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Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business stands aloof from the fads and fashions of management education. It offers neither a part-time executive MBA nor a joint programme with an overseas school. Its two-year residential MBA aims to turn out well-rounded generalists.

The formula may be traditional, but why mess with success? Stanford once again scores well in this year’s FT ranking, rising from 7th to 4th. Alumni say the MBA programme not only met expectations but resulted in solid career progress.

In line with its reputation as one of the more academically grounded business schools, Stanford’s faculty also continues to publish at an impressive rate. A thriving PhD programme underlines that the school remains committed to research, as befits its status as part of a world class university.

Still, recruiters these days are looking for young managers with a business education that is not only rigorous but also relevant. Stanford has responded to these demands, albeit at a measured pace.

A centre for leadership has opened with a brief to encourage systematic inquiry into this most elusive of management disciplines. As well as generating a steady flow of research papers and case studies, the centre supports a drive to instil leadership skills in MBA students.

This year, 70 students elected to take part in an intensive leadership programme that includes feedback from classmates and one-to-one sessions with executive coaches. What started as a pilot in 2003 is part of the curriculum.

Robert Joss, former banking executive and dean since 1999, happily concedes that emphasis on a subject as “soft” as leadership was not popular among some faculty. Take a step back, however, and the establishment of a leadership centre is just another milestone on the school’s long journey from finance and economics, where its reputation was earned in the 1970s, into fields such as psychology and sociology. The presence on campus of Jeffrey Pfeffer, a big name in organisational behaviour and an outspoken critic of MBA programmes, attests to the fact that there is more to Stanford than spreadsheets.

The leadership centre is one of four centres that Bob Joss is counting on to drive the school’s research and teaching. The others are Entrepreneurship, Social Innovation and the centre for Global Business and Economy, which opened in May. As one research centre opens, another closes. The centre for Electronic Business and Commerce, founded in 2000 at the tail-end of the dotcom boom, this year reaches the end of its five-year mandate. In addition to these changes, David Kreps, senior academic dean, points to an emphasis in the MBA programme on “experiental learning” – learning by doing rather than sitting in a lecture hall.

For example, each of this year’s 375-strong MBA intake was put through a two-day simulation that asked them to design, manufacture, market and distribute greetings cards.

Another sign of the times: increasing integration between the Graduate School of Business and other departments on Stanford’s elegant, sun-drenched campus. New this year is a bio-innovation course in which medical students come up with ideas for novel medical devices, engineering students prepare designs and MBA students work out how to turn the blueprints into businesses.

This emphasis on cross-disciplinary learning comes from the top. John Hennessey, computer science whizz and Stanford University president, has made it his mission to build bridges between the university’s islands of academic excellence.

Are these changes revolutionary? Hardly.

But when your reputation is high and customers satisfied, why take risks?

Bob Joss decided Stanford should remain small and stay focused on its two-year, general management MBA.

That strategy remains in place.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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