Careeba Interviews Fran Johnson – Associate Director of the MBA Programme at Alliance Manchester Business School
As Fran says herself, an MBA is a huge investment emotionally, academically and financially. So, what benefits can studying an MBA course bring to your career and is it worth it? We spoke to Fran Johnson to hear more about the MBA programme at Alliance Manchester Business School (AMBS) and her own experiences as a former MBA student.
You’re an alumnus of the MBA programme yourself, when you applied what did you feel you would get out of the programme?
I had worked in some amazing organisations, predominantly in IT, as a business analyst, a systems analyst and programme manager. I loved my job and the people I worked with but got to the point where I knew I was good but I just wasn’t sure how good and wanted to get a sense of where I was on my career path. And that’s what I looked for the MBA to do, to really push me and challenge me. The MBA, for me, really was a benchmarking exercise.
It sounds like the MBA really came at a particularly pertinent juncture in your career, a time when you wanted to expand your opportunities and knowledge.
I used to manage large programmes and projects, and because I’d done it for a little while I thought, ‘everyone can do this’, It’s only when you step outside your own role when you realize, no, that’s a skill I have that others don’t. Not only did the MBA give me the chance to learn a lot of new things, but it also gave me the chance to step back and understand myself as an individual and realize what I was good at already.
Do you remember your own personal expectations of the programme and were they met after you graduated?
I think people’s expectations of an MBA programme and of themselves develop, certainly whilst they are on our programme. I thought when I joined that it would challenge me intellectually, which it certainly did. What I didn’t expect it to be is so relevant to what I’d been doing previously. I could bring my experience in project management into the MBA as well as my sector and stakeholder knowledge. Also, the variety of people you meet and the things you do is amazing. Those are the things I didn’t expect.
What did you find was the most enjoyable aspect of the MBA?
This is really personal to each individual, but most people would say, or most people should say, their peer group. I’m now 14 years out of the programme and I’ve still got a very vital network. I’ve got a group of people who I will be able leverage as friends and as professional colleagues for the rest of my business career.
Do you think that’s because you were a set of likeminded people who had the same aims and expectations or do you feel like you were very different?
Every good MBA programme looks at a balanced and diverse intake and they certainly did in my year, there were 100+ students and over 30 nationalities, which is similar to our current intake. But we all had the same drive of wanting to move forward and improve our knowledge and our learning.
One of the things that attracted me to Manchester and still does, and one of the things I remain hugely really proud of, is that we attract nice people. When I look at my alumni, 99% of them will always be there to help – it really is a feeling of family.
In your current role as Associate Director are you hands on with your MBA students?
One of the great things about us is that the size of our cohort enables me and my team to get to know every single one of our students personally. We get to follow our student’s stories while they’re with us and also when they leave us as well. I always say that my job is two fold, first is to work with my academic colleagues to make sure the programme is up to our student’s expectations and the second is to make sure our students live up to our expectations! We work to make sure that people understand that the MBA is a lot of fun but a lot of hard work and they need to put the effort in.
You usually look for candidates who have a number of years of business experience, is there anything else that you look for in candidates that you think will do well on the course?
Our minimum work requirement is three years, so we’ll have people on the programme with this level of experience but also people with twenty years! We very much look at people’s applications holistically. As long as you meet our minimum requirements then we’ll have a conversation with you. The most important thing is ensuring that anyone that joins our programme really will benefit from it.
There may be people who are academically wonderful but just don’t need the MBA for where their career aspirations currently are or aren’t at the right stage of their career to really leverage the MBA to move them forward. We’ll always engage in conversations with applicants to make sure that everyone who joins us really does have a clear view of what they want to get out of the programme.
The job market is tough and there are lots of MBA programme providers, so one of the things I think is really important to help our students with is to make sure they understand what makes them unique. If you’ve got five people with MBAs all going for a job, what’s going to make you stand out? So, with regards to the admissions process, we want people who have some understanding of themselves, and we will help them develop that, but I think it’s really important that candidates have a strong sense of self.
It seems like the MBA isn’t just an academic qualification, it’s more of a tool that will continue to help you throughout your career.
I always say we don’t teach you anything really, we teach you how to learn. You can get a lot of academic input online but what you get from our MBA is the experience and interaction with our faculty. One of the reasons our academics love teaching on the MBA is that they don’t stand up and lecture, they engage with each of the individuals on the course. That’s why it’s important applicants have some experience and that they can apply that knowledge in their class discussions and client projects.
Are many of your students interested in setting up their own businesses?
Entrepreneurship is really core to our programme and the big organisations that hire through our MBA are looking for people who generate ideas and take them forward. Our programme is structured in such a way that we do have people who will use the summer and autumn term to undertake a personal project. That’s a really great opportunity for people, if they are thinking of starting their own business, to write their business plan. They can get input and challenge from both academics and peers, in a relatively risk-free environment. We also have a number of competitions where students can test their ideas out. So there really are lots of opportunities to engage, not just in the business school, but with our wider university to take your ideas forward.
