Are business schools failing to produce business leaders?

The Fortune article “MBAs gone wild: Have B-schoolers gone too far?”, highlighted how a cultural flaw that afflicts Wall Street and many high-powered business cliques and corporate communities has come to infect business schools…

“The problem of the ‘male adolescent culture’ at business schools is widespread,” says one prominent business school professor who preferred not to be quoted directly on the issue. “And how that ‘excludes’ groups — females, married students, and even some foreign students who don’t fit in — is also an issue. This is simply the Wall Street culture, which really hasn’t changed much since the bad old days, imported to business school.”

Business schools, in essence, have come to mimic an environment that rewards the sort of cheerleading powow culture of the elite set of so-called up-and-coming “rising stars” that many corporate organisations put up as the archetypical “achievers” that their employees are encouraged to emulate. This is not surprising in an age where every ambitious corporate denizen is expected to have her “pitch” constantly handy and ready to be delivered in a Power Point slide pack or, get this, an “elevator speech” (in case, as the thinking goes, the CEO happens to step into the lift you happen to be riding and asks you “what’s up?”). And because just about every piece of communication of corporate consequence has to be a “pitch” one needs to take on a salesman’s persona to be noticed by people of consequence.

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But because the average business school student is in his or her early 20’s and has got lots to prove, this fashionable pressure to embody a “pitch” tends to manifest itself in boorish behaviour when taken outside of its intended context…

In 2008, for example, some MBA students at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management reportedly were so drunk at an event at the Field Museum in Chicago that the bar was shut down early. According to an email written by a student officer, some students attempted to smuggle into the museum “a substantial amount of alcohol” in large trash bins filled with bottles, cans, and flasks.

Some MBA candidates arrived at Kellogg’s open bar event already over-served and began to vomit on themselves. Some students spat at people and threw things at the museum’s $8.3 million Tyrannosaurus Rex. “It is pretty embarrassing that the Field Museum will refuse to host future Kellogg events unless they can treat it like a high school prom, with breathalyzers, high security, and chaperones,” wrote Andrea Hanson, then a vice president of the Kellogg Student Association.

In her book Quiet. The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain relates the experience of Don, a student at the prestigious Harvard Business School (HBS) who struggles to keep up with the demands of a culture that encourages constant “participation” in group activities under the premise that it is the team players who are likely to succeed in the corporate world. Both in and out of classroom hours, students are expected to mingle and “collaborate”. Even leisure times are spent internalising this ethic…

“Socializing here is an extreme sport,” one of Don’s friends tells me. “People go out all the time. If you don’t go out one night, the next day people will ask, ‘Where were you?’ I go out at night like it’s my job.” Don has noticed that people who organize social events — happy hours, dinners, drinking fests — are at the top of the social hierarchy. “The professors tell us that our classmates are the people who will go to our weddings,” says Don. “If you leave HBS without having built an extensive social network, it’s like you failed the HBS experience.”

But is an extensive social network really the key ingredient that fuels the sort of corporate success that keeps pumped-up MBA grads abuzz? Perhaps so in a large organisation where the proverbial large number of fish compete for attention and eminence in the proverbial big pond. Within the setting of a large mature corporation, much of the innovation and thinking by the real mavens and visionaries had already been institutionalised into the organisation’s fabric. Employees need only perform within a framework already laid out for them. The value of one’s “pitch” touted by management as an ambitious employee’s biggest personal asset is really just illusory.

For people who aspire (or are inadvertently destined) to create something truly groundbreaking and unprecedented, there is no such framework. They make their pitch alone — to themselves. Again, Cain in Quiet provides an excellent example in Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak..

Wozniak did most of the work inside his cubicle at Hewlett-Packard [where he was employed before he co-founded Apple with Steve Jobs]. He’d arrive around 6:30 a.m. and, alone in the early morning, read engineering magazines, study chip manuals, and prepare designs in his head. After work, he’d go home, make a quick spaghetti or TV dinner, then drive back to the office and work late into the night. He describes this period of quiet midnights and solitary sunrises as “the biggest high ever.” His efforts paid off on the night of June 29, 1975, at around 10:00 p.m., when Woz finished building a prototype of his machine. He hit a few keys on the keyboard — and letters appeared on the screen in front of him. It was the sort of breakthrough moment that most of us can only dream of. And he was alone when it happened.

Perhaps it is when herd behaviour dominates — when people simply follow or ride the popular flow, often prodded by the loud cheerleaders among us — that quiet reflection that could lead to truly innovative thought that results in groundbreaking change fails to take hold. People say education is key. Quite disturbing then that rather than aspire to mold young people into disciplined mindful leaders, we see business schools instead encouraging their students to emulate the bad habits and bad behaviour of a generation of managers that led us to financial collapse.

7 Replies to “Are business schools failing to produce business leaders?”

  1. This is nothing new; 20 (well, 20-ish) years ago, it was a constant drumbeat at my business school that the number one value of the whole experience was the networking benefits. The problem is, that is only useful if you stay within a relatively narrow range of vocations once you leave school, which in my case would have meant going into government, the banking sector, or corporate finance, probably in that order. My own career ties, so to speak, had been established prior to grad school, however, and that’s the direction I went, which means that all those supposedly-valuable personal network connections were completely useless to me. In all the years I worked in the auto industry, I only kept in touch with two or three of my classmates in any fashion, and never (as far as I can recall) in any sort of professional context.

