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Andrew Main Wilson, AMBA, UK

Business leaders must take a bigger role in supporting the UN’s sustainable development goals, chief executive of the Association of MBAs Andrew Main Wilson tells The PIE News. Here he also shares his views on rankings, the vale of an international experience and the future of the organisation as it marks 50 years.

The PIE: What sets AMBA apart from other accreditation bodies?

"Too many rankings are based on post versus pre-salary, in a world where a lot of people want to do a job that is worthwhile"

AMW: Unlike other accreditation bodies, AMBA is much more than a global accreditation organisation. We are also a membership organisation for MBA students and graduates all the way through to CEOs and chairmen who have an MBA from an AMBA accredited school. We accredit 250 schools operating in 70 countries but we also have 30,000 student and MBA members from those schools living in over 150 countries and that is growing at about 1,000 a month. We are getting 90% of our growth from our schools, because they are promoting it.

The PIE: How important is it for an MBA student to have an overseas experience?

AMW: It depends entirely on what you are going to do with your career, but if I was 30 again I would be wanting the most global exposure I could find, because trade is an increasingly global phenomenon. No country, with a possible exception of the USA, is big enough in its own right to provide a rich enough domestic market. The reality is you are competing in a global job marketplace, so you need and should want to get international exposure for yourself and if you can get that through your job and through your MBA, so much the better.

“The cohorts are very international so you are getting a global perspective from your fellow students”

If you want to prove, if you’re European, that you can have some Asian understanding to offset your experience of Chinese and Asian counterparts who can speak English much better than most Europeans or Americans can speak Mandarin, you need to show some exposure. It is rapidly becoming a necessity if you want to run or be a senior executive in a large company.

The PIE: How are AMBA schools specifically providing that to students?

AMW: Firstly the cohorts are very international so you are getting a global perspective from your fellow students, secondly most schools are looking for faculty with international experience.

Thirdly, a lot of the case studies being taught are global case studies. Good schools are choosing different case studies from each continent to give exposure of those and fourthly, a lot of schools are doing at least one overseas trip during the MBA for a project and exposure to overseas markets.

The PIE: What would you say to claims that the MBA is dead?

AMW: I don’t agree at all, in fact in all my career, having managed many senior people, I see very few people who have got comprehensive all round business skills, are a good sales person, good marketing person and good finance person. If someone is good at two of the five skills that is impressive and if someone is good at three of the fundamental skills that is very impressive.

The PIE: What are the fundamental skills for a general manager?

AMW: Good financial numeracy, a good strategic brain, creative thinker, talented marketer, excellent sales person and personality, disciplined operator – those are the six core skills and then there is a seventh, but it is the hardest one to find in general managers, and that is up to date IT understanding. The thing about an MBA is if you choose the right MBA with the right electives, it will give you exposure to all seven of those key skills of any aspiring business leader and I know of no other program that teaches those.

Of course the MBA like any product or service has to evolve over time and many good schools are evolving their MBAs very well.

The PIE: In what way is the MBA evolving?

AMW: Broader range of electives, much cleverer use of blended learning, such that you can study more flexibly and more distantly. But the classroom experience is still strongly desired by most people, because the interaction and face to face learning is difficult to replicate.

“To differentiate yourself from the other 30,999 business schools you have got to add some stardust to your MBA”

The PIE: Is China and India where you’re seeing growth in membership numbers or accreditation numbers?

AMW: Our Indian and Chinese schools are growing like wild fire. We now have 32 schools in China, each of them generating 300 to 400 MBAs a year.

The PIE: Is that quite high? What would be the average for a European or American school?

AMW: That is pretty high. The average would wax and wane hugely but half that, at the most 150-200 or less.

The PIE: Why do you think it is that you are seeing more Chinese and Indian MBA programs?

AMW: Because they want to catch up and gain internationally credible education. The Chinese schools are raising their standards to reach international standards of MBA and master’s teaching and the students are hungry for success.

There is a little bit in Europe of a generation thinking ‘my parents did ok, I am going to do ok’ and they are now waking up to a bit of a culture shock. Graduates now are up against the best Americans, the best Chinese, Indians, French, Dutch – it is global competition. I would want a global qualification that shows I was as well educated in practical business as anyone. And that is what the Chinese and Indians want.

The PIE: In AMBA’s survey of business school leadership, the biggest challenge was said to be creating innovative delivery. But the word ‘innovative’ is thrown around quite a bit, what does it mean for you?

