Mastering business in emerging Europe

By bne IntelliNews June 30, 2009

Kester Eddy in Budapest -

When a team from Hungary's Central European University (CEU) visited Donetsk, Ukraine, three years ago on a recruitment drive, it changed Lena Kochkova's life.

"I had a double masters in applied statistics from Donetsk National University, but I had decided I wanted to go into marketing, as I had been working part time for an agency on different campaigns. So I was looking for a school, and I went to the presentation," she says.

Kochkova then began researching the possibilities for further study, not yet sure which school, or even if an MBA, suited her. "One of the boys [at the CEU presentation] was an alumnus [of Donetsk National University], so I consulted him. I was very curious about the challenges, how he had managed to stay in Budapest for a year," she says.

Although she looked at other business schools in the region, after noting the programmes on offer and talking to other students, her heart increasingly became set on an MBA programme at the CEU Business School in Budapest. The clincher came in the form of a partial, but substantial, scholarship. "That was a major point; the CEU Business School has a very developed system of financial aid, although it is dependent on GPA, [Grade Point Average, ie. the results of study]," she says.

Kochkova started her MBA studies last August and says the experience has been life changing, starting with the methods and intensity of study. "In Ukraine, we have the old system, where you have to remember everything. Here the system is completely different, with group work, and the schedule was very tough. At the beginning, we had some days with studies from nine in the morning to nine at night, but you discover you can do it!"

Kochkova is one of thousands of young professionals in Central and Eastern Europe who are increasingly taking up an MBA programme in one form or another. Almost all concur that - at least at the better schools - the teaching methodology is a revelation in a culture where otherwise education is still a case of right and wrong answers, and teacher knows best. "Nobody says to us: you should do this or this, copy this or this. Our professors tell us that even great companies can fail when they stop developing themselves; the same for people. It's good that the MBA doesn't give 'old recipes' but pushes us to think out of the box," says Anna Zelentsova, a Russian with a PhD who is currently studying on the part-time "European MBA Programme" jointly organised by Kozminski University in Warsaw and Bradford University School of Management in the UK.

Apart from acquiring many important business skills, her studies are having a much broader impact on her personal outlook and philosophy. "I have also learned more holistic lessons - how to make own my life more lean, with more added-value, eliminating or reducing time-wasting habits," she says.

Show me the money

Personal development apart, most students apply - and cough up cash - for an MBA with one fundamental purpose in mind; a better chance of a more lucrative career. Which begs the question; does it work? Is a CV with the three letters near the top a job winner?

An MBA certainly broadens a candidate's skill set, says Paula Covrig, head of recruitment at BCR, the largest Romanian commercial bank. "An MBA widens business perspective, increases strategic thinking and highlights leadership skills. All these are very important strengths when it comes to hiring a senior person in your company. And we can also add the network part of an MBA, which is really helpful if it is used appropriately," says Covrig.

Matthew Hadley, partner with KPMG Baltics, the professional services firm in Latvia, believes a diverse background is important for any leadership role, and an MBA, especially one taken abroad, certainly helps on that score. However, he stresses the value of on-the-job experience, and opposes the trend to move straight to an MBA after taking a bachelor's degree. "How can you really understand studying without the practical experience? It also makes for a much better return on investment for the students themselves," Hadley says.

So if an MBA does indeed broaden career and personal horizons, how does the potential MBA student choose a school from the bewildering array on offer?

Igor Kordik, currently studying at the IEDC Bled School of Management in Slovenia, based his choice partly on the school's brand, which is particularly strong in Southeast Europe, Italy and Austria. "I chose IEDC because of reputation, [modular] programme and range of professors there. I had considered a local school, but none fully fulfilled [my criteria]. IEDC attracts interesting candidates from our part of Europe and it is an advantage to go 'back to school' with some of them," says Kordik, managing director of ACO, a German-owned building supply company in Belgrade.

Inevitably, while many would love to study at prestigious schools in the US or Western Europe, cost, in terms of tuition, living expenses and travel, plays a significant role in the final decision. Zelentsova wanted a British-based MBA; but as she wanted to continue working, it needed to be part-time, and the cost of travel ruled out a UK-based location for study. "I compared different programmes and chose Kozminski based on a balance of quality, price, accreditation, ranking, and convenience. The Bradford University programme in Warsaw, which is pretty close to Moscow, has mostly weekend classes and has a European emphasis," she says.

The good news is that none interviewed for this report expressed any regret over their MBA choice. Indeed, Kochkova, who is planning to work for a period and complete her degree at Emory University in the US, is looking well beyond her native Ukraine. "It's a big world; I like to work with different nationalities. I plan to work abroad for perhaps five years before maybe going back home. I expected a lot from the CEU [Business School] but I've got even more," she says.

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