An Interview With Stanford Dean Garth Saloner

We’re located in Silicon Valley, which isn’t to say it’s a tech school, but the innovation DNA characterizes us. The cornerstone of the school says, “Dedicated to the things that haven’t happened yet and the people who are about to dream them up.” That captures the essence of the place. It’s a place where you come to grow, change and innovate and become a big part of the solution to the world’s problems.

You led the Curriculum Review Committee that introduced the new 2007 curriculum, which change has had the most impact? 

If I were to pick one, I would talk about our leadership education, which is now a required part of the curriculum. We do it in the fall quarter of the first year. This is something that every student gets when they come here.

We do experiential education around leadership. So instead of sitting in a lecture class or doing cases on great leaders, we put the students in groups, or leaderships squads, of five to seven people. They have a leadership coach, who comes from the second-year class and is supported by a professional coaching staff. The first years in these leaderships squads go through skills-based exercises where they are actually trying the stuff out. Often they’ll be videotaped, and then they’re coached on the actual skills that we think are important for leadership.

That’s a very different approach to leadership education than business schools have typically taken. It’s very intensive. It’s an expensive form of education because you’re doing it in groups of six or seven, but we’re finding that it is completely changing them. They are coming out of the school able to lead and manage from day one at a much higher level than was true a decade ago.

Following the financial crisis some critics have suggested that ethics have been largely overlooked in an MBA education. How do you effectively teach ethics in a business school environment?

We do what most schools do. We require a class on ethical thinking, but frankly, that will get you only so far. We also have a very interesting elective course called Real Life Ethics where the students are actually taken through scenarios by experienced professionals who have faced ethical dilemmas and lead students through how to think about that.

What we did in curriculum reform, which was about six years ago, is to introduce a class in the fall quarter called Critical Analytical Thinking.  It’s not an ethics class, but it’s actually one of our best courses on ethics because it poses very difficult business challenges and then asks you to think critically about them. The students write a paper about the challenge, and then we put them in a seminar of only 16 students, which I think is key, for a discussion. I’ll say I read your paper and I see you’re in favor of X, Y and Z, explain to the class why. And then the class will keep you on the hook for 25 minutes or half an hour, pushing you on your argument–why you believe it, the logic behind it and whether it flows.

That’s really important. Asking our students to have a position, to be accountable for it, to be on the hook arguing for it, is how you train them to think through the kinds of issues that get people into difficulties on the job.

The problem with the 60-person classroom where you discuss these issues and students throw out a couple of comments that constitute class participation is that it doesn’t really mirror what they have to do in practice. I think teaching ethics starts by being clear about the principles you stand for and that you’re operating on and being able to articulate those.



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