Which CEO Skills Aren’t Being Taught At MBA Programs?
Years ago, I received a resignation email from a senior executive. David, who’d earned his MBA three decades earlier, had finally caught the bug. He announced that he was heading to Silicon Valley. Recently, David had moved to a role where he was pitching entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to partner with our firm. While David didn’t close any business in this space, he still got swept up in the hoopla.
Like prospectors and dreamers from centuries past, David was heading to California to stake his claim and strike it rich. Although he was “still in discussions” (i.e. he didn’t have a job), he took the plunge anyway. Who could resist the sprawling campuses and gleaming offices…not to mention the nearby ocean, bistros, and vineyards? But being around all that brainpower can leave one with a false sense of confidence and acument. After spending three decades in business development, David believed he too had the right stuff to make it out there. The salesman had been sold.
Little did he know that he never stood a chance.
Fast forward six months and David was back in our industry, grudgingly working in the same role for a competitor. I never heard exactly why he abandoned his dream, but I had my suspicions. He couldn’t code for one thing. And he had grown accustomed to giving orders instead of pitching in for another. But those were just tertiary reasons. In reality, David had connections, but not mentors and advocates. More important, he had equated exposure with in-depth knowledge. Out of touch and overmatched, David quickly scurried back to his comfort zone.
Many MBAs experience a similar phenomenon according to Mary E. Shacklett, the President of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. In a recent column with TechRepublic, Shacklett preached about why business schools fail to adequately prepare future chief executive officers (CXOs). Like David’s Silicon Valley boondoggle, she believes it comes down to the gulf between knowledge and experience. “…Colleges and universities offering MBA degrees continue to miss the boat on key skill sets that CXOs require,” Shacklett writes. “In part, this is because these skills are not easily learned in the classroom. The other shortfall of a classical MBA education is that so much of what is being presented is theory and not practical “street side” experience that CXOs encounter every day.”
So what are the areas where MBA programs fall short (in Shacklett’s opinion, at least)? Here are some sample observations:
- “Understanding Operations and Profit Bleed: CXOs understand that they are hired to deliver strategic thinking and organizational breakthroughs, but unless they have a handle on the mundane aspects of operations, they will struggle to find ways to effectively marry strategy to business performance. Unfortunately, MBA programs almost exclusively focus on marketing, revenue generation, and working with the financials. Few programs equip students with a sound understanding of operations and how operational issues can bleed profit margins and diminish company performance.”
- “International Business: A business colleague teaches Japanese social etiquette to CXOs who do business in Japan. There are cultures where you’re not going to get a business deal done unless you fraternize with your executive counterparts socially as well as professionally, as well as cultures where shaking hands is inappropriate, or being a female executive is not accepted. Universities should be teaching these cultural nuances to MBA students, as well as requiring that they take courses in at least one or two foreign languages.”
- “Politics: It doesn’t matter how good you are as a CXO if you can’t manage the politics. Skill sets that contribute to political dexterity include strong communications and listening skills, the ability to negotiate effectively and to forge cooperative win-win relationships with others, and enough practical insight into human psychology so you can navigate through personality conflicts and resistance.”
- “Talent development: Unless you are an Education major, few universities offer courses that focus on developing and recruiting the talents of others; they should, because companies are experiencing great difficulty in finding or developing workers for new jobs with new skill sets. Many enterprises ultimately conclude that they must “home grow” these individuals. HR doesn’t know how to affect the knowledge transfers needed for these highly specialized jobs, so CXOs must step in to develop programs that address it.”
While Shacklett’s insights may strike a nerve, the real issue may lie with what students expect from an MBA. That’s the view of “Dogknees,” a reader who responded to Shacklett’s column. “Maybe the problem is that some people think an MBA should prepare you for a CXO position,” the reader writes. “It’s not, it’s the first step in developing a career that may, if you are good enough, eventually lead to a CXO position. You can’t buy the knowledge required, you can only develop it gradually as deeply embedded understanding.”
What are your thoughts? What areas could business schools do a better job in teaching? And should business schools focus more effort to grooming future CEOs? We’d love to hear from you.
To read additional areas where business schools can improve, click on Shacklett’s column below.
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