Global MBAs: Finding one that fits the bill

April 20, 2011: 12:51 PM ET

Whether you want to be an entrepreneur or a senior corporate manager, all budding business leaders will need a global grounding. Here's what to look for in a global MBA program. 

By Shawn P. O'Connor, contributor

FORTUNE -- Economists, managers, and business school faculty can no longer ignore the powerful economic impact that international events abroad have on businesses across the world.

Japanese companies such as Toyota (TM) and Sony (SNE) have been forced to slow production following the disasters in Japan, leading to shortages of car parts and electronics around the globe. Unrest in Bahrain, Syria, and Libya has caused oil and gasoline prices to skyrocket in the United States, threatening our anemic recovery and consumer confidence. At the same time, it's impossible to go a week (or sometimes even a day) without hearing the latest indication that BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) economies represent emerging (or should we start saying emerged?) global powerhouses.

There's little doubt that the world's economies will only become increasingly interconnected during your career; so, how do you best prepare for the challenges that you'll face as a global manager?

Whether you aspire to become an entrepreneur or a senior manager at a Fortune 500 company -- and regardless of your industry focus -- you will likely need management education that will prepare you to excel in this new economic paradigm.

Does this mean that you should pursue your MBA abroad?

Not necessarily. It means that, whether you choose to study in the Americas, Europe, or Asia, it's best to carefully evaluate each program you consider to be sure it's ahead of the curve when it comes to globalization and the evolution of our international economy.

Business schools approach this challenge very differently, so you should take these four factors into account when choosing a program:

1. Makeup of the MBA class

To succeed in a global marketplace, future managers need to fine-tune their ability to collaborate with and lead heterogeneous teams. Be sure to look at how diverse a school's student body is before you decide to attend.

For American business schools to remain relevant, they'll need to recruit increasingly international classes with students from different backgrounds and with divergent interests.

At the same time, many international schools boast a global location but a relatively homogenous student body. While working within a diverse community may be more challenging, it's critical training for your future.

2. Global case studies

Developing a deep understanding of core management theories and concepts is important, but the real world is not about the discussion of esoteric theories. The study of actual business problems and the resulting insights from such case studies should be a core component of your graduate education.

Look closely at course curricula to see if they include case studies that focus on relevant and timely global issues like international trade, differentiated labor costs, tensions related to the limited amount of natural resources, and organizational behavior across cultural boundaries. Internationally focused case studies are a key element of an effective management education and will prepare you to think like a global manager.

3. International field work

Engage in projects that will later give you the chance to apply the theories you have learned in class at a real organization.

More MBA programs are offering international fieldwork opportunities where students  spend part of a semester working with international managers and, in many cases, travel abroad and work with the management team.

Field studies can give you a sense of the idiosyncrasies of working in a global climate that can't be taught in a textbook or lecture hall. Look for business schools with faculty that regularly sponsor international fieldwork, as gaining access to global firms depends primarily on faculty members' relationships -- and their willingness to use those relationships to enhance your international management education.

4. Longer-term immersion programs

While nearly every business school now offers week-long study abroad programs, you should seek out schools that also offer longer-term international opportunities, in order to gain a deeper global perspective.

Keep in mind that studying abroad does not automatically guarantee an international education. You could go to business school in England or Spain and still have primarily American and Western European classmates, which would likely give you far less of an international experience than you would obtain at many American business schools. It's best to consider the global components of these immersion programs, not just the location of the program.

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Business schools around the world increasingly recognize that they need to shift their approach in order to emphasize an international education. However, the speed with which schools are making this critical shift varies widely. So do your research, and make sure you choose a school that is changing as quickly as the global economic landscape.

Shawn P. O'Connor is the founder and CEO of Stratus Prep, a New York-based test preparation and admissions counseling firm. 

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