorster. 

“I prefer part-time MBAs because full-time MBAs usually follow graduation. If you study part-time, that gives more working experience and you can use the current work environment as a [point of] reference,” he says. “The other important thing about a part-time MBA is that you meet with other people in your classes who are in similar situations.”

Kanoo does not consider an MBA essential for recruiting or promoting staff to management positions, but it is preferred for those seeking senior roles in marketing and sales, and other core divisions of the business.

The company does not favour any particular business schools, but MBA candidates should ideally have at least five years of career experience to accompany their degree, says Vorster.

“We prefer employees going on to management level to have an MBA, but it is not always possible to get the right mix of experience and qualifications,” he says. “An MBA is a building block for a career, but it doesn’t mean you can’t reach the same level without that qualification.”

Kanoo supports both expatriate and UAE employees in pursuing MBAs through a variety of schemes. The company will finance post-graduate studies for Emiratis and for expatriate employees selected by the firm to complete an MBA. In this situation, the school and programme is typically selected by the firm.

Other employees wishing to undertake an MBA can secure an interest-free loan to pay for their tuition fees, which is repaid over a period of time. If the degree is completed successfully, Kanoo Group refunds 50 per cent of the course costs.

The capital is seen as an investment in the wider company, says Vorster. “[Graduates] should coach the staff and know how to work out sales strategies for a specific programme,’’ he says. “They must transfer their knowledge to others.”

Kanoo has several staff members currently studying for MBAs. One employee, who will potentially assume a more senior role as part of the company’s succession planning, is expected to gain exposure to business strategies and planning, and networking skills.

Another staff member who is studying for an MBA in Switzerland, with a specific focus on management development, is expected to gain  knowledge of global business strategies in preparation for an international, client-facing role within Kanoo.