CEOs: They don’t educate ’em like they used to

Lots of food for thought—and maybe grist for the mill—in this excerpt from Heads You Win!, a 1997 book by Quinn Spitzer and Ron Evans.

They begin by talking about the pre-MBA-era CEOs, now all retired or dead.

They lived through the Great Depression, which crippled the world’s economy in the 1930s; they experienced the horrors of World War II; they served their business apprenticeships in the postwar rebuilding period of the late 1940s and early 1950s. But what may differentiate them most from their counterparts of today is the issue of management.This “old guard” was the last of a breed of executives who developed their management skills almost entirely in the workplace. They were building businesses while management “science”—if it can be called that—was still in its infancy.

In 1948, the authors point out, the circulation of the Harvard Business Review was 15,000. By the mid-1990s, it was a quarter of a million, as the number of MBAs awarded grew from 3,357 in 1948 to 75,000 in 1993.

So what was the difference between those pre-MBA execs and today’s management scientists?

The executives of [the immediate post-war] period were not uneducated—in fact, many were extremely well educated—but they did not learn their approach to business from a business school, a management expert, a celebrated management book, or an outside consultant. Options such as these were not generally available. These executives learned their business skills in the industrial jungle. …

The forty-year-old executive of the 1990s, by contrast, probably holds one of the tens of thousands of MBAs awarded each year. His formal management education is supplemented by dozens of business periodicals and hundreds of management books. If, however, a situation seems resistant to even this mass of management wisdom, there are several hundred consulting firms and more than a hundred thousand consultants ready to provide additional management skill and knowledge. In 1993 businesses around the world spent $17 billion for consultants’ recommendations, and AT&T alone lavished $347.1 million on outside expertise.

That does not necessarily mean that the business executives of the past were superior to those of the present. … Still, we suspect that if those [managers] of years gone by found themselves at the helm of any of today’s extraordinarily complex and competitive business enterprises, they would steer a straight and successful course.

By 2005, the number of MBAs had doubled again, and those fire-tested execs even fewer and further in between.

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