Choosing MBA school is almost as daunting as programme itself

By bne IntelliNews October 27, 2010

Kester Eddy in Budapest -

Angela Biletcaia is as Central-Eastern European as you can get: Polish by ethnicity, born in Bukovina - the part of Ukraine that once formed the eastern outreach of Austro-Hungary - she now works in Bucharest as managing director of Studio Moderna Romania.

And like tens of thousands of young (and not-so-young) managers in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), Biletcaia took up an MBA as a way to enhance her career and salary prospects, network with like-minded people, and gain access to an expanded skill set. But not all finish as satisfied and successfully as Biletcaia did.

The choice

Typical of the region's well-educated citizens, Biletcaia is multi-lingual and holds a clutch of degrees, including a languages BA from her native Chernivtsy in Ukraine, along with a second BA in law, plus a doctorate in International Business and Economics, both from Bucharest. But even before she took over as head of Studio Moderna Romania in late 2006, she had been thinking of taking an MBA. "From a professional viewpoint, I had planned long ago for an executive MBA, and after maternity leave and staying home for a year, I realized that the world would advance by more then 10 years [leaving me behind if I didn't apply]," she says.

There was another incentive; the Studio Moderna group, a leading electronic retailer in CEE, is a vertically integrated, multi-channel sales, media, marketing and distribution company. Since taking over the Bucharest arm in 2006, Biletcaia has seen the number of staff expand through natural growth and mergers from a mere 17 to nearly 450 today. Grappling with the rapid expansion, an MBA, she reasoned, would help her performance as a leader. "The business was very dynamic. I felt I needed a continuous improvement in knowledge, in financial, statistical, marketing and management skills, and to understand new trends in the world economy and business environment," she says.

In truth, while she might have liked to study in Western Europe, and considered IEDC Bled School of Management in Slovenia, her family commitments left her with a limited choice. So in the end, she plumped for the Institute of Business Administration in Bucharest (Asebuss), which offers an accredited, executive MBA programme in partnership with Kennesaw State University of Atlanta, US. "I chose my school for several reasons, but especially because the joint US-Romanian programme gives students an international dimension. We were encouraged to work together with our American fellows in our eight-month virtual common project," she says.

Then there was the ranking; Asebuss' executive MBA was judged the best for managerial experience, applicability and networking by programme participants in a survey by a Romanian business paper.

With the support of a 50% scholarship from her employer, Biletcaia began her studies in the autumn of 2008. She immediately found the time commitment a huge challenge. "Classes take place every weekend and they are quite rigorous about it. It was tough to divide the valuable time between family, school, work and social life. It certainly helped me to become a better time manager," she quips.

But after two years of sweat, tears, late nights and long weekends, she graduated in September. "Asebuss fulfilled all my international expectations. I met new people, learned, developed and improved [as a manager]. The MBA have given me this great opportunity combined in a much-needed mix of all sorts of synergies," she says.

Biletcaia's experience shows how important it is to get the preparations right. Choosing the right business school is not a matter to be taken lightly - the direct cost alone (not counting the time involved in study) can amount to several years' salary - and prospective students should be prepared for many hours of research to select the programme that suits them best, says Andreas Antonopoulos, rector of the University of New York in Prague. "First, [all would-be students] should consider their medium-term goals, where they want to work. If you are from Bulgaria and want to work in Canada, then don't bother with a local school; look for a decent MBA in Canada or the US, and go there. If you want to stay in your country or the region, you should find the best place locally," he says.

Local improvements

Choosing a local or regional MBA provider can be a bit more difficult than in the West, where independent providers tend to have a longer track-record, school associations have a history of accreditation, and where the business media have been assessing school performance via rankings for two decades or more.

Although the situation is far better now than 15 years ago, when numerous institutions were offering programmes of dubious quality, Professor Antonopoulos note there is still at least one CEE institution - with otherwise a good name - that is offering a cheap, sub-par, local-language MBA. "You don't even have to attend lectures. It's a paper mill and it's cheapening the whole brand," he says.

"Try to find out as much as you can about the programme's last product. Try to find out who exactly is teaching. Ask your CEO what they think about the school. Look at the accreditation; it's a validation of quality. And look at the convenience; can you really do the programme in the time available, without harming your work [or family] life?" Professor Antonopoulos advises.

As for the question of language of tuition, while there are hundreds of managers attending MBA programmes in their mother tongues who appear perfectly satisfied with the result, many experts advocate an English-language programme if at all possible. Not only is English the lingua franca of global business, but modern management studies and education began in the US in the last century. Hence, many terms and concepts discussed in modern business dialogues do not have a direct local language equivalent. "The fact is, many languages do not have a word that equates to the English verb 'to manage'. In Spanish, 'manejar means to control a horse," notes Itchak Adizes, the Macedonian-born US management guru.

As for the vexed question of cost, Zoya Zaitseva, global operations manager of the QS World MBA Tour, told visitors to the MBA fair in Budapest earlier this year that, "if your employer is unwilling to contribute to your fees, check out the availability of scholarships - you'll be amazed at the number and value of what is available."

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