What MBA programs really need

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school-booksThere are some interesting discussions underway about the future of management education. Harvard Business School recently convened academics, recruiters and executives at its 100-year anniversary to assess MBA education and plan changes to their programs. The report notes gaps in MBA education, primarily related to leadership, soft skills and globalization. In other news, the October Issue of Harvard Business Review includes an article entitled “Its Time to Make Management a True Profession” by two Harvard professors who suggest that the MBA should be formalized through a graduate “certification” exam and a sort of Hippocratic oath.

I kind of like the idea of the Hippocratic oath, but gearing business schools to teach the more “practical” and gearing education towards a certification exam concerns me. Considering the limited duration of MBA programs, business schools do a pretty good job teaching the basics. With so much time spent recruiting and a summer off for an internship, classes just fly by. They simply cannot teach every subject matter and expect that a graduate will get to mastery in all areas. That said, any graduate should have the foundation to learn more. I lived this recently. I have an MBA, but I am by no means a finance expert. I built Thought Ensemble’s compensation model and pro-forma financials. Once I thought it was close to done, I sought the advice of one of my trusted friends in finance. He helped me refine the model, providing some great insights into working capital requirements, valuations, and adjustable bonus compensation. There’s no way I could have built something as sophisticated as I did without an MBA, but I still needed the help of an “expert” to get it from 80% to 100%. Some might say I should have learned all that in school, or passed a test to prove that I had all that knowledge. Had these details been drilled in detail in school, I would have been less likely to retain them because they were not relevant at the time. Had I been required to take a certification exam covering those topics, I may have learned some of it but I probably would have forgotten it in the five years since. And I would have likely missed out on valuable broader concepts because my professors would have taught to ensure we passed the exam. I don’t think MBA programs need to focus more on practical skills.

If I were to change the MBA programs, I’d focus a lot more on leadership and communication, as the HBS summit concludes. But I’m not talking about the kinds of leadership classes where you study different styles of leaders or the kinds of communication classes where you learn how to write and present. Those are fine, but leadership and communication can be learned much more effectively through programs that are more transformational – completely changing your perspective on yourself and the way you interact with the world around you. I’ve been exposed to a number of these programs (Covey, NLP, Landmark and more). These programs, especially the Landmark Education ones on leadership and communication, have been as or more critical to my career as my MBA. Even better, they teach it fast, with most courses lasting one weekend. Business schools could start each semester with a 2-3 day intensive course covering one of these areas. These kinds of skills could really change the way MBAs operate back in the real world.

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