It’s the journey, rather than the destination

Taking an MBA when you’re over 40 is not about dramatic career change, writes Helena Pozniak

Sunday 23 October 2011 02:58

“I won a distinction and the prize for best academic performance at the end of my MBA. I remember younger peers practically falling off their seats at this old codger doing so well.” At 41, Karen Wilkinson-Bell, regional director of Business in the Community North East, was one of the oldest on her business masters at Durham. “I’m a great believer in having enough life experience,” she says.

Received wisdom says MBAs are best undertaken after cutting your teeth for several years in real business. The average age for full-time students is the late twenties to early thirties. Although the likes of Harvard take on high flyers with just a couple of years in the job market, most schools recommend at least five years’ managerial experience.

Some, however, such as Henley Business School, deliberately target mature managers and the average age of its cohort is in the late thirties. Durham Business School has seen the number of 40- year-olds double on its executive MBA programme since 2008.

But how old is too old? Business schools are wary of writing anybody off as too long in the tooth, and recommend an MBA not only for its prestige but as a means of self-development; older graduates report feeling more confident, networked and up-to-date. But managers in their late forties can embark upon the qualification with unrealistic expectations. “I’ve seen bitterness,” says Thomas de Freitas, managing director at Communicate Recruitment Solutions. “Candidates have invested all this money on qualifications. But the harsh reality is there is a lot of competition and an MBA won’t dramatically change your career at that later stage.”

And as Adrian Kinnersley, managing director of executive recruitment firm Twenty, says: “Arguably a seasoned professional should already have that knowledge. Employers regard [an MBA] as icing on the cake – not the cake itself.”

Older managers might take the plunge for slightly different reasons than the young guns. “Some are looking for a step-up, but in general the older students aren’t interested in boosting their salaries,” says Chris Saunders, director of the full-time MBA at Lancaster University Management School. “Some want to validate their years of experience with a qualification; others are looking to move to a more ‘worthwhile’ sector. Many [older candidates] aren’t that fussed about a big salary.”

Older applicants fall into many categories, including many former public sector managers, but also some retired military personnel, senior managers with specialist technical experience or older managers with a prestigious career who may never have studied for a first degree. “We would never write anyone off,” says Dr Susan Rose, head of MBA programmes at Henley. “But we do have a very close conversation about what they believe the payback will be. It’s harder to make dramatic changes in your fifties than in your twenties.”

Beware of making a knee-jerk response to redundancy, say recruiters. Spending upwards of £25,000 with an unrealistic expectation of payback will hurt.

“If I get a CV with an MBA, it’s always a big tick in the box. But if it’s to fill time after redundancy, then warning bells start to ring,” says de Freitas.

And don’t underestimate the challenge of returning to academic work after many years out, say business schools. Older managers’ study skills may be rusty, although some schools offer tutorial support. And as managers in their late forties are potentially looking at another 20 years of working life, the shared experience of an MBA can be fulfilling, says Saunders. “More senior managers tend to bring enormous amounts of experience to a group and in turn they learn a lot about new phases of business from younger members; the impact of social media for instance.”

All students’ confidence tends to dip as they move out of their comfort zone, says Saunders. “But you do see a great leap at the end, a feeling of ‘I could do so much more’.”

‘I’d like to do something more worthwhile’

Ian Harrison, 61, recruitment director at 2Plan Wealth Management started an executive MBA at Brunel Business School in 2008.

“I’ve been in banking and finance for 20 years, and I’d like to do something more worthwhile; I’ll be looking at different industries now. I’ve always been a high-earner, but it gets to the point when it goes beyond money. Five years ago I applied for a job heading a charity, but didn’t get it as I didn’t have a suitable qualification.

I was the oldest on the course but the students were very anti-ageist. We were all from such different backgrounds anyway. Brunel was very accommodating and friendly – at places such as London Business School you have to be the brightest of the bright, and that’s not for me.

Personally, getting feedback on how I perform was very valuable. I went into it feeling apprehensive and was keen to show off how much experience I had leading groups. Later I began to sit back and give others the opportunity. It did my confidence a lot of good. It validated a lot that I know, but did give me good all-round experience. I’d advise it at any stage. People like me will be working till we drop and loving every moment of it.”

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments