An MBA is the perfect way to change direction

Helena Pozniak looks at how further study in the middle of a career can lead to new success in a different field

Thursday 13 October 2011 00:00 BST

After two decades of competitive skating, former Canadian champion Craig Buntin isn't an obvious candidate for business school. Virtually his whole career to date has been spent in the rink – and he's never been to university. Nonetheless, the former Olympian has hung up his skates and embarked upon an MBA at McGill University after launching his own coffee-retail business. Buntin had already created Teabean Coffee – inspired by his quest for caffeine during punishingly early training sessions – during his last year of skating. Unfazed by his lack of commercial experience, he believes an MBA will equip him well – and he's already scooped an annual prize for entrepreneurship.

"In all honesty, this MBA has changed my life," he says. "I can't say it's been a walk in the park. I probably could've developed the business plan and moved the company in the right direction without it, but pursuing my MBA has allowed me to see the bigger picture."

Not all MBA students seek a transformation as dramatic as Buntin's. But changing career is the second most important reason students cite for going to business school – after career progression. And business schools say many more decide at the end of the course that they want to do something different, even though they didn't know that when they started.

"An MBA is a brilliant course for testing whether you might like something – if you want to learn, here is your chance," says Cana Witt, MBA career development manager at Lancaster University Management School.

"The whole process can be transformative," agrees Ceridwyn Bessant at Newcastle Business School.

But is an MBA – rather than, say, a specialist Masters – the best means to reinvent yourself? Well, it depends, say business schools. Because MBAs don't look at candidates until they have several years of experience, students might appear less agile and more pigeon-holed within a particular sector. "A previous career can act as a millstone if you don't have anything else to offer," says Witt. "But the beauty of an MBA is that it transforms people from one-track backgrounds and gives them passion to talk and act in new ways."

Older candidates, often taking executive MBAs over two years or more and more likely than not sponsored by their company, are probably looking to accelerate rather than switch their career. "In many ways the MBA came about in the first place for career changers," says Dave Wilson, CEO of the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC). "It remains a very effective way to change direction. If you come from a strong technical background, say, it will balance your portfolio."

While many business graduates look at changing one area of their working life – sector, location, or function – it's rare, and tough, to try to reinvent yourself in all three. Career advisor say it's hardest to change your actual role – from marketing to finance, for example. But by choosing the right electives and projects during an MBA, you can pave the way, says Witt. "If you are aiming for distinction, you might want to play to your strengths," she says. But opting for new areas will redefine your expertise; if you can discuss a real project you've completed in a different sector or discipline, you gain credibility. "They can see you are now somebody different and can perform in a different role," she says.

Fiona Sandford, careers director at London Business School, believes that an MBA offers the best postgraduate platform for drastic change – she's just witnessed a classical pianist move into consulting after his MBA. "You don't need to come in knowing exactly where you are going, but you need to start really early. Drastic change will be tough. Get your story straight, start networking early, identify your strengths and weaknesses, and be adaptable. Imagine you've a sat nav in your head, programmed with your final destination, that can take you round road blocks."

An MBA gave former engineer David Falzani a leg-up into management; he now runs his own successful consultancy and has just overseen the launch of a new brand of crisps. After several years in electronics , he won a bursary from the Sainsbury Management Fellowship – which supports engineers entering management – and went on to study at The Wharton School/SDA Bocconi. His consultancy covers areas as broad as finance, technology and marketing. "I'd never have got where I am now without an MBA. You can reinvent yourself without a doubt. You learn to handle large amounts of information, deal with stress – it's all part of the rewiring you go through."

In today's economic climate no freshly minted MBA expects to land a great role in a new sector. But the qualification's broad perspective can make it less high-risk than a Masters. "If your dreams work out, brilliant; if not you have everything else you've learnt to fall back on," says Witt.

'Royal Mail is not that dissimilar to the Army'

Dave Gallagher trained as a civil engineer and served six years with the Corps of Royal Engineers before taking an MBA at Lancaster University. He now works in change management at Royal Mail.

"The more I looked at an MBA, the more it made sense. Contrary to belief, you don't spend all your time in the military shouting orders in a field with green paint on your face. About 80 per cent of my time was behind a desk. The culture at Royal Mail is not that dissimilar to a command hierarchy. I had real breadth of experience in the army – but no specialism.

"At Lancaster, I completed three projects that gave me real credibility as a generalist and you have an opportunity to test your skills in real business situations. You learn the terminology too – in the military you'd never talk profit and loss, fixed and variable costs. With all that under your belt, you feel comfortable asking the right questions with marketing or finance managers – that's hugely powerful."

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