Managers Not MBAs
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Managers Not MBAs

A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development

Henry Mintzberg

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📖 eBook - ePub

Managers Not MBAs

A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development

Henry Mintzberg

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About This Book

In this sweeping critique of how managers are educated and how, as a consequence, management is practiced, Henry Mintzberg offers thoughtful and controversial ideas for reforming both. "The MBA trains the wrong people in the wrong ways with the wrong consequences, " Mintzberg writes. "Using the classroom to help develop people already practicing management is a fine idea, but pretending to create managers out of people who have never managed is a sham." Leaders cannot be created in a classroom. They arise in context. But people who already practice management can significantly improve their effectiveness given the opportunity to learn thoughtfully from their own experience. Mintzberg calls for a more engaging approach to managing and a more reflective approach to management education. He also outlines how business schools can become true schools of management.

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Not MBAs

IT IS TIME to recognize conventional MBA programs for what they are—or else to close them down. They are specialized training in the functions of business, not general educating in the practice of managing. Using the classroom to help develop people already practicing management is a fine idea, but pretending to create managers out of people who have never managed is a sham. It is time that our business schools gave proper attention to management.
This may seem like a strange contention at a time when MBA programs are at the height of their popularity, when MBA graduates are at the pinnacle of their success, and when American business, which has relied so heavily on this credential, seems to have attained its greatest stage of development. I shall argue that much of this success is delusory, that our approach to educating leaders is undermining our leadership, with dire economic and social consequences.
Every decade in the United States alone, almost one million people with a credential called the MBA descend on the economy, most with little firsthand knowledge of customers and workers, products and processes. There they expect to manage people who have that knowledge, which they gained in the only way possible—through intensive personal experience. But lacking that credential, such people are increasingly relegated to a “slow track” where they are subjected to the “leadership” of people who lack the legitimacy to lead.
Considered as education for management, conventional MBA programs train the wrong people in the wrong ways with the wrong consequences. This is the argument I shall pursue in Part I of this book. It contains seven chapters. The first is about the wrong people, the second about the wrong ways, the next four about the wrong consequences. Chapter 7 considers recent changes in MBA programs, concluding that most of these are cosmetic. A “dominant design” established itself in the 1960s and continues to hold most of this education firmly in its grip. The notable exceptions are found mostly in England, whose innovations provide a bridge to Part II of this book.
Some clarifications to begin. First, by “conventional” MBA, I mean full-time programs that take relatively young people, generally in their twenties, and train them mostly in the business functions, out of context—in other words, independent of any specific experience in management. This describes most MBA programs today, in the United States and around the world. With a few exceptions, the remaining ones (usually called EMBAs) take more experienced people on a part-time basis and then do much the same thing. In other words, they train the right people in the wrong ways with the wrong consequences. That is because they mostly fail to use the experience these people have.
Second, I use the words management and leadership interchangeably. It has become fashionable (after Zaleznik 1977) to distinguish them. Leadership is supposed to be something bigger, more important. I reject this distinction, simply because managers have to lead and leaders have to manage. Management without leadership is sterile; leadership without management is disconnected and encourages hubris. We should not be ceding management to leadership, in MBA programs or anywhere else.
Third, I refer to the schools in question in three ways: usually as “business schools,” in reference to what most of them are; sometimes as “management schools,” in reference to what they could be; and, especially in the last chapter, as M/B schools, in reference to what I conclude is the appropriate role for most of them—balanced attention to both management and business.
The MBA was first introduced in 1908; it last underwent serious revision based on two reports published in the late 1950s. Business schools pride themselves in teaching about new product development and strategic change, yet their flagship, the MBA, is a 1908 degree with a 1950s strategy. Part I of this book develops this conclusion; Part II proposes some real change.
Part I is highly critical of MBA education. I do this at some length because I believe the case against the MBA as education for management has to be made thoroughly, to counter some deeply entrenched beliefs and their consequences. One of the most interesting articles ever written about the MBA appeared in Fortune magazine in 1968. In it, Sheldon Zalaznick claimed, “The idea that the graduate school of business is the principal source of top executive talent has been allowed to flourish, unexamined . . .” (169). It has been allowed to flourish unexamined ever since. . . .1 Not here.

1In 1996 (221), Aaronson reported on a search for articles about graduate business education. Of the 693 she found, only 12 criticized that education.



It’s never too late to learn, but sometimes too early.

There are no natural surgeons, no natural accountants. These are specialized jobs that require formal training, initially in a classroom. The students must, of course, be able to handle a scalpel or a keyboard, but first they have to be specially educated. Then they can be foisted on a suspecting public, at least for internship or articling, before being allowed to practice on their own.
Leadership is different. There are natural leaders. Indeed, no society can afford anything but natural leaders. Leadership and management are life itself, not some body of technique abstracted from the doing and the being. Education cannot pour life experience into a vessel of native intelligence, not even into a vessel of leadership potential. But it can help shape a vessel already brimming with the experiences of leadership and life.
Put differently, trying to teach management to someone who has never managed is like trying to teach psychology to someone who has never met another human being. Organizations are complex phenomena. Managing them is a difficult, nuanced business, requiring all sorts of tacit understanding that can only be gained in context. Trying to teach it to people who have never practiced is worse than a waste of time—it demeans management.



