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Management As A Calling: How MBAs Can Make The World A Better Place

Andrew Hoffman of Michigan Ross in 2017. Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan

What aren’t business schools teaching what future MBAs need to know?

Andrew Hoffman, professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and author of the soon-to-be-published Management As A Calling: Leading Business, Serving Society, says graduate business education has a strong focus on the core skills and the tools of management. But B-schools aren’t teaching enough about what to do with those tools — particularly in a quickly shifting cultural and political landscape where problems go unanswered and grow beyond government’s ability to respond.

“Right off the bat, I am genuinely amazed at how many students in business school think that government has no role in the market, that regulation is an unwarranted intrusion in the market,” Hoffman tells Poets&Quants. “And that is just extraordinarily naïve. The market rules are set by the government, the government has a very important place in leveling the playing field. And it’s amazing to me how few business schools have courses on lobbying, much less on lobbying in a way that helps them to make the market work better and not just individual gamesmanship.

“I think a second thing that business schools could do better is just teaching about capitalism. I mean, we take capitalism as a given in business school, but it’s a set of rules. It’s evolved over time, it’s quite malleable. It has different variants around the world. And I think we should teach business students how to be stewards of the market — and to do that, they need to be more aware and understanding and savvy about how capitalism came to be, and what other possibilities are out there.”

CALLING FOR A CHANGE IN MBA CORE CURRICULUM

Hoffman’s latest book, released March 2, examines the power that business leaders have in society and calls for recognizing the responsibility that comes with that power. That makes it a must-read for MBA students on the verge of re-entering the workforce as potential leaders of large, world-shaking companies. B-schools aren’t teaching MBAs how to be better citizens and humans, he says.

It’s a message he has been sharpening for a long time. Hoffman earned his Ph.D. in management and environmental engineering from MIT in 1995, and has taught at Michigan since 2004. He is the author of six books. In 2012, P&Q named him one of our World’s Best B-School Profs. So when he calls for future business leaders to change their mindsets, to think differently about their careers, and to see their work as a vocation done in service to society, MBA students should listen.

Management As A Calling echoes the growing trend of seeing “business as a force for good,” an ethos around which some schools, like Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, are shaping entire MBA curricula. Stanford GSB has been a leader in the sphere in the U.S., though all the elite U.S. schools now have similar offerings; in Europe, which in many ways is ahead of the curve in embracing social impact programming, France’s INSEAD has been a long-time leader, as well.

But it’s not enough, Hoffman says. Core changes are needed.

“It encourages me that we’re having some change around the edges, new electives being formed,” he says. “The Aspen Institute has its Ideas Worth Teaching Award, which has some really great exemplars. At the Harvard Business School, Re-imagining Capitalism; at the University of Virginia Darden, Income Inequality. But as long as the core remains unchanged, then these are single courses amidst an entire curriculum that really is, to my mind, still too stuck in the idea that the purpose of the corporation is to make money for its shareholders.”

BUSINESS LEADERS MUST ACT WITH SOCIETY IN MIND

Hoffman’s book has a special focus on climate change — no surprise from the author of 2015’s How Culture Shapes The Climate Change Debate. In 2017, writing of the Paris Climate Accord, which the U.S. recently rejoined, P&Q quoted Hoffman noting that markets have been trending toward renewable forms of energy and mobility for some time. “Industries are moving in a direction they see markets going” — energy efficiency, he said. “I like to say there is an industry renaissance going on in energy generation and mobility.”

Solutions to our biggest problems — climate change perhaps foremost among them — must come from the market, Hoffman writes in Management As A Calling. While government is an important and irreplaceable arbiter of the market, business transcends national boundaries and has resources exceeding many nations.

“The world is deeply interconnected, and we need to act now to make sure it emerges from our current challenges to a better place,” writes Ajay Banga, CEO of Mastercard, in a blurb for Hoffman’s book. “Hoffman offers us a framework for exactly that: from understanding how different stakeholders come together to drive sustainable change, to how we equip our future leaders to ensure a safer tomorrow.”

SPARKED BY CLASSROOM CONVERSATIONS

Hoffman says Management As A Calling grew especially out of discussions with MBA students in the classroom, where he will be returning in March following the publication of his book. But business as a force for good is something he has long been passionate about.

“It evolved from experience in the classroom, but also my research,” Hoffman says. “My focus area is on business sustainability. So the idea of business being a positive force in society is something that’s been front and center for my work for a long time. The idea that we need to address climate change. The market is a cause of that, but the market has to fix it. Only business can create forms of mobility, buildings we live and work in, the food we eat, the clothes we wear.

“And so a lot of people are throwing rocks at business, and maybe that’s fair, but I defy any of them to come up with an alternative solution to these problems besides business. Business is the most powerful institution on earth. And then similarly with economic inequality. I mean, it’s caused by the market as presently set, through policies that were deliberate choices influenced heavily by people in the corporate sector.

“We can fix these problems, but we need to teach business students to have a responsibility to create a safe and sound society.”

See the next page for a Q&A with author and professor Andrew Hoffman, edited for length and clarity.

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