It is not often that a business school dean hits the pages of one of Britain’s feverish tabloid newspapers. Yet, when François Ortalo-Magné became dean of the London Business School in 2017, the Daily Mail ran a story about his salary, which at a fraction over half a million pounds made him one of the highest-paid academics in the United Kingdom. The paper noted that his pay is more than three times the Prime Minister’s salary. A year later when another newspaper discovered that Ortalo-Magné had claimed a bag of £1 potato chips on expenses, its reporters almost had to be revived with smelling salts.
As you might expect from someone in such a high-profile position, Ortalo-Magné is a cool customer who takes such attention in his stride. “Every year one or two of us become the subject of public scrutiny,” he shrugs with good humor when Poets&Quants catches up with him over Zoom. “You might notice this year, it wasn’t me. A few years ago, it was. I am very satisfied with my conditions of employment and I love my job. It’s for the media to choose what stories they want to write. It’s part of the job.”
The attitudes of Britain’s newspapers can have come as no shock to Ortalo-Magné, whose first academic job was also in London when he worked as a professor at the London School of Economics in the late 1990s. (The French-born academic confirms, with palpable relief, that the city’s restaurant scene has improved since then). After the LSE, he moved to the Wisconsin School of Business, where he went from a position as a professor of real estate to become its dean. Wisconsin is no slouch – it is ranked 83rd on the latest Financial Times’ full-time MBA list – but it is playing in a different league to LBS, which placed second to No. 1 INSEAD, its perennial European rival.
AT LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL, IT’S ‘IMPACT SQUARED: THE IMPACT ON IMPACT’
Apart from the prestige, what appealed to him about this globally-renowned school? “Prior to coming, I had read that the school’s purpose was to have a profound impact on the way the world does business,” Ortalo-Magné muses. “And then when I arrived I realized that they really mean it, people have made this purpose personal. And as I listened to alumni, faculty and all my colleagues here, I realized that actually the sentence was short. Now we’ve extended it, and we talk about our purpose as wanting to have a profound impact on the way the world does business and in the way business impacts the world. We call it impact squared: the impact on impact.”
He was also impressed by the rigor of the school’s approach, “anchoring everything they do in academic research,” and by the sheer diversity of LBS. “More than 90% of the students are international,” he says, suggesting that the school is so global that classing them as domestic or international “is barely even a relevant statistic at this point.” The school used to hand out flags to new students on Welcome Day to represent their nationalities, but many students had more than one flag. The question, ‘Where do you come from?,’ was so hard to answer. Is it where a student it born? Was educated? Has lived most of their life? Where their parents are from? The question of nationality almost became meaningless. “There is such a richness and multi-dimensionality to the diversity of our people,” wonders Ortalo-Magné.
One of the first things he mentions about LBS is its impact, something which has become fashionable among business school deans in recent years. But Ortalo-Magné is at pains to point out that “when I say impact I don’t mean it simply in the sense of corporate social responsibility, or in the Business Roundtable sense, I mean it like the dictionary: that is transforms, makes a difference.” In practice, this means that LBS’s researchers “don’t stop just at academic publication. They then ask, ‘Okay, how can I take this to my students, to my executive education clients or to policymakers?’”
‘WE DON’T HAVE A MAGIC WAY TO EVALUATE GPAS AND GMATS’
For instance, he adds, “a faculty member will realize that the operational innovations that he’s come up with to do predictive demand forecasting could be applied in Zambia, and he could actually help resolve malaria drug supply-chain issues. Or that work going on in innovation and entrepreneurship could have an impact in India on helping women entrepreneurs gain better social status and help their families. Or that we could help the government during a pandemic by designing economic indicators for them that have a weekly update pattern so they don’t have to wait till the end of the quarter. That’s what I mean. So of course, people have impact in the way that we define it today but, but more broadly that profound impact we talk about is, we don’t stop at the research, we go beyond it.”
It’s not only the faculty who have this attitude, says Ortalo-Magné, but also students. “Even before the education we give them, I think it goes back to the way we select students,” he says. “We don’t have some magic way to evaluate GPAs or GMATSs, but there is something about the way our alumni conduct our interviews. I’ve been told by candidates that these might be the least scripted alumni interviews, but our alumni really help us to understand whether candidates have the same passion that they have.” Student events can also be impressive. Ortalo-Magné remembers that the first Middle East Club meeting he attended was not held in some dusty campus backroom, but at the Four Seasons Hotel, and tells a story about a Bank of England official using the Investment and Asset Management Club to make a statement to the markets which was reported in The Economist.
LBS is unique in the U.K. for being a standalone business school, rather than part of a wider university. This carries some benefits – it is not a cash-cow to fund other departments – but it also means that the school cannot draw on faculty or research from a wider community. Is that a problem? “How do we deal with the fact that we are independent?,” asks Ortalo-Magné. “Well, we’re in London! London is full of premier, world-class schools and universities and there is nothing to prevent us from collaborating.” Of course, London is also home to the City, Europe’s biggest financial center, and a thriving start-up scene, along with big cheeses who are constantly flying through who are happy to drop in to speak at LBS.
