Do Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff Need an MBA Degree?

As I talk to Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff from around the world, one common question emerges: “Do I need an MBA?” I often answer that question with a few questions of my own, “Why do you want one? Do you think you need one? Why?”

I’ll preface the rest of this post by mentioning that I do not have an MBA. I received an undergraduate degree in English with a Writing Concentration and a minor in Business.

Now, I don’t think there is any hard and fast answer to the question of whether or not EAs and Chiefs of Staff need an MBA (need being the operative word here). For the most part, it will largely depend on how you answer the questions above. Is your desire for an MBA based on a specific company or position goal (I do know some companies and some EA and Chief positions that require an MBA)? Is it a personal goal you’ve had for years (great!)? Do you want the knowledge (also great!)? Or, do you see getting your MBA degree as a necessity for your career and compensation growth? Are there other paths that would get you the same result? Intention is everything.

Identify WHY You Want (or Need) an MBA in the First Place

If you would like to earn your MBA to achieve a personal goal or because, right or wrong, it is a requirement for your dream position at your dream company – then go for it! Who am I, or who is anyone, to stand in the way of a lifelong goal?!

The trickier answer to the question is when someone is evaluating whether or not a Master of Business Administration program is the way to go to gain additional business knowledge and grow their career (and very often their compensation). For Executive Assistants or Chiefs of Staff who are looking to build their business acumen and develop their leadership skills, particularly for those who have been in the workforce for 5+ years, an MBA isn’t the only option (and in my opinion, may not be necessary). When EAs or Chiefs of Staff ask me about obtaining an MBA, very often what they are looking for is more business and leadership training and education.

And that can all be learned, whether through on-the-job exposure to the industry, a certification, taking online courses, or reading books. My recommendation is all of the aforementioned! Personally, I am a big believer in experience trumping formal education. I would rather hire a candidate that has shown me their track record of success in previous leadership or operational roles, than one who shows me a piece of paper. That being said, it doesn’t hurt to explore your options!

What is an MBA and who is it for?

A Master of Business Administration (MBA) is an extensive (usually two year) professional training program to groom future business leaders, focusing on analytical ability, problem-solving within a company’s ecosystem, and leadership capabilities.

Benefits of an MBA

As mentioned above, if you have your sights set on a specific position or company, an MBA may be beneficial. There is, of course, also the prospect of higher earning potential, especially if you attend a program ranked in the top 50. This may be more true for large corporations. As the product of a small entrepreneurial business, I do not find that to be true – there are so many opportunities for salary growth and career advancement with or without an MBA!

Access to prestigious or exclusive networks via the college or university you attend may be attractive for some depending on their industry or career goals. Or for example, for an individual going through a big career shift, starting a business, or moving into a completely different career, an MBA may be a way to fast-track the knowledge needed to succeed. To me, of course, the biggest benefit to completing an MBA program would be the knowledge gained to help me be a more effective employee and leader. But I can’t help but wonder, are there other ways to accomplish that without the large investment (assuming your company doesn’t pay for it)? Keep in mind, the average cost of a two-year MBA program can exceed $40,000.

What do you learn in an MBA program?

  1. Finance – investments, capital budgeting in making decisions, cash flow models, functions of modern capital markets, financing through debt or equity, mergers, acquisitions, hostile takeovers, leveraged buyouts, IPOs, etc.
  2. Marketing – product strategy, pricing, promotion, placement, consumer behavior, marketing communication strategies, brand management, digital marketing, digital analytics, social media marketing, etc.
  3. Accounting – understanding and utilizing financial statements, analyzing key transactions, managerial accounting, budgeting, calculating variances, evaluating performance of individual business segments or divisions, etc.
  4. Leadership, Teamwork, Management, and Organizational Behavior – strategic leadership, organizational strategy, negotiation, how to motivate and direct people, managing groups and teams, human resource management, developing a vision and aligning an organization behind that vision, etc.
  5. Economic Statistics and Operations – probability concepts, statistical decision theory, optimizing decision making under uncertainty, linear programming, critical paths, etc.
  6. Business Accountability and Ethics – professional responsibility, business ethics, responsibilities of corporations, their leaders, and their board of directors in regards to economic, legal, and ethical dimensions, frameworks for decision-making and effective corporate governance, etc.

3 Alternatives to a Traditional MBA Program

Reading everything above is a bit overwhelming and also exciting. Those are exactly the six core areas I spend the majority of my time in as Chief of Staff. There is no denying that those areas of business are important to learn, I would just argue that an MBA isn’t the only way to accomplish that goal. Here are 3 alternatives to a traditional MBA Program:

1. Experience – As I mentioned before, nothing really beats getting your hands dirty and learning (and failing by doing). For me, this came via working alongside a multi-passionate entrepreneur for many many years as his Executive Assistant, business partner, and now Chief of Staff. It has been a priceless education! As Force Multipliers, we are uniquely positioned to learn the ins and outs of the business – we are closer to it than anyone! Study your Executive, how they think and make decisions. Shadow various departments and learn how each business function works. Observe. Ask questions. Dig deeper. Offer to lead projects. You will be surprised just how quickly you gain “MBA” level skills and knowledge. If you want to take it a step further, start your own business. There is nothing like navigating Secretary of State websites, banking setup, financing options, marketing plans, etc. to build your business acumen!

2. Create Your Own Curriculum – You can use the 6 core areas of study above as a framework and start building your own curriculum around those subjects. Between podcasts, books, online courses, workshops, business conferences, and more, you can systematically dive into each of those topics to learn what you need to learn. The key will be to apply what you learn in real-time and practice it at your company, thereby turning that knowledge into habit and skill. In addition to gaining a tremendous amount of experience, I have spent the past 10 years studying and reading about business and leadership through live events, online classes, podcasts, articles, books, etc. When you need to know something, you don’t need to wait for the next semester, just open up your favorite web browser and dive in!

3. The Personal MBA or Mini-MBA CoursesThe Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business by Josh Kaufman is one resource that stands out. It really felt like a crash course in all things business. I actually only started reading that book this year and was pleasantly surprised by the fact that I knew about 90% of the information (no MBA required!). For me, that book was enough like a mini-MBA course. However, there are other mini-MBA options worth exploring, like Morning Brew’s new MB/A accelerator program. Many of these programs offer 8-10 week sessions that cover the core subjects at a fraction of the cost of an MBA. And if there is a specific area you want to know more about or go deeper on, then you can always audit a course on that subject or take a certification class.

Forbes agrees with me. They outlined the 3 best MBA alternatives for 2021 as 1) A Mini-MBA, 2) Business conferences and professional organizations, and 3) Your own side hustle or business.

There is no denying that the information and education you gain from an MBA is worthwhile for Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff. It will help you better understand the business, allow you to better advise and make decisions with your Executive, give you confidence in conversations, and more. Just remember that there are other options besides a traditional MBA program to get that knowledge.

To MBA or not to MBA? That is the question for Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff. What do you think? If you are a Founder, do you require EAs and COSs to have MBA degrees, and if so, why?

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