Today’s financial woes should be a valuable lesson to the latest crop of MBA graduates, currently promenading to Pomp and Circumstance. Their expensive new sheepskins may well get them to the top, but won’t ensure success once they get there.
Just look at the world’s humbled banks. Most of the men running them earned graduate degrees at top-ranked universities. Their educational pedigrees doubtless helped them get in the door and provided some of the know-how needed to scale the corporate ladder. But they didn’t learn enough in the classroom—or couldn’t recall it, if they did—to sidestep the crises that have struck.
Of course, it doesn’t take an elite education to lose money and destroy shareholder value. Second-tier business schools such as the University of Iowa (Kerry Killinger at Washington Mutual), Wake Forest (Ken Thompson at Wachovia) and University of Connecticut (Bob Diamond at Barclays Capital) produced leaders of struggling banks just as the more highly regarded University of Chicago (Brady Dougan at Credit Suisse), New York University (Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers) and France’s Ecole nationale d’administration publique (Daniel Bouton at Societe Generale) did.
Harvard can lay claim to the handful of bank bosses least scathed by the current crunch, including law school grad Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs; Standard Chartered’s Peter Sands, who earned a masters in public administration; and JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, who holds an MBA. But, then again, ousted Merrill Lynch boss Stan O’Neal also sports a Crimson H.
Impressive degree credentials didn’t spare Citigroup’s Chuck Prince (Georgetown) or Morgan Stanley’s Phil Purcell (University of Chicago) either.
Dodging the classroom also proved no recipe for success. Neither James Cayne nor Marcel Ospel, who oversaw two of the biggest disasters—at Bear Stearns and UBS, respectively—has a college degree.
True, time erases most university lessons anyway. But having coursework such as History of Bubbles, Elements of Capital or Structured Finance 101 to draw on wouldn’t have hurt. Then again, Albert Einstein professed that education is what’s left after everything learned at school has been forgotten.
By that measure, most bank bosses don’t seem to have mastered enough postgraduation. The school of hard knocks, however, was open to tomorrow’s financial titans and shareholders alike. Maybe it will have taught them all a thing or two.