In our increasingly complex world, becoming an effective business leader gets ever more difficult. Of course, it has never been simple, and commerce has always been affected by politics and diplomacy, the natural sciences, demographics and other fields that require specialized expertise. But change used to happen more slowly, giving corporate leaders more time to learn and evaluate and react to circumstances. Now, in our 24/7 world of instant global communication and interconnection, take your eye off the big picture for a moment and the results can quickly be disastrous.
Because of this, the people who run business schools have come to realize that training students in traditional subjects such finance, strategy, operations and the like is no longer enough. They believe that future generations of managers will need much broader educations to be able to master the contexts their companies operate in. After years of increasing specialism, the old idea of a broad education and of the renaissance man (or, of course, woman) has become fashionable once more.
In the U.S. this has led to a rash of double-qualification programs at major schools across the country. Wharton, for example, offers a combined master of business administration and master of arts in environmental studies, as well as an MBA and law doctorate in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania Law School. In New York, Columbia Business School gives a dizzying array of dual degrees in conjunction with 10 other schools at its parent university in subjects as diverse as architecture and dentistry, social work and engineering and journalism and medicine.
Such set-ups may well turn out graduates with more varied skills than some classic MBA programs, but they also may simply end up producing doctors, lawyers and architects who better understand the importance of cash flow and good marketing. If you want to find more imaginative approaches to breaking down academic barriers to produce a renaissance MBA, you’ll do best to look at work going on at schools outside the U.S.
Alfons Sauquet, the dean of Spain’s ESADE school, in Barcelona, has been putting into practice his belief that a business school should be not a stand-alone institution but a hub that connects business, science and the arts in, if not a virtuous circle, then perhaps a virtuous triangle. This has led to programs where corporate managers and representatives of political parties and unions and others study together, resulting in, among other things, a putative partnership with one of the world’s most high-profile chefs and a philosophy-oriented MBA class focused on the study of Spain’s most famous literary figure, Don Quixote. Perhaps the best example of the school’s work to break down academic walls is its partnership with the Arts Center, in Pasadena, Calif., a top design school. That has produced a “Beyond Pretty” program that uses a mix of psychology, anthropology and sociology to try to tackle business problems, and that takes its participants out to “living laboratories”–otherwise known as bars and cafes–to see its theories in action.
In Britain, Warwick Business School now sends all its full-time MBA candidates to the CAPITAL Centre, a joint venture between Warwick University’s English department and the Royal Shakespeare Company. CAPITAL stands for Creativity and Performance in Teaching and Learning, and the center uses theater workshop techniques to help students understand and better employ verbal and nonverbal communication techniques. The idea is to teach not acting but all the soft skills that are important in business, such as teamwork, sociability, self-esteem and self-management. Nicholas Monk, a research fellow at the center, admits that some students find it a challenge to be asked to act out a leadership role in front of a group of peers. “Because this is so different to what they are used to, we always have some participants who think we’re just messing around,” Monk says. “But then we also have others like the student who said this sort of thing was precisely why he came to business school in the first place, to look at things in a different way. About 10% will hate it, and another 10% will feel ambivalent, but the rest really benefit from the experience.”
At the Desautels Faculty of Management, at McGill University, in Canada, dean Peter Todd believes many business schools have been guilty of graduating MBAs with too little contextual experience. He has consequently taken the idea of putting students in touch with ideas from other disciplines to a logical, if perhaps unexpected, conclusion–putting them in touch with themselves. The idea, which stems from the teaching philosophy of one of the school’s most renowned scholars, Henry Mintzberg, involves allowing each student quiet time, or “white space,” twice a week to reflect on his or her experiences. The premise seems to be that managers often have the answers to the challenges that confront them but don’t take the time to discover them, because of the demands of the day-to-day. As Todd puts it, “Management is about asking questions, not just providing answers. It’s as much about listening as talking. Reflection aids in developing mature managerial judgment.”
The true renaissance MBA, as familiar with art and design and the hard sciences as with a balance sheet and an organizational model, may still be some way off. But a definite change in thinking is underway at some of the more enlightened schools around the world. There’s a growing acceptance of the idea that the most effective business leaders of tomorrow will be people with a holistic approach to their jobs, not the narrow focus of the past.