What do CEOs fear most? Economic downturns? Disruptive innovations? New taxes and regulations? Cyberterrorists? You can bet each of these has left top brass with wide eyes and boiling bellies at 3:00 a.m. However, there is one nagging fear that tops them all: Their customers aren’t sharing what they truly want – or they’re just “satisfied” with the experience.
In business school, you can swap “customer” with “student” or “alumni.” Their value extends far beyond their tuition. On campus, the happy ones engage, volunteer, and champion; they embody their school’s ideals and elevate the experience for their peers. After hanging their diplomas, they are the ones who refer prospective students or hire recent graduates. They act as role models, mentors, champions, and patrons. They understand that the value of their MBA ultimately comes down to the exuberance of their community.
GRADUATES GET TO PLAY “DEAN FOR A DAY”
To say this year’s Best & Brightest MBAs were bullish on their b-schools would be an understatement. They were the standard bearers who ran the clubs, organized class trips, shared their experiences, and tutored their peers. Often, they were the go-to members of their classes, the voices with the courage to speak out and the conviction to follow through. These virtues also made them the perfect group to ask how business schools could be better.
This year, as part of the Best & Brightest nomination process, we asked 2018 graduates to answer this question: “If you were dean for a day, what one thing would you change about the MBA experience?” Sure enough, the class brought plenty of insight into the fallacies and gaps dogging full-time MBA education.
That starts with the recruiting processes, which often commences while students are still wrestling with the nuances of capital markets and cross-functional integration models. To help students focus on core courses, Dartmouth Tuck’s Alen Amini urges schools to adopt a “moratorium on recruiting activities” early on – a sentiment shared by the University of Chicago Booth’s Rodrigo Studart.
RECRUITERS HIT CAMPUS TOO EARLY
“I feel like students miss a great part of their MBA experience because they are absolutely desperate about finding a job,” he explains. “I know recruiting is important, but most of us are going to change our jobs in a few years. The MBA is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the learning and development part outside recruiting are what makes business school one of the best experiences of our lives.”
What would the Best & Brightest encourage administrators to adopt instead? Studart, for one, would start the first year earlier or make more career resources available before recruiting opens. Hosanna Odhner believes one alternative is implementing what she calls a “self-discovery week” before recruiters hit campus. “Two years go by so quickly, and especially in the first semester, trains start leaving the station so quickly, it’s hard to find time to stop and ask yourself which train it is you really want to be on,” says Yale SOM grad.
NYU Stern’s Mahum Yunus takes a longer view, which is why she would tack a “Dream Career” planning session with the career office onto the end of the program. “While the MBA program is great for getting students up for their dream job right out of school, I would make sure each student has a clear idea of what they would want to do 15 or 20 years out, and what is needed to get there,” she says. “Hopefully, this can encourage us to think about the long-term journey, and make sure we continue to seek learning.”
ARE ‘TACTICS’ UNDERVALUED BY FACULTY?
Inside the classroom, the Best & Brightest also identified several opportunities to enrich the MBA experience. At the University of Michigan Ross, Kristen Steagall, a tech maven slated for McKinsey, would require every student to author a business plan. She calls it an “illuminating process” – even for peers who have no intention of ever starting a business. In contrast, Ariana Almas, Steagall’s classmate and an aspiring entrepreneur, calls for greater attention to intrapreneurship.
“A majority of students will be joining big corporations or organizations, at least in the immediate short-term,” she observes. “I believe strongly that there are multiple ways to make an impact, and we need just as many individuals to challenge the status quo in existing institutions as there are individuals who are out there forging new ground. We must empower students with the knowledge, tools, and resources needed to make that change as future business leaders in all contexts.”
The entrepreneur-intrapreneur divide wasn’t the only gap that the Best & Brightest witnessed in their programs. Northwestern Kellogg’s Carr Lanphier hails business schools for excelling in teaching frameworks and strategy. However, he points to one area where he believes they fall short: Tactics. “Sun Tzu said, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” The future’s top MBA programs will be those that teach students a faster route to victory through hands-on application of tactics.”
TEACHING THE TEACHER
It isn’t just what students are taught that might need some tweaking, but how they’re taught as well. Prior to business school, Babson College’s David James taught for Teach for America before launching an academy that ranked as the State of Massachusetts’ fastest-improving middle school in just its second year. If James were a business school dean, he would foster a culture where teachers regularly offer feedback to each other on their teaching – a practice that fueled the success of his middle school.
“I would require business school faculty to observe at least three other faculty members per semester and engage in some type of debrief after the observation,” he asserts. “I would also hire instructional coaches to observe classes, provide instructional recommendations, and act as an instructional thought-partner for professors.”
The biggest need in MBA programs, according to the Best & Brightest, involved issues surrounding diversity, be it gender, race, equity, or inclusion. In fact, U.C.-Berkeley Haas’ Liz Koenig considers these subjects to be so central to business that she’d build them into a core course called “Leading Across Lines of Difference.”
VALUE OF NAVIGATING DIVERSITY RISING
“We are stepping into an increasingly diverse and global workforce,” she observes. “Our ability to operate and communicate across lines of difference – whether it be gender, race, country or origin, etc. – is critical to creating high-potential companies and organizations that reflect and meet the needs of a diverse customer base.”
Similarly, MIT Sloan’s Faye Cheng, who starts with Bain & Company this summer, would embed more opportunities for greater discussion on gender parity and unconscious bias into the core curriculum. Doing so, she believes, would send an unambiguous message to students. “Gender issues are human issues. Bias issues are human issues,” she declares. “If the mission of MIT Sloan is to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world, our curriculum must put a stake in the ground declaring these as management priorities that every leader must tackle head-on.”
This learning doesn’t always have to come through the faculty, however. At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Tomer Meir believes MBAs bring a “wealth of knowledge” and “incredible experiences” that programs can better tap “in a more structured way.” He cites his experience teaching scuba diving to the disabled as an example.
“I have learned very valuable lessons on the power of persistence and perseverance in face of great challenges,” he reminisces. “I would love to have a school-wide platform to share my experience with my classmates and learn from their stories as well. Every semester I would create a week-long curriculum taught completely by students, for students.