January 30, 2012 12:19 am

A tailored fit

Garth Saloner, dean of Stanford University

Garth Saloner, dean of Stanford University

First it was all about “leadership”, then it was about “globalisation”; these days “personalisation” is the key phrase in MBA ­degrees. And the institution that arguably started the trend in this, is the graduate school of business at Stanford ­University, ranked number one in the world in the Financial Times MBA rankings for the first time this year.

Much of the Californian school’s success is down to South African dean Garth Saloner, 57, who joined Stanford in 1990 and was appointed dean in 2009.

He spearheaded the curriculum reform, implemented in 2007, that ­introduced compulsory overseas modules; moved away from lock-step teaching to a suite of experience-related courses; and brought in a tutorial system, novel in the US, but similar to the one at UK universities, in which faculty work with small groups of students to explore appropriate courses and careers.

Studying for an MBA 20 years ago used to be like “batch processing”, says Prof Saloner. These days it is about detailed attention to the individual: “Curriculum reform moved us in a quite different direction.”

Four years on, he says the biggest impact of the 2007 overhaul has come from a set of courses that layer on top of the fundamental management ones. They give, he says, “a qualitatively different education, a much richer exper­ience”. For one exercise, for example, the school brings in 200 alumni who role-play difficult scenarios with students and give feedback. There are also courses in design and innovation. All of these are taught in groups of fewer than 20 students, sometimes as few as six.

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, it is unsurprising that Stanford has a focus on innovation. But there are other reasons why it can invest so much time in each MBA student.

First, it has a relatively small class for a top US school – 397 MBAs enrolled in the first year of the programme in 2011, less than half the class size of Harvard or Wharton.

Second, with an endowment close to $1bn, the school is one of the wealth­iest in the world.

Phil Knight, a 1962 graduate and the founder and chairman of Nike, the sporting goods group, gave $105m to the business school in 2006, to support the building of a new campus. At the time, it was the largest ever donation to a business school.

It led to the opening of the Knight Management Center in 2011, an eight-building complex. The buildings were designed to ­support the person­alised curriculum, including multiple break-out rooms for group work and small-group tutoring.

“I think we have a very clear view of our positioning and there’s definitely tremendous demand,” says Prof Sal­oner. “We’re getting first-rate people.”

These days the careers service follows a similar policy of personalisation. “There was a change in strategy a few years ago. It was not something we had planned, but we have moved to a personalised approach to placement,” concedes the dean. “We are quite consciously driving a personalised process through the whole [school],” he adds.

Career services are no longer about shoehorning individuals into the traditional management consultancies and banks, he says. “In terms of placement, our students are really extremely thoughtful about how they want to craft lifetime careers. It’s a very individual process.”

It is all about “career-life visioning”, he says, in an unusual lapse into management-speak. “They don’t feel compelled to have a job in hand on graduation. They’re finding their paths. They have a lot of choice.”

For a school that prides itself on educating students who give back – the opening of the Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies in 2011 is testament to that – it is perhaps ironic that it also educates the students who financially benefit the most from their MBAs, and have done so for a number of years. For the 2012 FT rankings, the alumni that graduated from Stanford in 2008 report that they currently earn an average of $191,657, which is 8 per cent higher than their peers from Harvard. It is this salary premium that is largely responsible for Stanford’s move to the top of the rankings this year.

Like most business schools these days, Stanford’s mantra is that it creates leaders to make the world a better place. On the evidence so far, it may be on track to do this better than most.

On Wednesday February 1, 2012, between 14.30 and 15.30 GMT, Garth Saloner will join the FT Ask the Experts panel to answer your question on studying for an MBA. Post your questions now at ask@ft.com.

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