Learning to Lead in a Complex World

Martha Maznevski of IMD.

MBAs sometimes say with cynicism “I learned as much from my classmates as I did from the professors.”  In today’s business world, that should be said with pride.  MBA programs should take class composition – not just individual selection – as seriously as they do any other part of the curriculum.

To remain relevant in today’s global business environment, MBAs need to learn about how to implement business models differently in different situations. Think about the financial crisis – it was not only the result of greed and a lack of leadership, but also the consequence of naiveté – leaders simply failed to realize the impact of their decisions.  Who would have thought that the ability of a taxi driver in Nevada to make a mortgage payment would influence a German manufacturer sourcing parts in China?  The leaders we prepare now must be able to navigate: to take such possibilities into account, to anticipate and prioritize, to work across boundaries without losing direction, and to lead with a sense of responsibility for their impact on others.

The now-traditional method of learning in business schools – business cases – only goes so far.  A business case presents a situation, and MBAs learn how to use a particular tool in that situation to achieve a particular outcome.  But what would happen if the situation were different?  Would the same tool have the same impact?  This is where learning from others in the class is key.

Running a successful and sustainable business is not an individual accomplishment, it is a social one. This is such a truism it seems trivial to state it, but it is so important not to forget. Effective learning, too, is social. All the research on knowledge, skill acquisition and application (in other words, learning something you can actually use) proves that the most effective learning happens in social settings. I mean social in the true sociological sense of “together with other people”, not in the narrow and more colloquial sense of “having fun, nothing serious”. If both effective learning and effective business practice are social, then having the right social context has great significance.

What is the right mix of people for learning to lead?   Like every high-performing group, there must be some characteristics that people have in common related to the task at hand (in this case, learning about business implementation), and then as much diversity as possible on everything else. The commonalities are important for establishing goals around which we become jointly committed and a language with which we communicate, and the diversity is important for covering more territory and creating innovation to achieve those goals.

In the ideal MBA class, the participants are all accomplished and intelligent. They have demonstrated the motivation to make a difference in meaningful ways, and the discipline and capabilities to do that. They learn quickly, and have expertise in some aspect of business. They can keep up with the pace of an intense program. Moreover, they are all curious about the wider world and globalization, and are excited about learning more.  This combination of attitudes and knowledge will create an environment of discovery in the classroom, the foundation for learning about how things work in different contexts.  But there the commonalities should end, and diverse composition should begin.

To allow MBAs to develop comparisons and contrasts across different settings, the class must have a broad spectrum of industry and functional backgrounds and a global mix of regions and cultures.  For the best environment, no culture, nor industry, nor functional background should dominate.  Gender diversity is also important – a more balanced class in terms of gender means that women’s voices are more likely to get heard, and at the same time women are not as noticeable as “different”, so the women themselves can focus more on simply being “people”.  The professor’s role must evolve: from providing knowledge about various tools and frameworks, to also framing and facilitating discussion among the class to bring out important similarities and differences across situations.

The business world is not going to become simple again – interdependence, variety, ambiguity and change are all here to stay, and if anything they will increase.  Leaders of today and the future need to learn more and more about navigating through this environment to create opportunities and progress.  The learning environment itself is one of the key enablers of this skill. Therefore, the MBA class composition is a powerful part of the learning environment and creates the most impact.  The diversity of the class is essential, but equally critical is what everyone has in common. The former gives us something to learn from, the latter gives us a reason and a way to learn.

Martha Maznevski is Professor of Organizational Behavior and International Management at IMD, and the MBA Program Director. IMD recently announced its new program design – learn more at http://www.imd.org/news/IMD-MBA-new-program-design.cfm.