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Weaving Creative Careers into an MBA Mix

With jobs scarcer in such classic fields as finance and consulting, Europe’s MBAs and B-schools are looking into more creative professions

(published in BusinessWeek, March 2010)

Last year, as the world economy teetered on the edge of economic abyss, there was a simmering panic in business school circles about where the next set of MBA jobs would come from. The collapse of mighty institutions such as Lehman Brothers, coupled with recruitment freezes across much of the financial sector, seemed to rule out one traditional home for graduates while another preferred industry—management consultancy—also looked shaky.

Fortunately, while 2009 wasn’t the best year for business education, it didn’t turn out to be the Armageddon many predicted. Although their numbers may be somewhat diminished, banking and consulting recruiters are now back on campus at major schools across Europe. They are finding that their jobs aren’t quite as easy as they used to be. Drawing on the lessons of the global downturn, some of the best and brightest students have started to question whether a career in potentially more robust sectors might not be a better idea.

One of the areas benefiting from this shift in focus is luxury goods. Consider the case of Milan’s top-rated SDA Bocconi. “As an Italian school, we’ve forged strong links with leaders in the [luxury] sector, such as Bulgari and Ferrari, and have a long history of using these connections to place graduates,” says Professor Valter Lazzari. “In the last year we’ve seen a marked rise in interest in the sector because luxury brands have fared so much better than many financial institutions or consulting houses.”

LVMH, the company behind such brands as Louis Vuitton, Moët & Chandon, and Tag Heuer, now operates a program called “FuturA” to identify and develop future business leaders. The program draws many of its participants from a raft of top European schools, including HEC Paris, IMD, London Business School, and SDA Bocconi. Its recruitment and development director, Antoine Tirard, points out that the distinctive nature of the business means that it looks for much more than the classic MBA graduate. “One of our biggest challenges is to find top international talent that can combine strong financial awareness, good managerial skills, and an intuitive understanding of the creative process. It’s a rare mix—and one that we regard as essential to our continuing success.”

THEATER, BARS, CAFÉS—AND BUSINESS

Financial awareness and the development of management skills are, of course, at the heart of any credible MBA program. But can creativity—or at least a genuine comprehension of creative processes—really be taught to hard-headed business men and women in the classroom?

One B-school addressing the issue is ESADE in Barcelona. Keen to develop beyond the conventional boundaries of business education, the school has partnered with one of the world’s top design institutions, the Arts Center in Pasadena, Calif. Their first cooperation has been the “Beyond Pretty” program, which uses a mix of psychology, anthropology, and sociology to tackle business problems. The program takes participants out of the lecture theater and into what are described as “living laboratories,” otherwise known as bars and cafés, to see the theory in action. ESADE also uses a theater class to develop communication and creative skills. The class goes so far as to teach techniques used by stage actors, such as controlled breathing, the use of facial expressions, silence and pauses, and improvisation around a theme.

The best way to produce the well-rounded MBA graduates desired by companies in the creative sector may be to bring a more diverse set of students into the classroom in the first place. According to Valerie Gauthier, associate dean at HEC Paris, what MBA classes now need is fewer entrants from the traditional student recruiting grounds of banking, consultancy, and industry, and more from politics, history, philosophy, and the arts. In her view, this mix would deliver benefits all around. Students from less-conventional backgrounds would learn the realities of life on the front line of business, while their peers would gain a wider view beyond the balance sheet and the board room.

As part of their efforts to reach a broader audience, HEC Paris and SDA Bocconi are now collaborating with icons of creativity and design for some of their international MBA information sessions. HEC Paris recently hosted an event at the Apple Store in London, while SDA Bocconi will be at the Armani Store on New York’s Fifth Avenue next month. If nothing else, the next generation of MBAs will be better connected and better dressed for a new world of business in the wake of the global downturn. If the schools have their way, they will also be better equipped to serve a global market that demands more creative thinking—not just mastery of income statements.

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About symondsgsb

Matt is chief editor of MBA50.com, a website dedicated to the world's outstanding business schools. He is an internationally recognised business and graduate school expert, consulting to the world’s top business schools, and has written for many of the world’s leading publications including : Forbes, The Economist, BusinessWeek, BBC, Newsweek, CNBC, America Economia, Washington Post, The Independent, Boston Globe, Handelsblatt, 21st Century Herald, South China Morning Post, Vedomosti, San Francisco Chronicle, Expansion, Beijing Daily. Matt was Co-Founder of the QS World MBA Tour Matt is co-author of Getting the M.B.A. Admissions Edge, a B-school admissions bestseller sponsored by Goldman Sachs and McKinsey. His new individual school guides will be available in the fall.

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