What other aspects of the wider University community does the business school frequently utilise?
We are proud to be part of the University of Manchester and the benefits this offers our MBA’s. Whether it’s using the university’s facilities, that’s everything from the John Rylands Library to the Whitworth Hall, we also have access to a huge range of academics and alumni. When we are looking for business practitioners we don’t just look at our MBA, although our MBA alumni are amazing, we go out to the broader university and engage with them as well.
Forbes ranked a number of MBA courses on the potential earnings applicants could expect to achieve. Do you think that its right that that might be something candidates focus on?
Whichever MBA programme you choose, it’s a huge investment emotionally, academically and financially, so although we are not looking for candidates whose sole goal is to triple their salaries, we do want MBAs who are aware of how they can leverage their investment. For some people this might be leaving a well-paid job to set up their own business. For others, it may be leaving a senior management position in a sector they no longer love to move into a mid-management role in something they are passionate about….for others still it will mean tripling their salary and that’s fine too….
You’ve mentioned that you utilise your alumni network, how else do you utilise that network, particularly with regards to networking?
We have a gold mentoring scheme where recent alumni will mentor our current students. Our more senior, and by senior I mean the length of time out of the programme, alumni also get involved doing anything from coming back to give talks, to supervising client projects. We have a number of student clubs and once you’re a member you’re a member for life – and we often get ‘old’ members back to meet current students.
When people talk about networking, they often forget it’s a two-way relationship. For me, one of the things I’m looking for in applicants is people that are interested in others, because that’s what helps you network. There’s nothing worse than someone turning up to a networking event with their CV. It’s about being interested in what others do, and how to help them as well. This means our alumni know that if they needed anything from us, we would support them as well. We have alums that come back to us when they have projects they need or when they’re looking to hire – so hopefully we’re helping them as well.
The MBA programme at AMBS contains 6 months of live client projects, more than any other MBA. How do you feel students benefit from live client projects and why does AMBS make client projects such a major part of the course?
Our client projects are a way for our students to evidence to us, and to themselves, that they can apply the knowledge learnt in the MBA. We do a range of different projects starting with a not-for-profit project which is for a third sector organisation. The first week that our students join us they get put in front of a live client, in a sector that our students typically have little to no experience with. But at that stage, we aren’t as cruel as I make it sound, because you do have an academic supervisor that helps you. At the end of the course our students work on an international business project, which is a full time, 12 week, live business consultancy project. Students are still supervised, but by this stage we expect our students to be delivering to such a high standard that their job is easy!
What you’ll struggle to find elsewhere on the market is an MBA programme where live client projects run continuously throughout. The sheer depth of engagement and the amount of client facing time is unique. It’s not for everyone, but I think it’s a really unique way of learning and when we look at the people who join us and are successful they really get that style of learning.
The MBA programme has a very international outlook, it has 6 global course centres and quite a high proportion of international students apply to the programme. Do you feel this international element benefits students?
One of the things our students often tell us is that they realise how similar people are. Yes, there are cultural differences when working with people from different countries, but I’m looking at a picture on my desk now of a student group and they’re from six different countries with four different languages, but they all delivered one project. I think when people go back out into the workplace, they have that real understanding, that yes, there are cultural differences but there are ways you can work together and make sure that teams work.
The MBA course is accredited by a number of organisations, what do you think in practical terms this means for applicants?
We’re triple accredited and as such you know that the school that your studying with, and the MBA programme specifically, meets industry wide standards, providing a level of surety for all applicants.
When you speak to recent alumni is there anything that stands out when they speak about their time on the MBA?
Because our MBA programme is a general one, people are from diverse sectors when they join us and their journeys are really different when they exit as well. I’d like to think that everyone has an idea of their own aspirations when they join and I’d like to think the majority of people really do achieve these. We always have people that go into major consultancy firms and finance companies but we are also seeing an increased interest from manufacturing organisations, I think that’s a sector that’s really starting to think about what management expertise they need in a global workplace.
The fact they made some brilliant friends and colleagues is a common theme and students will always mention their academic highlights as well. We’ve talked a lot about the applied aspect of the programme and at AMBS we have some of the most brilliant academics. I always tell our students to reference correctly as they’re probably referencing a book that one of our academics has written! A nice aspect of being in a relatively smaller cohort is that you do get that time with those academics, whether it’s in the coffee bar or during lectures.
What can students expect from studying in Manchester?
Rain! But, joking aside, Manchester’s got everything you could possibly need but you don’t get lost. It’s a university city, we like our students in Manchester, so it’s geared up for those studying, whatever your age or background.