How Can Business Schools Train Better Leaders

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G. John Cole
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Honolulu, Hawaii, 22-24th April: this year’s International Conference and Annual Meeting of The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business is to offer the chance to ‘connect, discover, and lead’ among the world's top business academics and collaborators. The conference will host the ideal community in which to ask questions about how we identify and shape tomorrow’s business leaders.

It starts with recruitment

Naturally, the best moment to begin refining the pool of future leaders is at the recruitment stage. Keeping abreast of the best practices in student marketing and enrollment means following – and setting – trends in the sector. Today, that requires data analysis, market observation, and open communication.

MBA admissions professionals are learning to appreciate a wealth of talent and enthusiasm that was previously unfeasible to tap. It is more straightforward than ever to connect faculty members with potential students, for example – but an even wider corps of ambassadors exists in the form of an institution’s alumni.

University alumni are developing ever-tighter bonds with their almae matres due to the increased access to – and necessity - of networking and of continued education. When those alumni are already forging ahead in business, they can make ideal talent scouts when it comes to identifying recruits who are a good fit for a school.

And 24/7-availability for prospective students – a must for any modern business school – comes with the added advantage of getting to know those students and their communities better ahead of the application process.

Development of the interdisciplinary

Tomorrow’s leaders will be lost without as firm a grip on the context of their business as they are on the specifics of their industry. Faculties can step up to provide that context by facilitating collaborations with tech, design, and other schools to create hybrid programs for well-rounded leaders.

Partnerships with law and medical schools can be equally profitable. Co-operation between the Faculty of Business and the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, for example, has helped the business school to concentrate its focus on ethics, responsibility, and sustainability through the development of a Wellness Clinic.

‘The first phase of the initiative was an open competition, in which student teams put forth different business models based on their findings on the preventive healthcare needs in the community,’ reports the faculty’s Associate Dean Dr. Pamsy Hui.  ‘The winning team was then invited to join the core management team of the clinic, implementing its business model.’

It has proved an excellent opportunity for budding business leaders to put what they’ve learned in the classroom into practice, and to gain early experience of communicating with specialists from outside their immediate professional sphere.

The creation of a good learning environment

This last point is key. Business leadership is not all about knowledge and skill sets – it requires deep personal and interpersonal work. This can only be learned in an appropriate educational or professional atmosphere, so schools have a responsibility to provide a healthy social environment at the very heart of their programs.

Sharpening awareness of the social and community context of what a student hopes to achieve will stimulate them to go that extra mile – be it supporting the work of others, putting in extra hours, or taking on additional responsibility in the form of union leadership or extra-curricular business projects. Students who are encouraged to do so will develop the muscle and the sensitivity to cope admirably with the challenges of their chosen career.

Make sure “leadership” is not your only selling point

The student is not the only party who should interrogate their own motivation. Institutions, too, need to recognize that ‘leadership’ is not the only thing that matters in the world of business.  While it’s easy to assume that every business student is aiming for the C-suite, not every student can or should be a leader. And that’s a good thing. Team players, managers and creatives are essential to the mix – and it takes only a bit of marketing ingenuity to make these prospects stand out from the noise of business schools selling executive offerings.

This means that schools have a responsibility to their students to be realistic about their aspirations and the needs of the industry. Prep your incoming students with the understanding that success in the business world exists in and outside of the corner office.  To optimize their career opportunities, they need to commit to developing other skills such as teamwork and technical knowledge, regardless of their goals. 

Outstanding business schools are the ones poised to embrace and nurture students at every level of leadership. And those institutions that do target and attract future leaders will do so by offering rigorous teaching schedules that genuinely deliver not just instruction but the facilitation of learning and self-growth that it takes to become a leader – as has always been the case and will become more so in the future.

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