An MBA is just as relevant for civil servants says Professor Zahir Irani

For decades an MBA has been the rite of passage for ambitious corporate executives into higher positions of leadership and directorship.  In the following feature from, Professor Zahir Irani, Dean of the College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences, highlights the benefits and relevance of an MBA to civil servants, too, and the ‘Micro-MBA’ that was birthed during his secondment to the Cabinet Office.

An MBA remains a badge of distinction for private sector managers, and is still seen as rooted in the commercial ethos. But that’s changing. The number of public sector managers undertaking an MBA in the UK doubled last year.

Zahir Irani

Professor Zahir Irani, Dean of the College of Business, Arts & Social Sciences

An MBA works – and is important – for civil servants because it’s generic. It is intended to put in place each of the building blocks needed to run an effective organisation of any kind. It’s also very portable. One of the ongoing debates in business concerns the value of organisations investing in MBAs for their best staff, only to see them using the qualifications as tickets to better-paid jobs elsewhere. But that’s less of a drawback in the civil service, where MBAs are well-suited to the high level of ‘churn’: managers can move to different projects and roles in other departments without those skills being lost to government.

Unlike other development opportunities (access to the excellent civil service online resources, for example), MBAs are structured and formal – so people have to make a commitment of time and energy, with a specific goal. And MBA programmes provide great ready-made networks. The people you study with become a long-term community of support, with a shared experience. In the middle ranks, there’s a real need for this kind of manager community.

An important focus of any MBA programme is leadership – and distinguishing leadership from management.

MBAs don’t provide technical skills, but they build people’s ability to become good leaders. Critically, they provide the opportunity to think about your own style of leadership – not following the model of your boss or the departmental norms, but finding what suits you and is going to be most effective in progressing the government’s agenda. Thinking through how you behave in different situations, and what’s important to you in terms of values, is fundamental to getting your leadership style ‘right’ and clear in your mind.

Another key focus is transformational change, and linking your personal role as manager or leader to the success of implementation. What you do, how you behave during these important – and sometimes difficult – times, has a lasting effect on staff both above and below you. An essential part of an MBA is building up personal resilience to cope with everyday roles; but also, as people take on more seniority and responsibility, dealing with the uncertainties and complexities of the wider environment – economic and budgetary challenges, new threats from international instability and policy reform, etc. More…

Professor Zahir Irani has been working as a senior policy adviser at the Cabinet Office, on secondment from his permanent role as Dean of the Business, Arts and Social Sciences College (CBASS), Brunel University London. @zahirirani1