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By Dominic Basulto

In the past five years, the MBA credential has acquired the reputation of being the magical passport to untold riches and a comfortable life with banks, consulting firms, and multinationals. Top MBA graduates are in demand on a global basis, forcing leading business schools to revamp their programs to include the all-important "international" component as part of the curriculum in order to prepare their students for positions in America, Europe, Asia- even Russia. Whereas a young Russian professional attending a top Western business school would have once been considered "exotic," many MBA programs now boast a growing number of Russian bankers, consultants, accountants, and marketing professionals who began their careers in the late 1990s. As part of this trend to attract and woo the Russian talent pool, three European schools (INSEAD, IESE, London Business School) and one American school (Michigan) now offer a special MBA financing program coordinated through ABN AMRO Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Some schools have extended recruiting efforts to include Moscow, while others (such as Yale) have developed an innovative emerging markets curriculum in order to train this new source of potential international executives.

While the number of Russians who have graduated from the most prestigious business schools in the US and Europe is increasing, the current economic situation in Russia will likely accelerate the process. For those young Russians on the proverbial fast-track, taking a 2-year time-out from job uncertainty and continued economic stagnation makes sense. While the real sector and the financial markets in Russia continue the trajectory from recession to depression and even deep-pocketed Western businesses reassess their commitment to the Russian market, the simple fact is that an investment in a Western-style MBA offers a low-risk, high-reward payoff for those young Russian professionals intent on a corporate career. A graduate of a "Top 10" business school in the US can expect a starting annual salary package easily in excess of $100,000- if the typical investment banking or consulting route is selected.

The one caveat, however, is that only a relatively few business schools act as a consistent conduit for such lucrative post-business school careers. Picking the wrong school could mean the difference between working in the back-office of a corporate "cost center" and being the member of a high-profile "profit center"- with all the perks that such a position entails (e.g. jet-setting between London, Frankfurt, and Hong Kong for client meetings). Some firms that recruit on campus are so eager to hire the "best and brightest" that they are willing to interview every single student who requests an interview from proven recruiting grounds such as Harvard Business School, despite the fact that each entering class at Harvard has over 800 students. As a policy, some firms only recruit at a few key schools, essentially cherry-picking the best from those schools that have a track record for producing individuals with the necessary skill set and initiative to become a member of senior management. Schools with strong alumni links also have an advantage in both recruiting new students and in keeping these students "happy" with visions of lucrative careers afterwards. Yale School of Management, while lacking the alumni base of a business school like Harvard or Wharton, is able to draw on the alumni base of Yale University, which historically has boasted the highest number of graduates who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

Given the premise that choosing the correct school is critical, it becomes essential to understand how admissions officers, recruiters and potential students appraise the respective business school programs. The knee-jerk reaction for some applicants is simply to consult a recently-published ranking such as those routinely published in Business Week, U.S. News & World Report, or the Financial Times- and then submit applications to the top 5 schools. Or the top 10 schools. Or maybe schools 15 through 20. It's exactly that kind of strategy, however, which targets applications to the wrong schools. Without visiting the actual campus or consulting a knowledgeable resource, it's difficult to understand what supposedly objective measures such as "student selectivity" mean and close to impossible to make sense of what purely subjective measures, such as "recruiter satisfaction," signify.

It's critical to think of each school as a "brand," since the schools themselves think of their respective MBA programs as "brands." The key to moving up or down in any of the popular rankings is a savvy game of "brand management" played by the admissions staff, recruiters, and students. What exactly does this notion of brand management entail?

First, that each school, while giving lip service to such hackneyed notions as "international business," "general management" and "preparing global leaders" has a much more real stake in preserving its brand identity. Schools such as Wharton carefully cultivate the image of finance powerhouse, while others might choose to emphasize strong programs in strategy, general management, or entrepreneurship. Schools with a strong core competency in "strategy" inevitably receive the greatest attention from the top consulting firms. Similarly, schools with strong marketing programs can attract the leading multinational companies such as Proctor & Gamble, who require brand managers for a vast array of products. It is only a limited number of schools- those with large endowments, large faculty, and large student size- which can develop niches in a number of areas. Thus, institutions such as Harvard Business School and INSEAD have the attention of any recruiter and can attract top candidates from all career sectors.

Second, there are several established ways to move up in the rankings, such that the rankings can change significantly over a period of 2-3 years. The rankings that use quantitative data (GMAT, average salary upon graduation, admissions selectivity) can produce vastly different results than rankings that rely upon subjective poll data. Schools that are perceived to have a weak finance faculty can simply poach professors from strong finance programs such as MIT Sloan or Chicago. Schools with low GMAT scores can adjust the admissions process to select higher-scoring candidates. Schools receiving weak results in the area of "career placement" can hire a new career development staff. Every year, the top business schools attempt to "fine tune" their programs in order to advance in the polls.

Third, that potentially unsuspecting consumers (i.e. the Russian business school applicant) can be the purchaser of a "brand" that is not appropriate. A Russian banking professional expecting to work in a major financial market (say, New York) should apply to a school with a top-rate finance program and proven "placing power" in New York. Dartmouth Amos Tuck, while perfect for preparing Boston-based consultants, does not offer the competitive advantage of Columbia Business School, which is located in New York City and traditionally has leading names from Wall Street on its faculty. Likewise, individuals expecting to take advantage of growth in the Internet/high-tech sector would be advised to apply to Stanford (which has significant placing power in Silicon Valley) or to MIT Sloan rather than schools such as Kellogg, which offers the most competitive marketing program.

From the Russian perspective, the most desirable schools are those that stress the international management aspect of business school- and can back it up with substantial course offerings and access to multinational corporations. While schools such as Emory may enter the Financial Times Top 20, its graduates are far more likely to work in Atlanta than in Moscow, while a lower-ranked school such as Thunderbird may have considerably more "placing power," affording its graduates the option to work for a multinational company anywhere in the world. Moreover, the high cost of an MBA program in Europe or America and the opportunity cost of foregoing 18-to-24 months of salary means that opportunities offered within Russia (specifically, Moscow) may make sense. Schools such as the American Institute of Business and Economics (AIBEc) in Moscow offer a selection of courses taught by top Western professors and may provide all the necessary training to advance in the Russian business sector without having to relocate to Paris, London, Barcelona, or America.

From the above, it can be seen that the various business school programs are essentially "brands" that need to be researched. Would you pay $80,000 (the two-year all-in cost for a top American business school) for anything without investing significant time and effort into understanding just exactly what it is that you are purchasing? For those potential Russian applicants with internet access, there are a number of sites with "inside" information (, Moreover, each business school maintains an active web site. For those applicants without Internet access, the American Center in Moscow maintains a reference center for Western educational institutions.

Dominic Basulto is a 1998 graduate of Yale School of Management and currently works as a consultant for Pericles ABLE (American Business & Legal Education) in Moscow. Pericles offers a full MBA advising program. For contact information, please call: 292-5188/6463.

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