An Interview with Steven Burton, Assistant Dean, Postgraduate Programmes, SMU

“You don’t need to be completely specific about your goals to the point that you already have a position in mind in a certain company. But I would encourage individuals to dig a bit deeper and get clear about what their expected outcomes are. The goals also need to be aligned with what the MBA is capable of delivering.”

It is just recently that the ranking of business schools were published, and with the marked increase in individuals worldwide enrolling in an MBA program, we were curious to find out just what one of the top business schools such as the SMU MBA, looks for in successful candidates. We recently sat down with Prof. Steven Burton, Assistant Dean, Postgraduate Programmes, Lee Kong Chian School of Business, Singapore Management University for an in-depth look. Excerpts: 

It seems in this global age, the numbers of MBA programs is rapidly growing. With so much choice out there for the mid-career professional, what do you feel sets SMU apart?

Though there are many MBA programs available, I believe there are some true differentiators for SMU.

Our aim is to be the best Asian business school. Other than being housed in Asia, we use an Asia-based case pedagogy. Our Case Writing Institute has developed over 135 cases, almost all of which are Asia-based. They deal with growth, cross-cultural and cross-border issues that do not occur in Europe or the USA. Furthermore, these cases, whether they be about finance issues in Indonesia or strategy issues in ASEAN, are brought into the classroom by the very faculty who wrote them. This makes SMU unique, as the majority of case-based teaching in MBA programs worldwide is not delivered by the faculty who researched and wrote the cases.

Our cases, by the way, have been published worldwide. We have even won multiple awards in the EFMD Case Writing Competition, at which the most highly ranked MBA’s from around the world compete.

Though we are an Asian business school, we have integrated some of the best interactive pedagogy and case-based methodology from the West because it has historically proven to enhance learning. The SMU MBA classroom environment is one that rewards classroom-based dialogue and debate. Students are expected to come to school prepared to engage and even challenge the ideas or statements of classmates and faculty. Nowadays, more programs are beginning to adopt this teaching methodology, but we were one of the first in Singapore and in Asia to do so.

We also have excellent support for students in terms of the non-hard-skills side of the MBA. Employers say that what matters to them are leadership, communication, advocacy, negotiation and other soft skills. Basically, the leaders who can build the best teams win. To address this, almost all of our classes include a presentation component, and our professional development series complements what happens in the classroom. Students graduate from the SMU MBA ready to hit the ground running.

Simply put, we’re leading the pack.

How is the curriculum structured?

We have 8 core modules and 10 electives, with over 40 electives to choose from. This means that more than half of the program can be custom tailored to students’ needs. We also guide students through assessment and conversation on which electives to select.

We provide international programs in which we take 10-30 students to cities all over Southeast Asia for a week and expose them to government organizations, businesses, universities and cultural issues. Not only are students immersed in different business cultures, but they also discuss their observations with classmates from all around the world, gaining a wide variety of perspectives.

Though most 1-year MBA programs like ours attracts applicants interested in career progression rather than career transition, that we have integrated an internship into our 1 year curriculum makes career transition very possible. 

Our faculty are dynamite, and provide a balance between practice and theory. SMU was recently ranked 49th worldwide for research by the University of Texas at Dallas’ “Top 100 Business Schools Research Ranking”, and we have faculty with deep experience in the industry who bring that to the classroom.

How different is the curriculum being delivered, as compared to the SMU-IE MBA (or any MBA program that you would like to include?)

Other than the online delivery method, SMU-IE MBA has a defined curriculum from the start and exposes students to faculty from both SMU and IE. The class make-up is significantly different in that most students are not living in Singapore full-time. We have students from a wide variety of countries working around the world, not necessarily in their country of origin. That the SMU-IE is a part-time program means it tends to attract students who are looking for career progression rather than career transition. 

What does your ideal MBA class look like?

The SMU MBA classroom is filled with future business and government leaders. We recruit highly motivated students who want to be successful, to engage and to put the necessary time into their learning. We look for a diverse class in terms of nationality, gender and career goals. Of course, we need smart students, but we select smart students who are also curious and willing to ask questions or challenge convention. The drive to engage in class discussion and the process of inquiry is essential. 

As a professional looking to find that perfect match, is there a perfect time to embark upon an MBA?

The program requires a minimum of 2 years of work experience, but has a class average of 5 years of work experience. That said, some students are very ready for our MBA in 2 years, while others’ careers are just getting going at 5 years. Fundamentally, we are looking for individuals who have a sufficient level of leadership experience. That means they have grown in professional responsibility and have identified a project or initiative and advocated for it.

I would also like to state that if you have more work experience than the class average, it’s not too late. I’m a good example: I started my (executive) MBA after 17 years of experience.

How well do you agree with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg that you don’t need an MBA to be successful in tech? How does this threaten the MBA as we know it?

What she says is true. But the real question is, “Would you benefit from an MBA if you wish to be successful in tech?” To this, I would say, “Absolutely.”