A EARLY PUBLICLY-STATED GOAL OF GENDER PARITY REMAINS ELUSIVE
When he joined the school nearly four years ago, Ortalo-Magné publicly said that one of his aims was to improve gender diversity at the school, specifically to have 51% women on every course. Thus far, he has fallen far short of that goal. Of the 532 students in the school’s MBA Class of 2022, 36% are female, well below many of the top business schools in the U.S. from Dartmouth Tuck, whose latest cohort is 49% women, or Stanford Graduate School of Business, where women represent 47% of the newest class.
“We have made significant progress,” he insists. “Look at the leadership of the school. We are hiring pretty close to 50-50 in terms of gender, and for the second year in a row we have at least one program with 51% female.” He acknowledges that “there’s a lot more to do,” but stresses that they’re being helped by The Laidlaw Foundation, a Canadian charity which gave LBS £3.69m to set up the Laidlaw Women’s Leadership Fund to support 20 female MBA, EMBA and Masters in Management scholars per year for three years. “They helped us and motivated us to go and find women who would never have dreamed about world class business education. We didn’t create scholarships to compete for women who are in the pool and for whom the question is ‘which school do I go to?’ The school hires someone who goes around the world finding women, in partnership with alumni. I’m pleased with our progress, but it’s a journey,” admits Ortalo-Magné.
Other aspects of diversity are also a priority for Ortalo-Magné. He maintained that LBS feels it has made “tremendous progress” with regards to sexual orientation, but that Black Lives Matter “woke us up big time” to other dimensions of diversity, especially socio-economic diversity. Students launched a Black in Business Club earlier this year, and are following this with a “first generation, low- and intermediate-income club” and the school is now thinking about intersectionality, and the fact that privilege can be complex and context-specific. “I think we are getting much closer to where we want to be and as a school understanding the whole richness and many-faceted nature of every human being, and being inclusive and creating an environment where everyone feels they belong. We’re very pleased with the stepping stones that we have advancing this,” Ortalo-Magné says.
THE COVID IMPACT AT LBS
During the past year, of course, COVID has overshadowed everything. How did LBS cope? “COVID came in two steps because we have a campus in Dubai. We had about 10 days in between the two but, we did the same as everyone else, and switched to online,” Ortalo-Magné says. Students were able to complete their studies, and 1,617 students graduated last July as planned. Since the fall, students have been in and out of classrooms depending on U.K. lockdowns, but the campus opened again for hybrid classes in March. Ortalo-Magné admits that “we did not find a way to substitute the face-to-face experience” but believes that the education LBS provided was “just as impactful” as in normal times.
Like most schools, LBS discovered things during the pandemic that it will incorporate into the future. “One thing that surprised us was how certain audiences engage much better online actually than face-to-face,” says Ortalo-Magné. “As a school, we do a lot of executive education, and a number of clients told us that they have never experienced their introverted employees being as engaged as they were during the pandemic. That is something that we will keep integrated in what we do, because, again, it is part of diversity and being more inclusive and allowing people to thrive.” Executive education – which of course is a big part of what LBS does – used to be 98% face-to-face, either on campus or in clients’ offices. But those in-person sessions evaporated with the pandemic. By the end of this year, Ortalo-Magné expects the school will be delivering far more programming online – perhaps 50% of the pre-COVID total.
Business education is changing. Online and hybrid are just the latest challenges to the old model, along with lifelong learning and other innovations and theories. The demise of the MBA has been predicted for years now. Is it moribund? “I see employer demand, and prospect demand,” says Ortalo-Magné. “I don’t know how many MBAs the world needs, but there is a demand.” What is the value? That depends on the MBA. “If you want academic rigor, if you want diversity, if you’re open and curious to be inspired to different perspectives on yourself in the world, then yes, an LBS MBA can be for you. If you want an MBA because you want the toolkit, you know where you want to go and you want tools to achieve that, then there are better and more efficient ways to achieve that.” The LBS MBA, he stresses, is a “deeper, transformational journey.”
PREDICTS IMPACT BREXIT ON LBS WILL BE ‘MINIMAL’
Beyond the MBA, Ortalo-Magné adds that pre-experience programs such as master’s in management are a “very stable product” as are custom executive education programs with established partners. He agrees that microcredentials and stackable certificates can all play a role in the future as well, but believes that some of the unfashionable rigor of old-style education might even make a comeback. “Yes, on the one hand business education is becoming more bite-sized, but research is telling us that assessment can be very formative. It is traditional in executive education not to do much assessment, and clients might not want it, but the research is telling us that it is important. That’s where I think we will be evolving” he says.
And finally, what about Brexit? Will it make a difference to LBS? “The most important thing for us around Brexit was what would happen to the student visa. And the government has said that any student who comes to the U.K. on a student visa has the automatic right to stay for two years upon graduation without sponsorship, which means an education in the U.K. is an open door to the world,” says Ortalo-Magné. From LBS’s perspective, the impact of Brexit will probably be “minimal” and it is “business as usual.” Whatever happens, nobody can take LBS’s greatest asset away from it. “We remain located in London,” says Ortalo-Magné. “And it remains the greatest, most cosmopolitan city in the world.”