Interview: John Vandenbrink
Accounting and Finance
PhD in History, University of Chicago
The self-knowledge and focus gained in an MBA can be critical success factors for people who want to advance their careers.
Teaching at GLOBIS
The students at GLOBIS are mostly young people who work during the day, and I see them in class at night. You might expect them to be tired, but they come ready to work, to learn skills that will help them in their careers. That makes teaching a pleasure.
Perhaps "teaching" isn't the right word. What we do at GLOBIS is more of a collective effort, with lots of participation. My job is to provide a framework and some guidance, by asking leading questions at the right time. It's up to the students to come prepared to deepen their understanding in class. They learn from each other, often in teams working through problems documented in actual business cases. In class, they can apply their own on-the-job experiences. I use my background in finance to ensure that the discussion focuses on what's important in practice. For example, some basic concepts in finance are rather theoretical. To understand them, you have to start with a few unrealistic assumptions about markets and then relax the assumptions step-by-step to make the situation realistic. Every MBA student needs to be exposed to this kind of thinking, so we go through it. However, we try to develop the discussion in ways that focus attention on the fundamental concepts that students will encounter in actual markets and on the job.
Benefits of an International MBA Program
The usefulness of MBA programs of study is widely acknowledged, but certainly these programs are not for everyone. Many people in business have successful careers without making the huge investment in time and money that a degree program requires. They can avail themselves of training offered by their employers. They can study on their own. They can take business courses here and there along their careers, picking subjects they know they need, without seeking a degree. We have some students like this at GLOBIS, and they are doing what is right for them. However, for those students who do make a full commitment to a degree program, there is a great deal to be gained. First, of course, is in-depth exposure to key areas of business, such as accounting, finance, strategy, marketing, management skills, and the like. In a full degree program, this learning goes well beyond subject area and textbooks. The students gain an added dimension of learning, because they develop their own personal and management skills by completing projects in teams with fellow students.
This interaction provides fertile ground for a benefit that is not often talked about: stimulating students to think constructively about the development of their own careers. First, the team interplay in the MBA program brings everyone into close contact with colleagues from other job functions and other industries, so there are always points of comparison. "Would I have better career prospects in another industry?" students will ask themselves. "Would I be happier and more productive in sales than in accounting?" Learning about the career paths of other members of the class almost always helps students plan where they want to be in their careers in five years' time, and in ten years' time. This self-knowledge and focus can be critical success factors for people who want to advance their careers.
One special benefit of the program I teach in is English. Students in the international MBA have to learn to make their points effectively in English in class. At GLOBIS, reticence is not permitted. Every learner of a second language makes many mistakes on the way to proficiency. Better to make those mistakes in front of a GLOBIS instructor and fellow students than at work, where they can hobble a career.
Many of my colleagues teaching in the international MBA program are foreigners. That means that, automatically, most of our students -- because the majority are Japanese -- must begin functioning in a foreign cultural milieu the moment they step into our classes. There are also students from different countries in the classes. Interactions in this diverse environment help students develop the confidence they need to undertake challenging international roles within their companies, roles for which their fellow employees will be much less well prepared.
I have found that some students approach the study of finance with apprehension, usually because it is unfamiliar or is perceived to be too "quantitative." Certainly, finance involves concepts that business people working outside of finance departments and financial institutions do not normally encounter, for example, the time value of money, portfolio theory and diversification, and cash flow valuations. Because everyone in business encounters expenses and profits, which are derived from accounting, students are usually more comfortable with accounting than finance, even though the principles of accounting can be exceedingly complex, not to say arbitrary. So, the apprehensive students of finance need to dive in and overcome their unfamiliarity. When they do, they learn to think in terms of cash, return, and value. They learn that a business forecast based solely on the income statements and balance sheets from accounting will not tell a manager if a project will create value or destroy value for his firm. The most fundamental decisions in business are where to invest and how to finance the investments. These are the key determinants of business success. The study of finance gives students a framework for understanding the most basic rules of the game.