Were management a science or a profession, we could teach it to people without experience. It is neither.

MANAGEMENT IS NOT A SCIENCE Science is about the development of systematic knowledge through research. That is hardly the purpose of management. Management is not even an applied science, for that is still a science. Management certainly applies science: managers have to use all the knowledge they can get, from the sciences and elsewhere. But management is more art, based on “insight,” “vision,” “intuition.” (Peter Drucker wrote in 1954 that “the days of the ‘intuitive’ manager are numbered” [93]. Half a century later we are still counting.) And most management is craft, meaning that it relies on experience—learning on the job. This means it is as much about doing in order to think as thinking in order to do.
Put together a good deal of craft with a certain amount of art and some science, and you end up with a job that is above all a practice. There is no “one best way” to manage; it all depends on the situation.
Effective managing therefore happens where art, craft, and science meet. But in a classroom of students without managerial experience, these have no place to meet—there is nothing to do. Linda Hill (1992) writes in her book about people becoming managers that they “had to act as managers before they understood what the role was” (67). In other words, where there is no experience, there is no room for craft: Inexperienced students simply cannot understand the practice. As for art, nothing stops that from being discussed, even admired, in the conventional MBA classroom. But the inexperience of the students stops it from being appreciated. They can only look on as nonartists do—observing it without understanding how it came to be.
That leaves science, which is what conventional MBA education is mostly about, at least in the form of analysis. So, as will be discussed in Chapter 2, conventional MBA students graduate with the impression that management is analysis, specifically the making of systematic decisions and the formulation of deliberate strategies. This, I argue in Chapter 3, is a narrow and ultimately distorted view of management that has encouraged two dysfunctional styles in practice: calculating (overly analytical) and heroic (pretend art). These are later contrasted with a more experienced-based style labeled engaging—quiet and connected, involving and inspiring.

MANAGEMENT IS NOT A PROFESSION It has been pointed out that engineering, too, is not a science or an applied science so much as a practice in its own right (Lewin 1979). But engineering does apply a good deal of science, codified and certified as to its effectiveness. And so it can be called a profession, which means it can be taught in advance of practice, out of context. In a sense, a bridge is a bridge, or at least steel is steel, even if its use has to be adapted to the circumstances at hand. The same can be said about medicine: Many illnesses are codified as standard syndromes to be treated by specific techniques. But that cannot be said of management (Whitley 1995:92). Little of its practice has been reliably codified, let alone certified as to its effectiveness. So management cannot be called a profession or taught as such.
Because engineering and medicine have so much codified knowledge that must be learned formally, the trained expert can almost always outperform the layperson. Not so in management. Few of us would trust the intuitive engineer or physician, with no formal training. Yet we trust all kinds of managers who have never spent a day in a management classroom (and we have suspicions about some others who spent two years there, as will be discussed in Chapter 3).
Ever since the 1910s when Frederick Taylor (1911) wrote about that “one best way” and Henri Fayol (1916/1984) claimed that “managerial ability can and should be acquired in the same way as technical ability at school, later in the workshop” (14), we have been on this search for the holy grail of management as a science and a profession. In Britain, a group called the Management Charter Initiative sought to barrel ahead with the certification of managers, not making the case for management as a profession so much as assuming it. As its director told a newspaper, the MBA “is the only truly global qualification, the only license to trade internationally” (Watts 1997:43).
The statement is nonsense, and the group has failed in those efforts. It is time to face a fact: After almost a century of trying, by any reasonable assessment management has become neither a science nor a profession. It remains deeply embedded in the practices of everyday living. We should be celebrating that fact, not depreciating it. And we should be developing managers who are deeply embedded in the life of leading, not professionals removed from it.
Those fields of work discussed earlier can be divided into ones in which the person doing it truly “knows better” than the recipients and others in which acting as the expert who knows better can get in the way. Upon being wheeled into an operating room, few of us would be inclined to second-guess the surgeon. (“Could you cut a little lower, please?”) No matter how miserable the bedside manner, we accept that he or she knows better. But a schoolteacher who acts on the basis of knowing better can impede the learning of the student. School teaching is a facilitating activity, more about encouraging learning than doing teaching.
Managing is largely a facilitating activity, too. Sure, managers have to know a lot, and they often have to make decisions based on that knowledge. But, especially in large organizations and those concerned with “knowledge work,” managers have to lead better, so that others can know better and therefore act better. They have to bring out the best in other people. The idea that the chief does it all, coming up with the grand strategy and then driving its implementation by everyone else, is frequently a myth left over from the mass production of si...

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APA 6 Citation
Mintzberg, H. (2005). Managers Not MBAs (1st ed.). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Retrieved from (Original work published 2005)
Chicago Citation
Mintzberg, Henry. (2005) 2005. Managers Not MBAs. 1st ed. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Harvard Citation
Mintzberg, H. (2005) Managers Not MBAs. 1st edn. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Mintzberg, Henry. Managers Not MBAs. 1st ed. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2005. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.