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business education

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver started out as a lawyer, but an MBA allowed him to go on to a career in investment banking before becoming an MP.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The Honourable Joe Oliver, MP and Canada's Minister of Natural Resources, began his investment banking career at Merrill Lynch. He was the president and chief executive officer of the Investment Dealers Association of Canada and chair of the Advisory Committee of the International Council of Securities Associations and the Consultative Committee of the International Association of Securities Commissions.

Mr. Oliver earned a bachelor of arts and of civil law at McGill University and later graduated with an MBA from the Harvard Graduate School of Business.

Adam Janikowski: Having studied at the Harvard Business School when there were fewer schools offering an MBA program, did the MBA offer you opportunities that wouldn't have been available otherwise?

Joe Oliver: Before studying for an MBA, I had earned a BA and a law degree from McGill. My original thought when I applied to Harvard was to earn my MBA and then return to law. At the time, I would have been the only lawyer in Quebec with an MBA and that would have given me a leg up in practice.

When I decided that investment banking would be an attractive career post-MBA, it was essential to have had the business education. Prior to the MBA, I didn't have any technical background in accounting and finance and would never have been hired as a banker. My MBA was crucial to gaining entry to a career that would not have been available otherwise.

Why Harvard? Do you think there is an advantage to holding an Ivy League degree? Did you apply to any other schools?

At the time, I felt that Harvard had the strongest reputation, one that would provide mobility and options after graduation and continue to help me along in my career. However, similar to today's economic environment, it was tough because there weren't a lot of corporate finance jobs for business grads. The degree from Harvard gave me an advantage and helped me land one of the few available positions.

When considering business school, I also applied to Columbia because I was tempted by the shorter program. Looking back, Harvard was probably the right decision and, should the clock be turned back, I would choose it again. I really liked the case-based approach, given my legal background. I would have had a hard time studying in a very mathematically focused business curriculum, which is why I did not apply elsewhere. I will say that today, Canadian schools have emerged as very strong global competitors, and if I were applying again, I would consider studying in Canada.

How long did it take for you to realize the value of your MBA?

The payback was immediate. My MBA enabled me to get my first job in the investment banking industry and helped launch my career. Furthermore, as you move up the corporate ladder, the soft skills of business and management are crucial. Honing these skills at business school significantly helped my career.

Looking back on your career path, do you think that your decision to study for an MBA was worth it? Would you change anything if you could?

I had a great career in investment banking, which then enabled me to go on and do something related within financial regulation. To be honest, I wouldn't have changed anything. As I look back on the possibility of returning to a career in law or going into banking, I think I enjoyed what I did as a banker far more.

Doing it all over again, I would have taken two or three accounting courses before entering school. At the beginning of my MBA, I found it very daunting to be in a class with CAs and CPAs when I was struggling with the differences between a credit and a debit. There was even a case which needed an understanding of regression analysis, something you can't pick up on your own.

In retrospect, I would have also networked more. An MBA provides the opportunity to practice "selling" your personal brand in a safe, pre-business environment. Salesmanship and marketing are crucial skills to the success of any career, especially investment banking, where you are in essence convincing people to buy your services and recommendations.

Is there a difference between MBA programs and students while you were studying and those of the current day?

I understand that there's greater specialization in MBA programs today. I just met with the dean of the Haskayne School of Business (University of Calgary) and we talked at length about the natural specialization Haskayne offers in oil and gas finance. This is a great initiative because we need academic leadership in the Canadian energy industry, as it is one of the key drivers of the Canadian economy.

I also get the sense that students are older and more experienced now when they enter the MBA program. When I studied, at 28 years old, I was one of the oldest in my class. The evolution in the student body to more experienced individuals seems to have driven a change in the curriculum of the schools. There is more emphasis on learning from the students' experiences and the students approach cases with greater understanding and more preparation.

Do you feel that having an MBA is a relevant qualification for a politician? If so, how have you put your business education toward this country's governance, especially in your role as Minister of Natural Resources?

Most politicians don't have an MBA, including the exceptionally successful ones. An MBA is not a pre-requisite but it does add intellectual preparation. When I was asked by Prime Minister Harper to take on the natural resources portfolio, it was great to be able to apply my industry experience and business knowledge. For the type of responsibilities I have, my education and experience are invaluable.

Do you have any advice for a student in business school, either undergraduate or MBA?

Reflecting back on my career, what made a difference is my ability to prioritize. Understanding the critical issues and where you need to focus is crucial. Furthermore, knowing "who owns the company" and "who you are working for" is also important. People often forget who they're working for, whether it's a client, a board or a supervisor, and end up delivering the wrong message or doing the wrong work. In the same vein, it's important to be sensitive to other people's needs and objectives; when you understand what drives someone, it's easier to sell them what they need.

Also, always make sure you gather as much information as possible. In business school they teach decision making in uncertainty. Coping with uncertainty is a tool, but it is no excuse for not being prepared or having all the facts that you possibly can, even if you're dealing with a conceptual or hypothetical issue.

Finally, understand your own strengths and weaknesses. It is crucial to your success to have a career in something where you'll have a competitive advantage. Understanding what your strengths are and turning them into advantages is extremely important, especially in today's competitive society.