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Renewing the Mission of Management Education

In their 2005 essay Moving Higher Education to its Next Stage, Harvard Business School professors Nitin Nohria, Rajesh Khurana and Rosabeth Moss Kanter argued that universities – and especially business schools – needed to renew and refresh their mission. As they observed, the problems emerging today transcend professional boundaries and demand multi-disciplinary, cross-sector solutions, yet the leaders best poised to address these problems often lack the skills, experience, and capabilities to do so.

It’s even more urgent now for business schools and academy organizations to prepare emerging business leaders for careers founded upon tri-sector experience and perspectives, integrative problem-solving, and cognitive diversity – careers that allow them to master multiple fields; to maximize collaboration and encounter with unfamiliar domains; and to develop the transformational assets they need to make frequent and productive transitions.

If we’re to affirm our commitment to addressing society’s most urgent needs – and to prepare our students for a long and multidimensional life – then our curriculum, pedagogy, and institutional strategy should emphasize three key priorities.

First, we should give our students the opportunity to explore not just one discipline, but several – to set in motion a habit of building extended knowledge and capabilities. They should enter onto the continuum that leads through Serial Fluency to Serial Proficiency, and ultimately even to Serial Mastery. Some of the most inspiring leaders of our time adopted this approach, exhibiting both a capacity and willingness to learn new tricks even at advanced stages in their careers.

Take Nate Fick, who led a Marine battalion in Iraq and Afghanistan, went to business school, led a security think tank, and is now building a venture capital-funded cybersecurity company. Or Patty Stonesipher, who led a division of Microsoft, then helped launch the Gates Foundation, then chaired the Smithsonian Institution, and now leads a small Washington-based non-profit, Martha’s Table. Perhaps most unusual is the story of Justin Welby, who spent the first 11 years of his career as an oil industry executive but then became a priest, rising with extraordinary speed to become the Archbishop of Canterbury – head of the Anglican Church and the Church of England.

In order to do this, our second priority should be to maximize collaboration and encounter. In a compelling little book called Conversation, the Oxford philosopher Theodore Zeldin asks, “How long do you think it would take for a doctor to teach me what it means to be a doctor?” – to give one a sense of how doctors solve problems and of what it means to live life as a doctor would. He writes that one doctor responded that it would take six weeks and that an engineer answered three months to the same question. Zeldin suggests that conversations like these would “demystify the professions, giving outsiders a better sense of the problems they face, [providing] the basis of experience needed to remodel the world of work [and] to create new combinations of professions.” This is what I mean by Serial Fluency, Proficiency, and Mastery.

Typically, business schools foster this kind of learning through joint degrees – with public policy, law, and even medicine. These efforts are promising starts, yet their duration and cost remain prohibitive to many. What’s crucial is the development of scalable and sustainable models of change, like the Core Pathways Initiative at Georgetown University, where I now teach. This initiative allows students to study a wicked problem through a rich collection of interdisciplinary offerings, with climate change as its inaugural theme. Programs like these are all about lowering barriers while raising the prospect for meaningful collaboration – and we need many more of them.

Ultimately, these kinds of efforts are meant to model a way forward for our students, serving as a blueprint for how to engage with complex issues once they’re out in the world. Yet our students’ ability to chart their own path through these issues rests largely on their capacity to navigate change effectively. To that end, our third priority must be to help them develop the transformational assets they will need in order to do exactly that. My own research has centered on identifying and defining the most important of these assets, and I have come to believe that there are six that are especially significant.

First is the fortitude to embrace moral complexity with grace and purpose – never shying away from difficult conversations, but instead exhibiting the courage to bridge the chasms between competing value systems. They’ll need this kind of highly attuned moral compass to navigate between the public, private, and non-profit arenas – synthesizing ethical differences that have historically impeded cross-sector transition and collaboration.

Second, they’ll need an intellectual thread so that they can apply subject-matter expertise across a wide range of professional contexts, refining and extending their proficiency as an expert. This T-shaped approach to life enables a hybrid of breadth and depth— an integrative problem-solving toolkit. It guards against the perils of a scattershot career, capable of contributing to cocktail conversations but not much else; and equally of an insular career, blinkered to the world beyond its limited horizon.

Third, a robust arsenal of transferable skills, complete with tools, techniques, and methods to define direction and solve complex problems, whatever the institutional context. They’ll need the skills to execute sophisticated missions across a range of professional settings – to solve problems, lead individuals and teams, drive change; and above all, to navigate their own professional journey.

Fourth, an extended network of colleagues, clients, and collaborators. They’ll need to build enduring relationships beyond the confines of transactional engagements; to identify, access, and apply information across different domains of work; and to draw upon varying sources of perspective.

Fifth, a finely honed contextual intelligence – to listen, learn, and adapt with humility, confidence, and agility. Wherever they work in a career of multiple transitions, they’ll need to reach a kind of cultural adaptability that secures their standing as respected insiders – even as they retain an outsider’s independence and objectivity. As Ronald Heifetz observes of the best adaptive leaders, they have a practiced ability to “get on the balcony and observe the dance floor below.”

Finally, a prepared mind – since, as Louis Pasteur noted: “In the fields of human observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” They’ll need to operate at the intersection of their assets, their aspirations, and their assessment of market realities (to paraphrase Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn). They’ll need to build the intellectual fortitude and emotional resilience to chart a course, adapt to changing circumstances, respond to setbacks, and seize opportunities that come their way.

If management academies can instill these transformational assets in their students, they will have strengthened their ability to operate in today’s complex tri-sector world, to the benefit of all of us in our society.

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