Deans: How We Define MBA Transformation


You see the word on every business school website and in every MBA marketing brochure. The explicit promise of very quality MBA experience is transformational. But what does that really mean?

Peter Todd, dean of HEC Paris, concedes that “transformation is a lofty notion.” He prefers, instead, the term “transition” as a way to think about how business school can shape an individual student. “Many students,” he says, “come in for career transitions, and those transitions are often around jobs, sectors and geographies. Two thirds of our students will make two of those transitions and the other third will make all three.”

That more pragmatic view may sell the MBA short. Many MBA graduates attest to the life-altering aspects of their business school experience, from the professional development that comes from the executive coaching most students get in programs today, the leadership roles students assume, and a menu of demanding courses that opens one’s mind to all kinds of possibilities.


HEC Paris Dean Peter Todd

To celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Global Network for Advanced Management, the deans of the 29 member business schools in the group were asked to share five transformations they envision students experiencing during their time in business school. The results of the exercise were revealed during an anniversary symposium at Yale University’s School of Management April 19-21.

Lofty or not, the statements effectively represent a promise to MBA consumers as much as they reflect how one business school may differ from another. Some deans turned in lengthy statements that consumed a pair of single-spaced pages, while others were as succinct as five lines and 26 words. Some statements could have been lifted word for word from a school’s marketing materials, while others were little more than a mishmash of business buzzwords. All were revealing in one way or another about each school’s mission, strategy and leadership.

For many applicants, students, alumni and faculty, there’s a word stew of familar business lingo in most of the deans’ perspectives. Just as interesting, though, is what didn’t make the lists. The most glaring omission? The complete absence of technical literacy. Given how deeply technology has changed business and how it will continue to disrupt business models and society, with new developments in artificial intelligence and virtual reality, it was something of a surprise that not a single dean included it among the transformative qualities they hope to provide their students.


Some deans defended the omission by stating that helping students understand the impact of technology on business was implicit, if not explicit. But the same could have easily been said of just about every other term tossed out by the deans in their descriptions of how they transform the mindsets of their MBA studnets. UC-Berkeley Haas Dean Rich Lyons, who chaired a deans’ panel discussion on transformation, conceded that the lack of tech may come from “age-old thinking” on the part of most deans. “Many of us still think of technology as an industry,” he says, “as opposed to how every company is now a tech company.”

Not surprisingly, there was a good deal of overlap among the schools. The deans of ten or more schools cited three key transformations: Creating global leaders, imparting critical thinking skills, and instilling ethical values in their students.

At a panel on transformations, several deans were asked to define “critical thinking,” the single most popular transformation brought up by the survey. “The questions are more important than the answers,” responded Todd of HEC Paris. “There are no answers,” added Luiz Brito, dean of FGV-EAESP in Brazil.

“I agree there may be no answers, but you learn to collect and analyze information,” believed Bernard Yeung, dean of the National University of Singapore Business School. Yeung made the point that a student learns to accept constructive criticism from others in the belief that it makes his or her own work better.


Between ten and five of the schools cited entrepreneurship, collaboration, humanism, diversity and purpose. Five or fewer deans put the following words or phrases on their transformational lists: self-knowledge, inclusive, data analysis, engagement, context, innovation, equilibrium, intrapreneuers, complexcity, agents of change, social impact, communications skills, sustainability.

And what was unique? A word stew of other familiar terms: competition, multi-disciplinary, adaptability, truth seekers, agility, passion, mobilize resources, management research methods, motivated individuals.

One school, ESMT in Berlin, Germany, was explicit in claiming that it taught students to move away from an exclusively shareholder-centered view of the corporation and instead “broadened their lens to a wider stakeholder apporach.” Another school, the University of Ghana Business School, put front and center personal transformation: To take students and develop them into “men and women with conviction, ethically sound, morally focused and disciplined.”

One novel apporach to the submissions, taken by the Dean Robert Helsley of the Sauder School of Business, imagined the perspective students brought into the MBA program and how their educational experience changed that perspective. Example: “State A: Our students are interested in global issues. State B: Our graduates inform their leadership practice with a deep appreciation for the diversity of perspectives on the world.”

Haas’ Lyons turned in a version of business haiku.

They do that = > I do that

Purpose consumers = > Purpose creators

Current stage = > World stage

That’s the way = > Better way

Individual contributor = > Working through and with other people

The deans’ differing perspectives on their schools’ five key transformations for students follows:

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