AMW: There are reasons they are looking for this differentiation. The first is the core of an MBA program has become so globally famous it is well understood by everyone – strategy, finance, operation, marketing, IT. That is its great strength because the MBA is probably the world’s best known and most admired education qualification. Most people offer the core, so to differentiate yourself from the other 30,999 business schools you have got to add some stardust to your MBA.

For example, Copenhagen Business School is doing an MBA in shipping, that attracts people from all over the world. Stellenbosch in South Africa do a wine related program, which picks up the famous Stellenbosch wine region. So, it is all about creating your own niche, particularly with your local market.

The PIE: Someone told me recently that MBA programs live and die by rankings, how much do you think that is true?

AMW: I don’t know, a lot of the rankings only rank the top 100, so many schools are not in rankings at all. And then the other problem with rankings is that they are all based on different criteria, so you could be very high in one ranking and very low in another and it has got absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the school and everything to do with the weighting of certain items.

I am sceptical of some rankings, I think too many of them are based on post versus pre-salary, in a world where a lot of people want to do a job that is worthwhile, not just go into merchant banking, investment banking and consultancy. People say we want to do something deeper than that now, so the salary measure in my view is way overhyped.

“Chinese schools are raising their standards to reach international standards of MBA and master’s teaching and the students are hungry for success”

The PIE: Nonetheless, rankings are still a massive part of running an MBA program so what do you think is the best way to approach them?

AMW: Don’t compromise your own values, don’t start trying to change things to fit because actually you will end up with unhappy students. Do what you believe is right for the school. Don’t ignore it but don’t become obsessed with them. Build your school and your values on what you and your customers want – create a great program and you will attract people. Get strong accreditation and promote it because that is very reassuring because that is experts within the industry.

The PIE: What about the employers who only look at graduates who come from the top three ranked business schools, for example?

AMW: That is not to do with rankings. People know who the top schools are. I wanted to go to Harvard ever since I was 16 years old, I don’t know if any rankings existed in those days, but I knew what Harvard Business School was, so the top schools’ reputations are much more powerful than rankings.

A lot of people like to recruit from the schools that they went to themselves, there is sort of an alumni pride, but just because Harvard went up one or down on the rankings isn’t going to affect someone’s view of that school from an employers’ perspective.

The PIE: Tell me about what you are doing at AMBA for corporate social responsibility?

AMW: I am currently chairman of United Nations PRME, which is Principles for Responsible Management in Education. I have just chaired in New York for our 10th anniversary conference, so I have become more and more aware of those United Nations sustainable development goals, and they really are the future of our lives.

More and more managers need to live by those goals and support those goals. If you look at the mess our planet is in at the moment, business leaders can and must take a bigger role in creating healthy prosperity for the sustainability of our planet, more so than politicians or armies. Where you see a fair running business environment and reasonable wealth distribution, you don’t see social conflict.

The PIE: How will the work you’re doing with PRME filter down to AMBA schools?

AMW: Many of our schools are PRME members so that is getting into schools now, and I think you will see a great evolution with more and more socially responsible managers coming out of business schools which helps to counter this old cliché of all business schools do is teach people who make money to earn more money. That has never been as true as people would have you believe.

The PIE: What about the responsibility of business schools to create greater access to programs for students?

AMW: I am finding many schools are very generous with their scholarships and very forward thinking. We have just for our 50th anniversary offered $50,000 of scholarships. There are some amazing entrants but a lot of our schools do offer very enticing scholarships and bursaries to people from less privileged backgrounds.

“I think you will see a great evolution with more and more socially responsible managers coming out of business schools”

The PIE: AMBA is celebrating its 50th anniversary. What is next?

AMW: We want to grow the membership to somewhere between 50-100, 000 and we think that is a really powerful force for good because that would be the largest group of current and future truly global leaders anywhere in the world.

We will grow the schools network to just over 300 – we only accredit 250 out of 40,000 at the moment, but others can become members of our AMBA Development Network that we just launched for schools who are not ready for accreditation yet but one day some of them will be. You can also join if you are not going to be ready because part of the social mission is we want to help champion better quality business schools in other areas.

Recently we have had a Mauritian school, a Tanzanian school, a Bangladeshi school, the best in those countries come forward as part of the global network and they get some of the best practice teaching and student ideas.

The PIE:  Are you capping the network at 300 schools?

AMW: No, but we think there is probably just over 300 schools currently who would meet our criteria standards, which is fine. Others will come in time.


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