Can business schools prepare students for a 70-year career?

Andrew Hill wonders if today’s young graduates need more from business schools over the next decades

At the World Economic Forum last year, one management professor who was instructing students in their early 20s — some of whom might work into their 90s — was heard lamenting “what can I teach them that will still be relevant in 2085?”

Go back 70 years to appreciate the scale of the challenge. Only in 1947 did the word “entrepreneur” appear in a Harvard Business School course description and even then it was years before it took root. Jeffrey Cruikshank writes in Shaping the Waves, a history of the teaching of entrepreneurship at Harvard, that these “were the modest beginnings of a faculty effort that would take nearly a half-century to come into its own”.

Business schools sometimes like to give the impression that what they teach will endure a lifetime. But as Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott point out in their new book The 100-Year Life, as more people live for a century or even longer, the three traditional stages of a working life — education, career and retirement — will blur and break down.

What are the attributes that an aspiring twentysomething manager might require to thrive over her or his long career? Is it even possible to imagine such skills packaged into a neat curriculum? The most obvious is perhaps the least obviously teachable: adaptability.

As Mary Barra, chief executive of General Motors (and a lifer at the carmaker) has pointed out, young people entering the workforce now anticipate, according to some studies, holding as many as 15 or 20 different jobs. “Your success will largely be determined not just by how good your plan is, but how well you adapt to meet the changing needs of the customer,” she wrote in a blog post last year.

As Gratton and Scott note in their book, flexibility is a particular trait of adolescents. Maintaining that adaptability into adulthood will be an important technique for the young generation to master. As the relationship between age and life stage changes, it will be more important than ever for generations to mix. An educational or career experience that does not expose younger workers to older colleagues, and vice versa, will handicap both groups. Business schools like to promote the campus experience over online courses with the argument that group study helps solidify a network that can prove useful later: the wider the span of that network, by gender, ethnicity — and age — the more useful it will be.

Collaboration will be a critical skill for generations that expect to work beyond their 90th year. As Margaret Heffernan, the author and entrepreneur, has written in A Bigger Prize, her book about the dangers of obsessing over competition, “little in our culture trains, rewards or even seems to notice great collaboration”. The most interesting current research on leadership recognises that teams whose members acknowledge the particular expertise of other team members, mostly work better than teams governed from the top down by rigid command-and-control hierarchies.

In fact, the most exciting changes in management are happening from the bottom up, as a wider variety of companies adopt “agile” methods of product and project management borrowed from software developers and start-ups. Willingness to work in autonomous small teams, exercising decision-making power within the framework of a wider project, will be increasingly valuable.

While it is easy to underestimate the inertia of established corporate structures, only a few managers will find their careers mapped out, Mary Barra-style, through one company. Managers will need to gain experience of change, and how to work beyond the traditional corporation, in start-ups, social enterprises, non-governmental organisations and government.

Endurance: Mary Barra, chief executive of General Motors, has been with the company all her working life © Bloomberg

At the same time, managers who want to thrive over their 60- or 70-year careers will need to assimilate softer aptitudes, not only in managing others but in managing themselves, both physically and mentally. A course in mindfulness and meditation may be as beneficial, in the long term, as an understanding of marketing is in the short term.

What of harder knowledge? Susan Athey of Stanford Graduate School of Business found the statistics courses she attended early in her career deathly dull — and she is a gifted mathematician. The “rock stars” of the future, she says, will be managers who not only understand data, but can also explain the significance of statistical analysis to their bosses and teams. Similarly, as cognitive computing advances, being able to use the new tools and to work together with “co-bots”, collaborative robots and advanced software tools, will become essential.

As for what such a curriculum would look like, part of it will be built by the managers themselves. “More people will decide to manage their own learning experiences before they join a corporation,” write Gratton and Scott. “They will keep their options open by becoming an explorer or an independent producer, gathering up experiences and honing their skills, sometimes before embarking on full-time education, sometimes afterwards.”

The best educational organisations will recognise this and offer a range of options that allow for the accumulation of vital current specialisations — today, coding; tomorrow, perhaps, applied neuroscience — while staying open to the attributes that may be necessary decades hence.

In this respect, the most important way business schools can future-proof existing courses is by offering existing students options for their future education. Think how useful it would be if courses came with a voucher that students could cash in later — in their 40s, 50s, even as nonagenarians — when they need to acquire knowledge of an area that they, let alone their teachers, cannot imagine today. 

The writer is FT management editor and author of ‘Leadership in the Headlines’

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