Is an MBA the only way to advance?

Summary:In some circles, those three letters are a requirement for a C-level position, and while I will never say that going back to school is a bad idea, there are ways to learn your "business" without ever leaving your company's front door.

I just finished reading an article in Infoworld that says more and more technology professionals are headed back to school to obtain their MBAs in order to advance/enhance their careers by better understanding business.

In some circles, those three letters are a requirement for a C-level position, and while I will never say that going back to school is a bad idea (I received my MBA when Bon Jovi's "Livin' On a Prayer" was topping the charts), there are ways to learn your "business" without ever leaving your company's front door.

In fact, some of these methods might be more effective than getting your degree - depending on whether you wish to stay with your organization for the long haul.

The first method is by volunteering to document, in detail, a department's business processes. Hey, you were going to do extra work by going to school anyway, right? So putting in some extra time in the office for a project like this can be considered your homework. I have never had a department turn down the offer for someone to do business process documentation for them, but if you encounter resistance, explain that it is to better understand their business so that you can help them make better IT decisions.

You need to do this in chunks and set the expectation that it is going to take awhile (I assume you are undertaking this task alone, as professional development), and you should start with the top-level management of the department you choose. Personally, I would choose the department that is at the core of your organization's reason for existence and work out from there.

Get a broad overview from senior management of what they do and why, and of course, get their permission to interview the rest of their staff in-depth, ending up at the lowest level in that department. Build your picture of what employees do, and why, from the bottom up, until you have worked your way back up to senior management.

If done right, not only will you provide a valuable service to them, you will begin to meet more people in the organization (thus increasing your visibility), learn their language, and begin to understand how and why things get done the way they do in your organization. You will also learn the politics of your organization, which in some ways is your most important lesson of all. For all of what they can teach you at Carnegie Mellon or Walden University, politics is mostly learned through experience.

Do this well (while still performing your regular job duties) and you might be surprised at the knowledge you attain and where that might take you. After all, opportunity is often three-quarters of the effort of obtaining new responsibilities and positions.

The article also mentioned five skills important for the global economy that are important:

  1. Distance Management
  2. Independent Thinking
  3. Creativity
  4. Cultural Sensitivity
  5. Foreign Language Skills

All of these skills can be garnered through a variety of methods, besides obtaining your MBA. In fact, obtaining your MBA probably won't provide more than two or three of them. I do think all are important, but also would like to put my own spin on the last one.

I think it is extremely important for anyone seeking to enhance their career to work on their own English language and communications skills. In fact, besides independent thinking in the list above, I think it is the single most important skill to develop if you seek an effective career in management. I have written about this before in Soft Skills in a Hard World..

Lastly, I mentioned multiple methods of career improvement without leaving the comfort of your office (well maybe just for a short time). These include professional certifications such as project management, ITIL, ISO, COBIT, or Certified Public Manager Programs; attending professional development academies, joining professional organizations--just to name a few.

Our biggest challenge to professional growth and career advancement/enhancement is usually ourselves and our limited time. Learning new skills is work and takes commitment. Making that commitment to do the work, whether you choose formal or informal education, is key. Nothing and no one can stop you from bettering yourself and advancing your career except you. This is truly a case of "if there is a will, there is a way." Anything else is just excuses and/or whining. Tough choices and sacrifices usually accompany the decision, but the extra work does pay off in the long run -- that I am sure of.

Topics: IT Employment

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