A lot of SMU MBA graduates go on to work for Microsoft, Intel or other well-regarded tech companies – but they weren’t doing that before. Typically, managers in tech companies had a tech degree and started their careers in the industry, then worked up the career ladder through what I call “brute force”: They got where they are the hard way.

But an MBA can help you make the transition between industries and prepare you to take on and succeed in advanced roles within tech organizations. You’ll be armed with the knowledge and skills to manage complexity and ambiguity within a fast-paced, dynamic industry. The MBA is a great tool to help you advance within tech companies.

So, would individuals benefit from an MBA? Absolutely!

Do you think this applies to all other industries as well?

It does! Many of our graduates go into finance, FMCG, management or strategy consulting without much experience in the fields before. The SMU MBA provides them with better recognition, and most industries target graduates of recognized MBA programs.

On successful completion of an SMU MBA, what kind of an edge does your Alumni walk away with?

If the students have fully engaged in the program, they walk out technically competent in their concentration and with the confidence and ability to build great teams. They graduate ready to go from day one in the business world.

Of course, they graduate with the SMU brand on their resume and backpack and everywhere else! In conversations, whether social or professional, you want to be proud of your educational background. The SMU brand is well-recognized and helps graduates make their way in the world.

Our graduates can also rely on their network of classmates. I tell my students that they are in class with their future business partners, employees, employers, clients and customers. Every day that they’re in the program, they’re making an impression on the people who are going to be the next business or government leaders.

On top of that, our graduates can tap into the alumni network, and our alumni are out there leading communities, businesses and governments.

In short, SMU MBA graduates come out with career readiness, job readiness and real world readiness.

What hiring trends do you anticipate from MBA recruiters in the next 2-5 years?

I believe we’ll continue to see an upward trend in recruitment by tech and FMCG companies as well as a flattening out in financial services institutions. We will likely see a growing recognition in Asia of MBA leadership development programs, which are common in the US and Europe. Those are gaining traction in Asia.

What makes you come back every year to teach at SMU?

SMU is at a very interesting point. We have grown, gained traction and escalated in what we’re delivering. The opportunity to be a part of this growth spurt, the chance to help build it and take SMU to become the best Asian business school, areexciting.

Lastly, if you had one piece of advice to give someone contemplating a graduate business program, what would you tell them?

Understand why you are enrolling in an MBA. If you are paying for it yourself, the MBA is likely the biggest investment your will make behind housing or a car. We want people to have thought through their decision before making the investment.

You don’t need to be completely specific about your goals to the point that you already have a position in mind in a certain company. But I would encourage individuals to dig a bit deeper and get clear about what their expected outcomes are. The goals also need to be aligned with what the MBA is capable of delivering.

This means you need to do your research, both within yourself and about the school. Make sure there is a good fit: Talk to the admissions committee and sit in on a class. You can look at rankings, but don’t look exclusively at them.

Prof. Steven Burton
Assistant Dean, Postgraduate Programmes, Lee Kong Chian School of Business, Singapore Management University

Steven Burton is the Assistant Dean, Postgraduate Programmes in the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at Singapore Management University (SMU). In this role he supports strategic planning and oversees the end-to-end operational aspects of the school’s portfolio of MBA, Specialised Masters and Professional Doctorate postgraduate programmes.

Prior to his role at SMU, Steven served as Associate Dean, MBA Programmes at the Karachi School for Business and Leadership (KSBL) in Karachi, Pakistan, helping set up the school and its MBA programme.  Before KSBL, Steven was a member of the leadership team at The University of Texas, McCombs School of Business, directing the operations, including recruiting, admissions, faculty liaising, program delivery, student service, leadership development and career services, for two of their largest MBA programs.

Steven was a co-founder and Executive Leadership Team member for MBA CSWP, the recognized professional organization for Executive, Professional and Alumni Career Services providers and former Board of Director member of the MBA Career Services and Employer Alliance (MBA CSEA). Prior to his career in the education sector, Steven spent 20 years in the corporate world in a variety of roles including executive recruiter, sales manager and engineer. Steven received his undergraduate degree in Engineering from Texas A&M University, MBA from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas in Austin, and is currently pursuing a PhDin Business at SMU.

Upcoming MBA Information Session (Singapore):

Wednesday, 13 Apr 2016, 6:30pm – 8:30pm 
Singapore Management University, Lee Kong Chian School of Business, (Level 2), 50 Stamford Road, Singapore 178899
To RSVP, click here.

Deadline for completion of applications:

Full-time (for the class starting in January 2017):
Application is now open28 February (Deadline 1)18 July (Deadline 2)
15 October (Final Deadline) 
Part-time (for the class starting in July 2016):Application is now open20 December (Deadline 1)
28 February (Deadline 2)
31 May (Final Deadline) 

For further inquiries, please email to or call +65 6808 5427.

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