Build your skills: Zahir Irani

An MBA has long opened doors in the business world – but the qualification is just as valuable to civil servants

Francis Maude CSW interview

By Zahir Irani

19 Sep 2014

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.

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.

Whilst undertaking a recent secondment to the Cabinet Office from Brunel University London, I asked my hosts to provide me with personal reflective development as a way of getting the most out of the experience. The secondment opened my eyes to management development in the service, its particular needs and issues, and the role of learning from the private sector. And as a ‘thank you’ to the civil service and in order to draw upon what I’d learnt, I developed a tailored ‘Micro-MBA’ delivered by senior staff in the  Brunel Business School on a pro bono basis.

It was originally intended to be something for my team but was eventually opened to the whole Cabinet Office workforce, where the excellent levels of interest and participation demonstrated a widespread desire to tap into private sector practices and the latest management thinking. Following a formal application process, the eight-month programme is now being delivered for 18 eager learners.

The majority of people who took up the opportunity were women, and there was a real diversity in terms of role – with participants working across various secretariats, private offices, task forces, and reform teams. The content was modelled on a formal MBA, but tailored to fit the specific needs of the department and the individuals themselves.

We stripped out the finance and marketing components – not because they’re irrelevant, but in order to focus more time on the parts of an MBA that can have the greatest impact on personal development and civil service operations. And tapping into the private sector’s current interest in using social software to create commercial advantage, we added components exploring how internal platforms and public social networks can form part of a service delivery toolbox that connects employees, simplifies the flow of internal knowledge, and improves productivity.

The MBA ‘brand’ is a powerful one. Within the busy schedules of managers, it can be difficult to find the motivation to commit time and effort to one’s own development. But the MBA name in itself motivates people to take the time out for study. And ultimately, it’s the focused time and commitment involved that make an MBA so effective: that space for serious self-reflection, and for testing yourself against current thinking from across the public and private sectors. That time and commitment helps people to develop a better understanding of themselves, the confidence to build their own styles, and a practical toolkit to take on anything thrown at them.

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, Brunel University London.; @zahirirani1


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