Ethics, values and people skills (civic leadership through community outreach and social responsibility)

These are competencies easily misunderstood or overlooked as ancillary to the primary function of business schools. In truth, this pillar is as critical as the others. It does not displace the analytical skills required to run an enterprise; it complements them. Business leaders must act ethically if they are to regain and maintain public confidence in the aftermath of corporate accounting scandals in the early 2000s and the reputational damage caused by the more recent financial sector meltdown. These abuses sent a powerful negative signal to the public about business and, while introducing ethical and social concerns to the curriculum helps to offset an undesirable public image for business schools, the most important reason to include this discussion is that doing so helps to safeguard the trust that is the bedrock of our financial markets. Not only is ethical behavior intrinsically right to pursue; it is also essential to create widespread prosperity. MBA programs are positioned to make important contributions to society by advancing this discourse and instilling the proper values in their graduates. With this civic leadership focus, ethical behavior is paramount for business schools and must be diffused throughout the curriculum.

Ethical behavior must be reflected in the civic arena but also within organizations, where it plays a part in building trust and morale. Managing people effectively means understanding how to motivate them to achieve their best performance. Respect and fair-mindedness are virtues in themselves, but they also serve progressive functions within an organization to create an inclusive culture where teams are challenged and engaged. Demonstrating genuine concern for building the staff’s abilities will serve those individuals and the entire organization. Effective leaders understand that accomplishments require many people pulling together, motivated by a common goal to which they lend their talents.

Such a people-centric culture helps to build talent and provide recognition through feedback. It empowers people to act while holding them accountable and letting them make a difference. Schools should cultivate many ways for students to build these skills by creating an environment with clubs (particularly those with an academic agenda) and engagement with the community through civic leadership opportunities, such as those available through the national Net Impact organization. Another way students gain leadership through collaboration is by organizing and running academic conferences. This allows them to refine their team-leadership skills while providing a forum for testing classroom insights through interaction with practitioners and other conference participants.

Effective communication is equally important - particularly across national and cultural borders. These so-called “soft skills” make hard impressions that influence success. Anyone who has negotiated an important deal understands this challenge. Add cross-cultural complexity to negotiation and one quickly sees how important these people skills can be. Business periodicals regularly feature articles outlining the necessary steps to ensure optimal negotiations; and, without fail, a critical element is the ability to understand human psychology and cultural differences.35 These skills are often lacking in business school graduates, even as the skills’ importance increases. A Fortune article outlined the problem, and indicated how some schools were complementing their analytical courses with team-oriented offerings that provide a forum for honing communication.36

Through an approach like the Four Pillars, business curricula can kindle students’ imaginations, encouraging them to dream big and igniting a desire for action that makes significant positive contributions to the world. Through inspiration, schools can foster the drive necessary for leaders to harness their people’s energy and instill a culture of action in their organizations.

The values implicit in the Four Pillars relate to another point raised by some critics of the MBA curriculum: the age and diversity of the entering students. Some have argued that the average student enrolled in a full-time MBA program is too young to benefit from the experience. These students, whose average age is 27, typically enter the program after five years of professional experience. In fact, five years is too long to wait before pursuing the MBA. Three years on the job is more than sufficient to gain the necessary perspective and experience-but not so long that undesirable habits (that is, learning impediments) form. Today’s “millennial” students, born between 1980 and 2000, study quickly and are very bright, having grown up with computer technology in environments that forced them to manage multiple challenges simultaneously. These students are capable of benefiting from the leadership models advanced here. In fact, top US business schools are starting to pay more attention to younger students, with some even targeting 10 percent of their enrollment from among those arriving directly from undergraduate programs (see, for example, Della Bradshaw, “The Rise of the Younger Student”, Financial Times, 17 September 2007).

Still, in one important way, student age is indeed a major consideration for business schools, in that curricula must respond to the various needs of what we call the “MBA Lifecycle,” a framework that helps illustrate, and maintain and enhance, the MBA’s lifetime value (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: The typical career trajectory of today's MBA graduate

In addition, the market greeting today’s graduates looks different than that confronting graduates in the 1970s. At that time, the MBA had more obvious value, since those holding the degree went to work for people who did not themselves have an MBA. Today, some might suggest that management education is a victim of its own success: more people now have the degree, producing typical supply-and-demand pressures. Answering this challenge calls for increased innovation, superior execution and product differentiation, considerations that inform the MBA Lifecycle model below. Understanding the life cycle, and recent trends in applications and recruitment at business schools, supports the view that the MBA’s value remains significant and unique. In fact, according to the 2007 “Global MBA Survey” conducted by GMAC, 61 percent of all respondents “considered their degrees to be outstanding or excellent value”.37

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