Why practical experience pays rich dividends

All the finalists in this year's prestigious MBA Student of the Year awards were over 35. Kathy Harvey looks at why the average age of students is increasing
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The Independent Online

How old is too old to study for an MBA (Master of Business Administration)? The qualification has traditionally attracted ambitious managers in their late twenties or early thirties, with students in the United States starting their postgraduate management education even younger. But the final shortlist for this year's prestigious MBA Student of the Year awards, run jointly by The Independent and the Association of MBAs, is proof that the qualification has a wider appeal.

How old is too old to study for an MBA (Master of Business Administration)? The qualification has traditionally attracted ambitious managers in their late twenties or early thirties, with students in the United States starting their postgraduate management education even younger. But the final shortlist for this year's prestigious MBA Student of the Year awards, run jointly by The Independent and the Association of MBAs, is proof that the qualification has a wider appeal.

All four of the finalists, nominated from students at 91 business schools worldwide accredited by the Association of MBAs, are over 35. The winner, 46-year-old Kevin Baughan (see below), is a a telecoms strategist with an entrepreneurial bent and a healthy refusal to admit that age is a barrier to learning.

"We want to recognise outstanding leadership qualities through this award," says the Chief Executive of the Association of MBAs, Jeanette Purcell. "The MBA is a great way of developing talent and encouraging people to enhance their careers - and that's what our winner illustrated," she says.

Business schools who successfully raise the profile of the MBA were also rewarded through the annual awards ceremony. This year Rotterdam School of Management received a special marketing award for its efforts promoting the MBA to potential women applicants. Rotterdam's global executive MBA programme has successfully attracted a range of high-calibre women - who now make up just under half the current intake of students on the course.

Kevin Baughan, who received his Student of the Year award at a gala dinner at Whitehall's historic banqueting hall, managed to combine freelance consultancy with nurturing a start-up business and completing his two-year MBA at the Tanaka Business School of Imperial College, London. According to Jeanette Purcell: "Kevin Baughan combines all the qualities we want to encourage in modern MBAs, achieving high academic grades while putting theory into practice through his entrepreneurial work."

This is the seventh year of the competition - designed to highlight the value of the MBA to business and to individuals looking for ways of developing their careers. Academic achievement is not the only criteria. Finalists have to be ambassadors for the MBA, and show that their decision to study business practice at this level has had a big impact on their lives. They also have to prove their commitment to team spirit, either by mentoring other students or supporting extracurricular activities while studying.

Kevin Baughan more than fulfilled all these criteria during his two years on the executive MBA course at the Tanaka Business School of Imperial College, London. "The positive support he has given to other international students has been exemplary," says Ebrahim Mohamed, the deputy director of the executive MBA course. "Kevin has a strong group ethos and cares for the welfare of other candidates."

The three runners-up in this year's competition also prove that - when it comes to managing your career - experience pays dividends. Paul Mylrea, 40, a former Reuters correspondent, slogged his way through a distance learning MBA with the Open University while setting up an award-winning charity website and forging a new career as Oxfam's head of media relations. He's now in charge of media relations for Transport for London. "Paul formed a study group in his first course which helped support fellow students," says Christine Sergeant of the Open University. "He helped with personal and academic problems. Since then he has become a real ambassador for management education, giving seminars on how charities and businesses can match."

Another runner-up, Phillipa Grace, had experience running a family business and helping to administer a hedge fund in New York before she embarked on a full-time MBA course at the Said Business School at Oxford University. She is now a director with a Hedge fund in the city of London and is convinced that her year out of the workplace was time well spent. "My MBA year at Oxford was a fabulous experience. It's the most valuable thing I could have done. I met some fascinating people and made the most of the course."

This enthusiasm for learning is common to all the finalists in the competition. Quite apart from any career enhancement, they appear driven by a desire to refresh their own knowledge and investigate new approaches to management.

Nigel Wrightson, head of investment policy for the Metropolitan Housing Trust, studied part-time for a specialist MBA at Birmingham University's School of Public Policy. "I suppose it boiled down to wanting some stimulation," he says. "I was a bit bored and needed fresh impetus to go further in my career." No one could accuse Wrightson of leading a dull life. After studying law, he became an actor, only ending up in the more sedate world of housing associations after a period "resting" from treading the boards. "The decision to do an MBA was an emotional one," he says. "But once I had committed myself to studying, the course exceeded my expectations. It has exposed me to ideas and theories I had never considered before."

Three of this year's MBA finalists took the part-time route to their qualification - something which is increasingly popular. But Jeanette Purcell, of the Association of MBAs, is keen to stress that the route is not important, it is the final result that counts. "The MBA is a great way of developing talent," she says. And what about the issue of age verses youth? "There was no intention to pick more mature students, but this year's winner demonstrates how the MBA can build on previous experience." As someone who completed her own MBA in her early forties, Purcell is convinced that the qualification is a great help to experienced managers looking to make the all-important step up in their careers. "The average age of MBA students is going up," she says. "That's how it should be."

'The MBA is all about seizing opportunities'

The telecoms industry was taking a nosedive when Kevin Baughan embarked on an MBA course at the Tanaka Business School of Imperial College, London. He took voluntary redundancy from his job at Nortel Networks and drew up a wish list of future challenges.

"I wanted to get my teeth into a start-up company, to do some freelance consultancy work and to study for an MBA," Baughan says.

None of the items on the list fell by the wayside. The technology start-up he formed with research colleagues from Birmingham University is now discussing a deal with United States air force and his consultancy work has continued throughout the past two years of MBA study.

"The MBA is all about seizing opportunities and having confidence in your ability to learn," Baughan says. Despite years of experience, he claims he had plenty to gain from studying with students more than 10 years younger than him.

"My son wanted to know why anyone would volunteer to go back to school, but the course has been an eye-opener in many ways."

Rubbing shoulders with younger members of MBA project teams meant Baughan was reluctant to reveal his other experience as an honorary visiting professor at Birmingham University. This part-time role, which he began before his MBA, sparked an interest in academic study and helped him foster his own entrepreneurial talent.

"The start up company I am involved with stemmed from research at Birmingham, and I also used my time at the Tanaka Business School to get involved with a new business idea alongside MBA colleagues. I think this part of the MBA experience is invaluable and Imperial College excel in this field."

Although becoming an employee again was not part of the original wish list, Baughan has achieved the goal of many MBA graduates and signed up for a new full-time job.

"I didn't think the telecoms industry would bounce back again, but it has. I'm now back in the corporate world, as director of network strategy for NTL. Before my MBA I was in an engineering, technical role, so I have shifted emphasis."

Baughan's message to anyone who is over 35 considering the worth of an MBA is simple: "More of us are going to be facing the challenge of a career change. An MBA brings a lot of academic and theoretical perspectives together to complement experience. Increasingly, older people will study for an MBA in order to manage their careers in a better way."

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