Feature of the Week

July 21, 2013 11:30 pm

MBA students learn the value of influence

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Capitol Hill, Washington

Glen Hodgson is being grilled by 60 Executive MBA students on the ethics of lobbying. But as a director in the Brussels office of lobbying consultancy Hill and Knowlton Strategies, Mr Hodgson knows how to get a message across.

“To be an effective lobbyist you need to build up integrity, knowledge and long-term relationships. You don’t have a right to be at the table.”

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The students on ESCP Europe’s 18-month programme are taking part in a “European business seminar”: five days of speakers, workshops and meetings to instil a better understanding of how EU institutions make decisions and how businesses can influence them.

In Washington, US lobbyists take a more aggressive approach than the more consensual manner businesses adopt in Brussels. But business schools on both sides of the Atlantic are increasingly aware of the need to give students a grasp of the interplay between business and government.

In the couple of square miles around Robert Schuman Square that are home to the European Commission, Council and parliament, about 10,000 lobbyists ply their trade for large corporate clients, from oil majors to chemical giants. According to the Corporate Europe Observatory watchdog, it is a €1bn industry in itself.

The MBA turned lobbyist

What makes a good lobbyist and do you need an MBA?

At ESCP Europe, students who take the European Business Environment module of the Masters in European Business programme complete a group project on lobbying. Olivier Delbard, who heads the module, says the project does not aim to help students find a career in lobbying – though some alumni do land jobs there.

“We realised lobbying was a very good way of helping students understand the nuts and bolts of Europe, institutional mechanisms and also the main issues in Europe,” says Prof Delbard.

At Chicago Booth, MBA students can take a class in “The Firm and Non-Market Environment” to examine business lobbying, regulation, environmental issues and corporate social responsibility. It is taught by economics professor Marianne Bertrand, a Belgian who understands Brussels and Washington.

“We use lots of tools from political science to examine how laws and rules are made,” she explains. “In the US we have been able to study lobbying in greater detail, as we have good data since 1998 thanks to registration requirements.”

Her course focuses on US institutions, but she uses a case study on European “reach” legislation to explore how US chemical companies handled the different lobbying practices.

It’s not what you know, but who you know

National cultures and languages are only part of the reason Brussels lobbyists need a different approach to their Washington counterparts

Business schools from a consortium of 17 US universities, including UC Berkeley, Georgetown, Indiana, Michigan and Northeastern, send MBA, EMBA and executive education students to the Washington Campus – a non-profit funded by the consortium that offers intensive one-week courses with first-hand exposure to the decision-making processes in federal government and an understanding of how they impact business. Speakers range from members of Congress and current and former executive branch officials to special advisers to the White House.

“Most business schools do a relatively poor job of educating their students on the critical interaction between business and government,” says Mike Lord, chief executive of the initiative. “There isn’t an industry or sector that isn’t profoundly affected by government. Many executives and entrepreneurs don’t like this but ignorance and denial are not effective strategies.”

The Washington Campus also runs specialised programmes on topics such as business and healthcare policy and courses for schools from China, India, South Korea and Germany. This year it hosted an EMBA group from SKK Graduate School of Business in South Korea in a joint partnership with Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

“It’s critically important students have a sense of how businesses interact with government and how public policy will impact their business,” says Kelley associate dean Ash Soni. “Students who go to Washington consider it one of the best experiences they’ve had on the MBA.”

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