What do you teach when you don't know what the future will hold for business leaders, and after a spectacular global financial meltdown that many have blamed on lack of character among some key decision makers?
Some business schools are turning to the softer skills that businesses are increasingly looking for in their hires.
This is the first year of the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business’s revamped master of business administration program, which introduces what associate dean Murali Chandrashekaran calls “leadership and change management skills.”
Dr. Chandrashekaran, like many MBA program leaders, believes business education is at a crossroads and needs to take a new direction. In order to account for this shift in business education, UBC has swapped its traditional teaching structure, which focused on technical skills, to incorporate more abstract thinking and creativity.
“Eventually, if the MBA program is not helping develop talent for the future then we’re not really fulfilling our broader purpose,” Dr. Chandrashekaran says. “But prediction is really hard, especially when it involves the future,” he chuckles.
UBC isn’t the only school changing its approach to business education. In this era after the economic meltdown, several MBA programs across the country have redesigned the way they teach. These programs argue that developing leaders that can communicate, analyze and think beyond spreadsheets and quarterly reports is crucial to the move beyond the financial crisis and avoid the same mistakes down the road.
To form these “architects of change,” Dr. Chandrashekaran says that the next step is to introduce entrepreneurship and creativity into the classroom.
“The future is going to be even more complex, and innovation, creativity and complex decision-making are going to be even more important, so that’s the next focus,” he says.
But it’s also about teaching lessons beyond the lecture halls.
As part of this new international MBA program, students will have the choice to travel to one of three destinations: China, India, or Denmark. Here students will team with corporations from those areas, as well as local MBA students, to work on team projects.
“We want to teach students to work with diversity … so the global immersion is crucial,” he says. “You can’t learn without doing.”
Often called soft skills, many of these interpersonal techniques and traits were traditionally shoved aside to make room for so-called hard skills found in finance and data analysis.
At the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business, Mary Crossan knows that these so-called soft skills are what businesses are looking for in the next generation of leaders.
Back in 2010, Dr. Crossan and several colleagues put together a report entitled Leadership On Trial. The team interviewed business leaders around the world and asked them about the failures in leadership that occurred in the run-up to the economic crisis.
“The big surprise to us was that time and again the term character came up, but people didn’t know what it was and had different interpretations of what it was,” says Dr. Crossan, who then set out to define the elusive term and find ways to build it into tomorrow’s business people.
“It’s simple things like ego,” Dr. Crossan explains. “If ego gets in the way of how you learn about things and how you engage in the organization you’re not going to be able to make the best decisions and you’re not going to have the best capacity to understand what’s going on around you.”
It’s about teaching her students balance. Ego in moderation, for instance, can be seen as self-esteem and allow people to have confidence in their decision-making, but too much of it and a person may not be able to think beyond themselves.
In Dr. Crossan’s transformational leadership course, MBA students are given executive mentors and role-playing tasks to help find their virtues and vices. The students even go so far as to engage in near-death visualization and hot yoga to dig deeper into their character.
“You can have all knowledge of strategy, or you can have a lot of knowledge of finance or operations management,” Dr. Crossan says. “Yet who you are in the midst of making those decisions really matters.”
Business ethics have also experienced a revival since the economic crisis. And while it’s an element of business education that has been around for years, such events as the Enron scandal and the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme have brought this discipline to the forefront.
“Scandals are good for business when it comes to business ethics,” explains Andrew Crane, director of the Centre of Excellence in Responsible Business at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto.
Not only is there more focus on this area of study, but many business ethics courses have changed significantly over the passed few years, Dr. Crane explains. They are not as focused on how to judge decisions in the corporate world. Instead, these courses look at environmental influences, institutional and organizational forces that shape the behaviour of these decision-makers. Courses such as finance and accounting are also bringing in an element of ethics – a further melding of hard and soft skills.
And thanks to scandals and the economic meltdown, even the fight to get ethics onto the syllabus has changed, he explains.
“A number of years ago it was something that we had to make more of argument to have included on the curriculum or we had to convince students of the necessity of it,” Dr. Crane says. “The last few years that’s very much not the case.”