If your career plan is to become a hedge fund trader or play some other role in the financial services business, you probably need an MBA just as the price of admission. If that's you, don't bother reading this post.
For everyone else, you may be considering an MBA program as a way to increase your business acumen, enhance your personal brand, and make yourself more competitive. If that's the case, there may be some cheaper and better alternatives.
Let's run some quick numbers.
Tuition and fees for a two year degree program at a top private college will cost you as much as $130,000. If you earn $50,000 a year, you won't be making $100,000 during that time. If your living expenses are $45,000 a year, you'll still need to pay that $90,000.
In other words, an MBA from a top business school could cost you as much as $320,000. Invest that amount at an annual return of 5 percent and you'll have roughly $2.3 million when you retire in 40 years.
With an MBA, of course, you will earn more in the future. According to New Accountant, an MBA will earn a CFO an estimated $463,440 in extra lifetime income. But that's only an extra $11,586 a year, which compounds over 40 years to only $1.6 million.
Of course, if you get your MBA from a lower-tier school, tuition and fees will be less, and you may get your current employer to pay some of your costs. But even if you earn the degree in your spare time, there's still lost opportunity cost.
With that in mind, here are six career moves that cost lest than earning an MBA but will probably do more to advance your career--and make you more money, too:
1. Develop strong sales skills.
Selling is the heart and soul of capitalism. Without selling, there can be no exchange of money or goods, except by robbery or taxation. I think it's fair to say that having great sales skills is the ultimate competitive advantage.
Just look at the real world. Mediocre performers who know how to sell always beat out exceptional performers who don't. As for exceptional performers who are exceptionally good at selling--they're the ones who win BIG in the business world.
That's especially true for entrepreneurs. You may have the greatest idea in the business world, but if you can't sell that idea, you won't and can't attract investors, customers, or talented employees.
It's true for everyone else, too. Finding a great job always involves selling yourself and your skills. And being successful at any job means constantly selling the value of the services that you're providing.
Weirdly, though, only a small percentage of MBA programs have even a single course in selling. Many of the most prestigious ignore selling completely under the long-discredited belief that marketing makes selling unnecessary.
Fortunately, there are hundreds of sales training programs available to corporations, some of which also cater to individuals. There's also books, videos, and online training galore, much of it free.
2. Gain fluency in another language.
While this may seem like a lot of work, remember we're comparing the effort to full years at a business school. The average businessperson should have no problem achieving fluency in two years if he or she is willing to spend a few hours per day
Since China increasingly dominates the world economy and is now world's largest manufacturer of consumer goods, the obvious language choice for an upcoming, forward-looking businessperson is Mandarin.
Conversing with Chinese business partners in their native language gives you a distinct advantage over competitors who must use translators. And it certainly gives your personal brand a big bump in China. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg.
3. Learn to write code.
Learning to code has become a bit of a business fad, but I can vouch for the fact that it's a skill that can positively ripple though everything that you do in business.
First, coding anything significant requires logical and organized thinking. It forces you to break down something complex into smaller, simpler, discrete chunks, which is the essence of time and resource management.
Second, you quickly discover that it's easier to create and update a subroutine than to update bits of code that do the same thing in multiple places in the program. A well-designed program thus resembles a well-designed organization.
Third, programming languages (like all languages) influence the way people think. Quite aside from the technical jargon, understanding a technical discipline makes it much easier to understand and empathize with engineers.
Finally, every business relies on software, from the supply chain system to the apps on customers' phones. For today's decision maker, not understanding code is like a 19th century railroad magnate not knowing how a steam engine works.
4. Become a master storyteller.
Remember all that talk about the "information economy"? Well, everyone is drowning in information. Information has turned from a competitive advantage into a huge burden. Big data? Everyone's got that, in spades and coming out their ears.
Far from an information economy, we are rapidly becoming a storytelling economy. People don't want information; they want to understand how you, your company, and your product fit into their own lives. They want to hear you tell their story.
The TED Talks that get millions of views all tell a story. The online ads that go viral tell a story. The public speakers who get big money to inspire and intrigue audience do so by telling a story.
Most businesspeople know how exactly how to throw data into a spreadsheet and slap a graph into PowerPoint, but very few (based upon what I've seen and heard) have the slightest idea of how to tell a good story.
To learn to be a great storyteller, first learn the component parts of a story. (I recommend the book What Great Salespeople Do.) Then listen to 50 hours or so of The Moth Radio Hour. You'll have a blast and, with some practice, learn how to knock 'em dead.
5. Write a best-selling book.
Don't let the words "best-selling" fool you into thinking that's the difficult part. Virtually anyone can get on the New York Times or Wall Street Journal bestseller list at pub date if they can get enough (or pay enough) friends and business associates to buy 2,500 or so advance copies.
If your book's list price is $25, the cost of pre-ordering 2,500 copies comes to $62,500. Round that up to an even $75,000 for "gifts" to your compliant associates, and you're still spending only a fraction of what an MBA costs.
Of course, there's the little matter of actually writing the book. Shop around and you can probably hire a low-end ghostwriter at 50 cents a word, which adds another $25,000. You're still only at $100,000, again less than the cost of the MBA.
Once your book has gone bestseller, your personal brand jumps from "Joe Schmo" to "Best-Selling Author Joe Schmo," which, let's face it, sounds far more impressive than "Joe Schmo, MBA." (Don't kid yourself, this strategy is not unusual.)
Even if you write, publish, and promote the book yourself and don't try to game the bestseller lists, a published book is worlds most effective tbusiness card. Sending a book as a gift to clients and prospects opens more doors than an MBA after your name.
6. Start your own business.