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At LBS, Big Changes Precede Dean Switch

François Ortalo-Magné will take the reins at London Business School in August, but he will find a school already in the throes of change. Courtesy photo

It’s rare that huge changes come right before a new dean takes over. But even before London Business School welcomes a dean known for innovative curricular changes — current Wisconsin School of Business Dean François Ortalo-Magné — a recalibration, if not a complete overhaul, of the LBS MBA is underway.

Ortalo-Magné takes the reins at LBS in August, and he will join a school that has experienced consistent growth and rankings success. Nonetheless, change is in the offing, as LBS add new choices and flexibility to its full-time MBA program even as the school anticipates a dramatic physical expansion to go with huge growth in faculty and scholarships in the wake of a wildly successful multi-year fundraising effort.

Why change the MBA now? Because, says Gareth Howells, executive director of the MBA, Master in Finance, and Early Careers programs at LBS, the future is in customization and flexibility. That means allowing students to tailor their core coursework.

“We’ve gone through a review of our program recently, and we came to a couple of conclusions,” Howells tells Poets&Quants. “We realized that one size just didn’t fit all anymore for the MBA. We’ve had a very successful MBA program, and it was still being successful, but we really wanted to put the student — and to some extent also the employers — much more in the driving seat to inform where we went with the MBA.”

LOTS OF MONEY, LOTS OF PLANS

Gareth Howells. Courtesy photo

During his soon-to-end six-year term as dean of Wisconsin’s Business School, Ortalo-Magné positioned his school as one of the more innovative players in business education by leading a curricular change called KDBIN, which stood for “knowing, doing, being, inspiring, and networking.” A long-time lecturer himself (though his previous six-year stint at LBS as a visiting faculty member did not involve teaching), he also earned a reputation for attracting and growing highly talented faculty. Now, whatever changes he may be expecting to make in his new job, Ortalo-Magné is joining a school where wide-ranging curricular reorganization has occurred even before his arrival.

Since 2010, when Poets&Quants began ranking international MBA programs, London Business School has flip-flopped multiple times with INSEAD for the best program outside of the U.S. (INSEAD is currently on top again.) Not only will Ortalo-Magné take over a much larger MBA population — LBS had more than 400 incoming MBAs for its entering class of 2017, compared to about 100 in Wisconsin — the current dean, Sir Andrew Likierman, will leave with the school’s pocketbook in better shape than ever, and with an aggressive expansion plan in place.

In 2013, LBS launched a five-year plan to raise £100 million (about $160 million at the time). Last summer the school announced it had smashed its goal two years early, topping out at about £125 million. With the new funds in place, the school plans to expand its faculty in a staff overhaul to match the one in physical space as the Sammy Ofer Centre is completed in 2018 to grow LBS’ teaching space by 70%. (Already LBS has 157 academic staff from 50 nations.) Much of the newly raised funds will also be earmarked for scholarships to help offset rising tuition fees, which totaled £70,800 for last year’s entering class.

‘A MUCH MORE BESPOKE MENU’

Howells says the key changes to the full-time MBA are flexible exit points at 15, 18, and 21 months — students can graduate early as long as they complete the required 10 electives and one Global Business Experience (GBE), a kind of international problem-solving field trip — and, especially, the option to tailor learning alongside core modules of the program. MBA customization is no new concept, Howells acknowledges, but LBS’ approach is unique because it allows students to customize their core.

“Of course all MBA programs allow students to customize,” he says. “But we wanted to take that to the next level and allow students to customize their core, allow them to customize the types of experiential learning. If you look at the skills courses or the skills training, the so-called softer skills, all business schools seem to be doing more or less the same — the obvious ones around presentation skills, communication skills. But we’ve done a huge piece of work via our Leadership Institute to ask, ‘What are the subtleties of soft skills that students need to have?’ That way we can create a much more bespoke menu around allowing students to customize their leadership style depending on which part of the world they are working in.

“So we put a lot more emphasis on every aspect of the things that make up an MBA — applied learning, leadership skills, core and electives — to bring in choices to all of that, so that there’s only a very small amount that is fixed.”

WHAT RECRUITERS WANT

LBS’ Business Fundamentals core runs across the first two terms and begins with a leadership module that introduces students to global general management issues. The flexible Tailored Core begins in the second term and “allows students to deepen their expertise in areas such as economics and finance, investigate new subjects like digital business, or leverage our strong London network on the highly practical LondonCAP (London Core Application Practicum),” according to the LBS website.

Howells says LBS saw a common set of needs across the recruiter landscape in terms of knowledge and skills, but realized that what a tech company wanted from a candidate might be different than what, say, an investment banking recruiter might want. And as the percentage of LBS MBAs who go into either finance or consulting has dropped from around 85% 10 years ago to about 60% today — while the percentage of grads who go into tech has steadily climbed to about 22% — it was a necessary adjustment.

“It is, in many ways, a generational shift,” Howells says. “As millenials come through into MBA programs, they are often looking at the flexible career — they expect to have two or three different careers post-MBA. We wanted, again, to make sure that whatever the student’s journey was coming in, and whatever their intentions, they could customize that journey according to what it was they wanted to do — but more importantly, what recruiters wanted.

“We genuinely think we have now one of the most flexible and personalized MBAs in the world.”

MINING FOR ‘MANAGEMENT GOLD’

Customization isn’t the only new feature of the London Business School MBA. Students also will have a choice of summer work experience routes — paid internship, consulting placement, or Entrepreneurship Summer School and new destinations in the school’s signature GBE program, which sends students around the world to apply their learning in real-life situations — a sensible feature for a school whose Class of 2018 is 90% non-UK citizens. The new locations are Lima, Peru, an area grappling with growth and newfound economic prowess, and Tel Aviv, Israel, an entrepreneurship hotbed.

LBS also has introduced a new elective to go with the more than 70 already on offer: Interpersonal Dynamics, a collaboration between the school’s organizational behavior faculty and the LBS Career Centre. The class was inspired by an ongoing piece of research into “why too many executive careers grind prematurely to a halt,” says Joanna Lang, associate director of public relations. “It focuses, among other things, on social capital — the new ‘management gold,’ and how to increase yours,” Lang says, adding that LBS has also developed an online diagnostic quiz, designed by adjunct professor Richard Jolly, who teaches the elective, to help people benchmark how high their “social capital” is.

‘WE REALIZED THAT ONE SIZE DOESN’T FIT ALL’

Gareth Howells says the changes come about as LBS sees different aspirations manifest in MBA seekers, and different needs be sought from recruiters. The school is up 15% in applications this year, and will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its MBA program in 2018 by opening the Sammy Ofer Centre. “Everything has been geared towards building for growth,” he says.

The pending arrival of a new dean is almost irrelevant to the shifting dynamics in MBA education that LBS is responding to. The time, Howells says, is now.

“We’ve been constantly growing in size as an MBA program for about the last 10 years, and I think we’ve reached a critical mass where we were seeing the mix of students that were seeking MBAs was starting to change,” he says. “We were seeing a much broader range of professional aspirations, but equally important, we were seeing the mix change in terms of the employers and recruiters that were seeking out our MBA talent. It was a much broader diversification of the employment aspirations and outcomes.

“So we realized that one size doesn’t fit all and we wanted to — needed to — have a much broader range of options for students where they could actually start to customize their MBA.”

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