How are the career outcomes in an online MBA program different from a traditional MBA? What can you expect?
Eric Johnson, the executive director of Graduate Career Services at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, and two current online MBA students in Kelley Direct answer those questions in the third and final panel discussion in our Inside The Online MBA series.
Michael Bauman, merchandising leader at Kitchen Aid for Whirlpool, and Divya Venkataraman, a solutions architect Rockwell Automation, joined the conversation. Venkataraman will graduate from Kelley Direct in 2021, while Bauman will get his MBA in November of this year.
The program also consistently does well in rankings of online MBA options, tying for first place on the latest U.S. News & World Report list and third on Poets&Quants’ 2019 ranking of the best.
In this wide-ranging conversation, moderated by Poets&Quants Editor-in-Chief John A. Byrne, we explore how an online MBA program can help students achieve their career goals and what support services are available to online students and how those services may differ from what is often available to full-time, residential MBA students.
This is the third and final part of our Inside The Online MBA series. The first discussion, featuring Kelley School of Business Dean Idie Kesner and Kelley Direct Chair Ramesh Venkataraman, explored which prospective students are best suited for an online option, while the second conversation took a deep dive into the actual experience of doing an online MBA program.
An edited transcript of our conversation follows:
John A. Byrne: So what caused both you to get an online MBA?
Michael Bauman: So I have very specific career goals and things that I wanted to do. My background’s in engineering, and I knew that an MBA would enable me to develop some of the competencies that I didn’t necessarily get with my engineering undergraduate degree. I looked at several different part-time and online MBA programs, and a big part of that was I was very happy at Whirlpool; I still am very happy at Whirlpool. And the opportunity cost of leaving Whirlpool, and going into a full-time MBA program was something that didn’t allow the flexibility that an online MBA program offers. It didn’t fit with my career goals and the trajectory that I was on with Whirlpool.
Divya Venkataraman: Similar to Michael, I’ve always been very career oriented and I found a real home at Rockwell Automation. I’ve been there since I was an intern, and I was not willing to give that up. So my decision was based on the opportunity costs. A full-time program was not something I was willing to eat. And so I went the online route. As an electrical engineer, I’ve been in very technical-oriented positions, but with a pivot towards business administration because I was in product management and non-technical sales. So the language and the credibility I would gain, with a better understanding of business in a global marketplace was imperative, and I knew I needed a formal education for that.
Byrne: So flexibility and opportunity costs are obviously two key reasons to do an online program over a full-time residential program. Eric, many people will assume that if you do an online MBA, your expectations about career outcomes are going to be different. The going in assumption is you’re not going to get a whole lot of career guidance in an online. Is that true?
Eric Johnson: It’s a true assumption, but it’s not a factual statement. What I’ve enjoyed about working with the Kelley grads online MBA population is there are a very wide variety of career outcomes that each individual is looking for. I think you’ve got two students here who I would consider high potential talent. The guidance that they need is very different from someone who is trying to make a fairly significant transition from an engineer to, say, product management at a different company in a different industry.
Kelley Direct has students with a lot of different backgrounds, and so they do have a variety of expectations that come along with that. In a lot of our intake discussions, there are some assumptions that there aren’t a lot of career resources available and nothing could be further from the truth. We treat the Kelley Direct Online MBA with great importance; we’ll talk more about it, I’m sure. But we have dedicated staff, dedicated courses, dedicated resources, because we think it’s one of the more important expectations that we deliver on within our office.
Byrne: How early do you intervene in the online MBA program with incoming students?
Johnson: Before day one. Michael and Divya began the process of evaluating an MBA with a career change in mind. Both happen to be within their firm, but there’s a long-term career outcome associated with choosing to get the MBA. So for us, we actually begin this process with a series of assessments and intake appointments before the first class even begins. Because it’s really important for us to understand whether you are what we would call a ‘ career navigator’, which is someone who’s trying to move up within the organization, or a career switcher; in which case you may be looking to jump from consumer packaged goods company A to tech company B.
We actually provide a tailored curriculum, depending on the type of career that you want to have. So the earlier we know what your intentions are, the more we can create a custom and relevant experience for you. So yeah, it all begins pretty much from the time you’re admitted and you want to engage, well through and beyond graduation.
Byrne: And I would think that, in general, an online MBA is better for the navigator than the career switcher. Am I wrong?
