A qualified success?

An MBA has long been the Holy Grail of managers with their
sights set on the very top, but how useful or desirable are they
for managers working in social care? Ruth Winchester reports.

Question: What do you call someone who takes all the credit when
things go right, and blames everyone else when things go wrong?
Answer: A skilled manager.

At some point, most people will find themselves being managed,
and a minority will have a terrible time of it. Some individuals
are just not cut out to have that much influence over other
people’s lives.

But for those who find themselves landed with this onerous
responsibility, or who actively seek it, what essential tools must
you have to break into management? How can you get good at it? And
what do you need to rise through the ranks to become a manager of
managers?

While the obvious answers are aptitude, intelligence and
determination, perhaps a less obvious one is training. Social care
as a sector has historically set little store by academic
qualifications and formal training, preferring instead to rely on
work experience and common sense.

But the market place is changing fundamentally. Increasingly,
managers are expected to take on broader and deeper
responsibilities. And as the sector widens, managers are expected
to cope with the demands, jargon and priorities of an immense
variety of charities, trusts, businesses and statutory bodies.

With this in mind, universities and business schools are
starting to expand the range of specialist management training
offered to social care staff. These range from the highly
vocational NVQs in management, to certificates and diplomas in
management studies – many of which are now tailored specifically to
health, social care, the public sector and the not-for-profit
sector.

But for those with their sights set firmly on the higher reaches
of management, there is the cr‚me-de-la-cr‚me option –
an MBA. Becoming a Master in Business Administration has
historically brought with it a six-figure salary, a seat on the
board and a key to the executive washroom.

And while these benefits seem positively laughable to anyone
working in a British social services department, there are an
increasing number of social care staff choosing to take this route
to higher management.

Why? Because there is simply no better recognised or more highly
respected senior management qualification. There is no doubt that
an MBA is a major commitment, both in terms of finance and time
[see box]. But the benefits can be significant. Students on MBA
courses bring years and sometimes decades of past experience to the
course, and the training is designed to widen their horizons and
encourage strategic thinking. Some courses are tailored to a
student’s particular specialism with highly specific modules, while
course work is also often closely related to their specific needs
and to the demands of their particular job.

These factors have given MBAs an undeniable “snob value”, which
in turn has spawned businesses such as Rent an MBA which contracts
out MBA-qualified staff to organisations in need of high level
input. But while this rarity value makes an MBA an immense
advantage in business, does it really attract the same reverence in
the social care field?

Peter Gilbert is ex-director of Worcestershire social services
department, and the holder of an MBA. He admits that the
qualification has proved invaluable to him. He says: “It was great
for me at the time. I was working in Kent at service manager level
and I felt I needed to move on and do something that was very
specifically management training.”

But he argues that the MBA is a highly specific qualification
suitable for a relatively small number of people. “Experience of
management is essential, I think. It’s not appropriate for
frontline staff – you’d need some sort of overview to make the most
of it. But I think there are elements of an MBA programme that
should be brought in-house and taught.”

He argues that training for middle and first line managers –
such as a Certificate or Diploma in Management – is perhaps more
significant, but adds: “Organisations themselves need to have a
very clear idea about what it is they want people to train for,
what they are being expected to learn. I think departments have
sometimes been a bit lax in thinking what they wanted people to
come back from training with.”

Hilary Simon, social services director for Windsor and
Maidenhead, agrees. “I think all directors welcome the recognition
by central government that social services staff need to embrace
the whole philosophy of continuous development. It’s no longer
appropriate or acceptable that you should get a one-off
qualification and ‘that’s it for life’.”

She adds: “Providing excellent training and development
opportunities is a very important way of retaining staff. The soft
underbelly of a training budget seems a very attractive target in
the short term. But one of the reasons staff say they like working
here is because the training opportunities are good.”

But she denies that MBAs are the essential senior management
qualification. “I wouldn’t want to say that. I’m a great believer
in competency-based and vocational training. And I think the status
of MBAs has gone down. There used to be very few, but so many
institutions are now offering them they’ve no longer got that
rarity value.

“I think all managers should be encouraged to do some proper
training, but qualifications like NVQs are far more appropriate for
most people. A programme that contains modules on stuff like
chairing meetings, managing teams, dealing with poor performance
and doing public presentations would be more useful.”

Simon has this to say to people who want to undertake further
training: “I want to see people have proved their ability and
commitment before we would consider sponsoring them through an MBA.
They need to show a commitment to their own learning.”

Vivien Martin is a senior lecturer in management of health and
social care at the Open University, which offers distance learning
MBA courses, alongside Certificate and Diploma in Management
Studies courses. While she acknowledges that a personal commitment
is essential, she argues that there are often huge paybacks for
employers, not just at MBA level but for mid-range management
training too.

“It’s a two-way street. Students often do something for their
organisation as part of their course – perhaps a large research
project. And they may ask for more responsibility to get the
experience they need to start a course,” says Martin.

The chances are that management training of any sort will have a
positive impact on those working on the rung below. But the more
cynical among us will ask whether an investment of £20,000 in
one ambitious individual’s career plan represents real value for
money.


Taking stock

Liz Garrett, 51, is policy manager for children’s charity
Barnardo’s, managing a team of 10 policy officers. She is half way
through a part-time MBA at Roffey Park Management Institute in
Horsham, West Sussex. Her fees are paid by Barnardo’s, and she has
also negotiated leave for the residential aspects of the course,
plus some leeway in her workload. She had previously spent 20 years
in social services.

“I came late to managing people – about seven years ago – but I
found that I really enjoyed it,” Garrett explains. “I wanted to
have more confidence as a manager, wanted to update and improve my
skills. And I wanted a period of study – it was about 12 years
since I’d done anything and I wanted to do some stocktaking and
build on my experience.”

To anyone considering an MBA, she says: “It’s a real commitment.
I’d think very carefully about who you are, what stage of life
you’re at, and what kind of learning you enjoy. I’m 51, divorced
and my daughter is grown up. How people with small children do it I
don’t know.”


MBA: facts and figures

There are about 118 MBAs on offer in the UK, of which 36 are
accredited by the Association of MBA’s. Sixty per cent of current
MBA students are on accredited courses. Peter Calladine,
educational service manager for the Association, argues that
choosing an accredited course is one way to ensure a good course
with a solid reputation. A guide to MBAs is available from AMBA,
cost £29.95.

Approximately three-quarters of MBA students have some help with
fees, usually from their employer or sometimes career development
loans, bursaries and course specific low-interest loans. Full-time
MBAs take one year, and cost between £8,000 and £30,000,
part-time MBAs take two years or more and the course costs between
£10,000-£25,000, and distance learning MBAs take
three-plus years and the course costs between £8,000 –
£10,000.

– MBA Fair, 14 May, Institute of Directors, London SW1. Further
information contact 0800 854 369.

– Open University Business School. Information line 08700 100311
www.oubs.open.ac.uk

– Association of MBA’s www.mba.org.uk

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