Posted: October 17, 2013

An MBA can help…

...but it's not for everyone

Maria Martin

A career tending to the needs of animals gave Joanne Brownhill an edge when she started a new career in the human health care field.

When she developed allergies to pets after 14 years as a veterinarian and changed careers, she realized how much she still had to learn. The director of knowledge development at Truven Health Analytics decided that earning an executive MBA degree from the University of Denver could fill in the gaps.

“I knew a lot about the medical side, but I was lacking in knowledge about the business of business,” Brownhill says. Her company, which delivers information and analytic tools to the health care industry, provided some financial support, as well as flexibility in her schedule.

When she went into the program, she hoped to learn more about budgeting and finance.

“I learned about that quantitative side, but what really surprised me was how much I learned about leadership,” says Brownhill, who helps develop managers. “I consider myself a lifelong learner,” she says. “There’s a number of ways to learn – from experience, from mentors, and just from doing – but for me, a structured program was perfect.”

Brownhill says she would look favorably at someone with an executive MBA when hiring.“That would be someone who went into the program already with a fair amount of business experience,” she says. “They’ll come out of it with even stronger leadership skills.”

 … But it’s not for everybody

The first thing OtterBox CEO Brian Thomas says on the subject of education is that he’s all for it. The former high school teacher believes the classroom setting works well as a training ground for managers who may be considering earning an executive MBA.

“But that wasn’t for me,” says Thomas, who has led the company as it’s grown from a small startup that created waterproof boxes to the leading distributor of protective cases for smartphones along with other technological devices. “I learned by doing, and I’m a big reader. I don’t take every word as gospel, but I pull out the gems.”

As the company expanded rapidly, Thomas learned to rely on his business partners.

“I had to learn things I never learned in college, or perhaps I learned and forgot,” Thomas said, with a laugh. “Every step of the way I was humble enough to admit what I didn’t know, and I asked experts. And it helps to hire people who are smarter than you are.”

While he wouldn’t hesitate to hire a qualified candidate with an MBA, the degree itself doesn’t sway him. “I look for people with ambition,” he says.

“I’ve met people who have no education beyond high school who are brilliant. It’s about a person and their character. If they have street smarts, ask a lot of questions along the way and have perseverance, that’s what makes the difference at the end of the day.”

Maria Martin is a freelance writer.

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