Johnson: It’s hard to say. I think both can be really successful within an online MBA. I think what’s important for someone who’s looking to make a fairly significant career switch, is that they understand it takes more than just academics and coaching. It also takes some level of experiential learning, sort of a build-up of evidence that says, ‘I can make this job into something that I don’t have a lot of experience in.’
If I’ve got somebody who is wanting to move from a finance role into something that’s maybe more of a product management role, I would certainly encourage them to engage in the Agile type immersion trips where they actually get some hands-on opportunity to work with businesses, to do some consulting, to build up some expertise. I think the Kelley Direct clubs have got some really neat experiences, too. I know the marketing club is going up to Chicago to do some company visits, and I think that builds a language and an experience set that allows somebody to make a switch. Those opportunities maybe aren’t as in your face as with an in-residence program, which is designed to provide a switcher with experience to make that jump.
Part of our job as coaches is to sort of evaluate it. I’ll say, ‘Michael here’s some things you might need to do based on where you’re at and where you want to go.’ And then we want to work with the academic advising team to say, ‘You know, we talked with Michael, here’s the type of stuff we think he ought to engage in. Can you work with him to figure out what that looks like for his academic path?’ So it’s a very holistic approach to career management.
Byrne: And in both your cases, you’re classic MBA students in this sense. You grew up in a narrow specialty discipline, and you want to broaden your perspective and responsibilities but do so in your current companies. So the MBA is the perfect vehicle to do that.
Venkataraman: Absolutely. My aspiration at Rockwell Automation was always to be very broad. As they say, ‘A mile wide and an inch deep.’ But I’ve always required more depth, based on my technical background. So to get that into that mile wide, there is only that much career transitioning you can do within the company to prove that you can do the job. If I have an operations management class under my belt and maybe an elective in that area, it could allow me to pivot into operations someday, which is my aspiration. But there isn’t a whole lot of work experience that lends credibility to me being able to do that.
Byrne: Michael, did you avail yourself of the coaching in the Kelley Direct program?
Bauman: I’ve had an outstanding experience with Eric and his team and Stephanie Gray, who’s my career coach. It starts off with those initial assessments. So not only is it a chance for them to really get to know you, but it’s a chance for you to reflect a little bit and get to know yourself. It starts out with what is called the Keirsey temperament test. That describes your behaviors, how you work, and how you work with others. And just the simple act of looking at those results can raise your self-awareness. And when you work with Eric and his team to dissect the results. At the intake meetings, I filled out a form about myself and my aspirations. Sometimes all it really takes is putting pen to paper, thinking about what you want to do long term.
And one thing I will say about the coaching is that what you put into it is what you’re going to get out of it, and what you get out of it is usually tenfold. So, if you take the time to regularly take advantage of this opportunity, the results can be very powerful.
Byrne: When was the first time you actually met with the coach?
Bauman: The first time was in person at Kelley Connect Week. So it was probably day two of my MBA journey.
There are two things that are very consistent with all the meetings I’ve had with Stephanie, and the first meeting doesn’t stray from this. The first is I’m always going to be challenged. I might talk about an experience that I had at work with a co-worker, and Stephanie is not afraid to push back and say, ‘Why did you do that?’ That gives me the opportunity to reflect on my behaviors and how I was perceiving myself, but also how the other people I was working with perceived me.
Byrne: Getting a third party assessment from someone who’s not invested in any way is valuable.
Bauman: You nailed it. So that’s a big thing and she doesn’t care if Oracle makes a profit. She cares about how I’m leading my team, and how I can grow professionally. The first thing is I’m always challenged, and the second thing is I always have an actionable thing that I can take away from our coaching. So, sometimes it’s as simple as having coffee with a co-worker; other times it might be charting out my five-year career plan and talking about what experiences I need to really take the next step.
Byrne: Divya, did you have a similar an experience with the coach in the Kelley Program?
Venkataraman: I have. At the most recent Kelley Connect Week, I met with my coach, Terry She’s an incredible woman; she’s like a machine. She listened so carefully, so intently without interrupting, letting me ramble about my current predicament, and she’ll come back with such insightful questions that make you think about the way you want yourself perceived in the workplace for whatever you’re trying to accomplish. Whether it’s representing yourself and your capability in an interview, or in a salary negotiation.
And she really makes you reflect on exactly those topics: what is your career plan? Do you have one that starts at the very end that you can map backward and put into a simple mathematical formula? Whether what is being offered to you is fair and going to enable you to move forward in the company? So it’s been wonderful, a very similar experience.
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