Management education needs a real world mindset

A few years ago, I took a job as the dean of a business school in Japan. I did it because it seemed to me there should be a really good business school in what was then the second-largest economy on earth. I failed to transform that school. But in the ensuing five years, I have come to a conclusion that gives me some comfort: I don’t believe there is a really good business school anywhere on earth. But I am holding on to the hope that there could be – someday.

A year ago, my team and I launched a project to understand what corporate leaders think of business schools. Since then, we’ve interviewed more than 100 executives on five continents. In general, the verdict has been less than sunny. Even executives who went to big name schools and regularly hire graduates from those schools, had little good to say about graduate business education.

Our executive interviewees uniformly thought that other than recruiting (winnowing students in the admittance process) and student socialisation (giving them a diverse network of alumni peers), there was little reason these days to recommend a business school education. And after 25 years of teaching in this industry, I had to agree they were probably right.

Nevertheless, I cling to the belief that business education should be really important. On the education side, individuals improve from one generation to the next, in large part because we pass along formal knowledge to make each succeeding generation better. As for the business side, 90 per cent of Americans – and probably a higher percentage of much of the rest of the world – put bread, rice, naan, or tortillas on their families’ tables by doing some form of business. And in the US of the 10 per cent who are not doing business – those in the public sector – almost half are teachers who are preparing the next generation to make a living. So combining the two – business and education – should be done well. But no one does it.

Our interviewees unanimously agreed that business schools could be really relevant. In fact, almost all said that a school that really made its education germane to the real world would be one they would hire from regularly. A few chief executives even said they’d hire exclusively from a school that got it right. In other words, business education is really important to them – just not the kind of education that is currently being offered.

What do employers want? In two words: soft skills. But this does not mean more case study-based courses in organisational behaviour, leadership, etc. This means transforming “students” into genuine “professionals,” armed with a skill set that allows them to make contributions right away. A partner at a top global consulting firm told me that his firm is moving away from hiring MBAs for the primary reason that they are not ready to do significant work upon graduating. In the first year or two after graduation, he said, “We have to make them human. A lot of time and money is spent, with no return. If students came out of the [right kind of] programme ... I wouldn’t have to waste that time. I’d get real work from them. If they were getting [applicable training] in school, those people would be immediately more useful to me!”

So that is the challenge. And everyone knows it is. But knowing is not enough; and doing it seems almost impossible. Business schools are run by academics who have generally never practised business in their lives; they are long on knowing and short on doing. And, remember, these are almost always academics with tenure. In my experience, tenure is a natural enemy to action.

There must be a new type of school that can expose students constantly to the best new thinking, but ensure that those ideas lead to actual improvements in practice. Students have to be able to understand the latest notions and turn them into actions – not just plans for action – that are compatible with good business. The emphasis on a real world mindset and behaviour is something that is currently lacking in global business school programmes.

So what would an ideal business school potentially look like? Teachers would be a mix of academics, advisers and coaches responsible for identifying and addressing students’ skill gaps rather than just imparting knowledge. The curriculum would be a combination of short, intensive core courses and real world assignments that get students to apply new learnings on thorny, complicated issues, without clear answers – requiring students to be agile, resourceful and experts at succinct communication. The subject of ethics would be interwoven in every class and every project, and treated as more important than disciplines such as finance or accounting.

As students “do,” they will learn more about themselves and each other than they ever thought possible. They will discover that they are good at some things and not at others. They will become self-aware. They will know their blind spots and will have tried – even as students – to do something about them. They will be clear on their life priorities and how those should influence their profession and employer of choice. They will understand that they need to exhibit a strong combination of soft and hard skills, and that without the former, the latter are probably useless. They will know that there are people behind all the numbers.

A really good business education will produce graduates who are humble, ready to learn and improve, and able to contribute in putting more bread on more tables – not just on their own.

The author is president of North Star Leadership Group and author of ‘Good vs Good: Why the 8 Great Goods Are Behind Every Good (and Bad) Decision’

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