    Business school is fine if you’re going after it to increase your personal body of knowledge. I did learn a lot, so it was worth it for that reason. But that’s not really the approach the schools take — it’s almost treated as some sort of half-assed apprenticeship, and from the clowns I’ve run into in the business world since, I think it’s definitely reflected in management quality in general.

  2. I took my MBA at london business school and the culture there and at other UK schools where i lectured – e.g cranfield – is quite different to the US approach and ‘students’ tend to be older with some practical work/management experience under their belt, and there is generally a focus on leadership not academic technicalities.
    Having said that i agree that the popularity of mba’s has led to a general decline in quality and associated proliferation of business schools with an emphasis on the ‘administration’ not the ‘business’ aspects.
    Within the context of the philippines i have discovered that the level here is even worse with a closed door policy to outside/guest lecturers. How do these people teach intetnational business when they have never worked as an executive abroad. Students end up with an expensive piece of paper which major companies ignore unless it is from a tier 1 business school.
    Another opportunity lost to develop something here rather than pack rich kids off to US.

  3. Hi Benigs,

    This is a topic I was thinking of writing but you beat me to it and did it so well, I’d rather just comment on this piece.

    There was a pretty good discussion going on in the GRP Community FB Group on the “shawarma effect” (also known by its other monickers “lechon manok mentality”, “siomai effect”, “bubble smoothie effect”).

    What triggered it was Ben’s post on Philippine Business, Adrift in A Red Ocean

    I think, perhaps, business leadership can be viewed either literally (being actually in charge of a business in the “boss” kind of sense) or in the sense of being a visionary kind of leader — one who may actually create a new product or new market.

    I tend to think of the latter when I think of business leadership and my memory usually pulls up names like Thomas Edison, Akio Morita, Steve Jobs, etcetera.

    In the Philippines, oddly enough, there are more business graduates than any other kind of college graduate — talk about herd mentality!

    College education, in an ideal world, should probably prepare these graduates to become leaders in business — but a majority of them end up as employees.

    I think, part of the reason, is that these kids are merely going to college not because they feel a strong pull towards a particular field. But rather, because they are pushed by unwarranted expectations that a college degree will enable them to get a decent living — when the opposite proves itself a countless number of times to be true.

    A college degree is almost worthless unless you show that you excelled in college — with the degree mattering less than the fact that you got high grades.

    Actually, if you thought about it more, the people who will probably make good in 10 or 20 years down the road are those who take up a college course that isn’t so hot right now but will be in a couple of years.

    Just supposing, for example, that we can expect fossil fuels to double or triple in price, what would be a specialization that would be in demand by then?

    I’d have a mind to think that it may be, of all things, botany or agriculture or chemistry — or any field of knowledge that would be relevant to turning green stuff into energy.

    I’d also consider college courses in marine engineering — supposing it becomes viable to build floating cities or citadels because of rapid global warming.

    Anyway, factoring in the future or what could be is a part of a key idea called “innovation” — an element that is sorely lacking in this “herd mentality prone” culture.

    1. “Collaboration” was a turn-of-the-century buzzword along which came a wave of management fads that earned a lot of money for the consulting firms that hawked them to corporate suckers — open-plan offices, “facilitation” methodologies, “team dynamics” guruism, etc. A corporate landscape that was infested with these noisemaking approaches probably bred the sorts of bozos who came up with all those dubious investment instruments as well as these monolithic “enterprise system” technologies that trap their owners in a moneypit of on-going maintenance and dependence on expensive technical support. They talked up the market for these and paved the way towards the edge over which much of the world economy had tumbled over in recent years.

      Rather than breed managers, these schools breed televangelists it seems.

      To add to what BenK said, the real source of deep insight and creativity is a body of knowledge deep enough to draw upon. And to be fair to b-schools, they do require students to slog through a heap of reading. Perhaps the thing that needs to be reformed is the approach with which they train students to draw upon and apply said knowledge in their work. Rather than use them to deliver pitches, they should be taught how to use these for developing true insight and for building stuff.

      1. I actually have a degree in business management, probably not from the best college.

        We were all filled up with management theories and I bet most of my classmates then didn’t understand 10 percent of the theories or enough to be able to come up with a management model that would work in real life.

        I still think that the best way to learn how to manage a business is by managing it.

        My wife’s cousins, who are Chinese, see business management theory as basic knowledge — just like math. They grow up in and around shops, almost all conversation that they are exposed to is how to make money out of one thing or another, how to manage people, etcetera.

        So, management theories seem kind of funny to them in a way and if you bring up one theory, you end up getting an earful of the experience they’ve had with such and such.

        But what they do find useful is “business thinking” or ways of looking at a situation and figuring out how to earn some money from it.

        Take the case of the Mindanao Power Crisis. A cousin of my wife was, one day, very visibly excited by the news of the power crisis. The reason? Well, she’s into electric generators of all sizes.

        The average Filipino trained in some business school would probably look at the situation and figure there’d be more job applicants coming to Manila.

      2. Business is like most talents, some people have it and most people simply don’t. You can learn it in school but the truly talented don’t have to or, if they do formally study business, are able to internalise it better. It’s kind of like any skill or talent in art. Some are born with it, others go to art school to acquire the skill. But real artists see things that most people routinely miss just like deeply business minded people are able to see opportunities to make money where most people see nothing.

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