Decades of experience combined with deep knowledge of the reach and limitations of business education were on display this month in a one-of-a-kind event at Cambridge University Judge Business School. Three Cambridge Judge deans — past, present, and future — spent an hour publicly discussing the role of business schools in addressing the world’s great challenges, including climate change and inequality, in an event organized for the Cambridge MBA cohort and staged before an in-person and virtual audience.
The July 2 event brought together Sandra Dawson, KPMG professor emeritus of management studies and Cambridge Judge’s dean from 1995 to 2006; Christoph Loch, who steps down later this summer after 10 years as dean; and Mauro F. Guillén, whose term as the next dean begins September 1.
The trio brought different perspectives to each pressing issue, but agreed on the principle that business education must convey an understanding of societal impact — that business can, and must, be a force for good in the world.
CREATING LEADERS WILLING TO ACT ON THE ISSUES
“It’s so important for leadership to understand context on a global scale when it comes to the curriculum,” Dawson says. “We have to put more emphasis on the dimension of time, to be sure we’re identifying the short, medium and long term, and to make it legitimate to look at each of those. Also the dimension of space, geography: understanding what it’s like to live in northern India, in Central America, in the north of England. And the third dimension is humanity, is people: reflected in the ethics and the purpose and the values, and Cambridge Judge Business School has always had a sense of purpose and seeking to make a positive difference.”
“What do we give you in terms of teaching? We give you the ability to holistically manage an organization for performance — performance not only for profits but also other goals, and that’s not going to change,” Loch says. “However, by what we tell you and show you as opportunities we give you legitimacy to think in certain ways. In the past, legitimacy was all about ownership and shareholder value, and that turned out to be devastating. It is the responsibility of business schools now to give you the legitimacy to think broader than shareholder value, to remind you that there are responsibilities that businesses have in the context of their societies.”
Adds Guillen, who has taught at the Wharton School since 1996 and was the Anthony L. Davis director of the Joseph H. Lauder Institute of Management & International Studies from 2007-2019 before being hired as Cambridge Judge’s next dean in March: “The perception in many parts of the world is that business schools suffered a reputational problem, starting with the 2008-09 financial crisis, and it wasn’t really addressed, and Covid-19 then exacerbated. Now business schools are including issues of inequality and businesses’ responsibilities to create a community of learners who are not only aware of these issues but willing to act on them as future business leaders.”
TACKLING THE BIG ISSUES IN ‘SILICON FEN’
The Cambridge Judge MBA is a top-20 program globally according to the most recent Financial Times ranking, ranking 16th in the world, up from 26th when Loch took over as dean in 2011. The one-year program boasts more than 40 nationalities represented in a cohort size of around 200, with students beginning in September and finishing the following August. Its curriculum features 14 required core courses and nearly 50 elective offerings to choose from, with emphasis on a variety of areas from energy and environment to finance to social innovation.
The school as a whole “continues to put a strong emphasis on tech and entrepreneurship,” according to Poets&Quants‘ profile. Cambridge boasts “Silicon Fen,” the largest cluster of tech startups in Europe, and also has an Entrepreneurship Centre and a startup accelerator dubbed Accelerate Cambridge.
According to the school’s description, Cambridge Judge is “in the business of transformation — of individuals, of organizations, and of society. We have forged a reputation as a center of rigorous thinking and transformative education, encouraging and supporting people to create new products and businesses, pursuing goals for intellectual gain, and contributing to social enterprise.” A recent cohort boasted an average GMAT score of 696 and a minimum of three years’ work experience, with the class average being six years.
HOW B-SCHOOLS CAN HELP ADDRESS CLIMATE CHANGE
At the recent event featuring three deans, climate change was among the prominent topics of conversation. What can B-schools do about such a huge global problem? A lot, all three deans agreed.
“You have to believe that it’s not good enough to look at the next quarter, next year, next five years, but you’ve got to look at the next 25 years, 30 years, and think about your supply chains and the extraordinary changes that will happen,” Dawson says. “So an enormous challenge is to make sure you have a really good sense of horizon and are looking into the future of what your business is going to be.”
Loch adds: “Whenever decisions about climate change and sustainability are discussed, it’s in the context of yet another constraint you’re placing on us, our stressed organization. But we shouldn’t look at this as constraints: if we re-conceptualize this as opportunities to create new types of value, we can become solution oriented rather than thinking about any constraints people are putting on us.”
Guillén says that business has an important role in tackling climate change in three respects: it can put more pressure on governments and politicians; it can set more ambitious sustainability goals; and it can eschew subsidies. “Businesses have been all too eager to take subsidies from government,” he says. “I have nothing against subsidies as long as they don’t subsidize production but rather innovation, because subsidizing production means subsidizing technologies that are not the most competitive.”
HOW MBAs CAN COMBAT THE CORROSIVE EFFECTS OF INEQUALITY
Another pressing topic — at the Cambridge event and in society writ large — is inequality. Dawson says she is “very personally concerned that in the last 20 years both nationally and internationally we’ve seen the growth of inequality, and it’s important to understand how people feel left behind, neglected, absolutely humiliated. It’s so corrosive — it goes generation after generation after generation — and it means we cannot build successful societies, which means we cannot build successful businesses, if we persist in that.”
From Loch’s [perspective, inequality is “fundamentally corrosive because it destroys the trust of the population that we’re all in the same boat. Once part of the population sees that a few privileged people have all the opportunities, that part of the population feels cut off, and this will discourage identification and cooperation with society and encourage following demagogues.”
Adds Guillén:”If you have to point a finger at just one thing, it’s technological change because it’s most affecting people in the middle level of skills. Let me be provocative: I think the robots that are replacing human workers have to pay taxes, and with the revenues from that we can help people who are displaced. We’re reaching levels of inequality that we haven’t seen in 120 years, so we have to do something about it. Business has a role to play in all of this, in being aware of what the consequences are, and realising the costs being imposed on society that in the end accumulates and aggregates to a huge problem.”
FINAL WORDS TO STUDENTS
In closing, the deans offered words of advice for MBA students.
Avoid groupthink, Guillén says. “As MBA students you’re going to be leading a team, so don’t hire people for your team who think exactly like you think, because then you’re not going to be challenged and you’re not going to be as successful.”
“As MBA students you should always ask yourself what is the purpose of an organization and what is my purpose in it, and am I going ahead and fulfilling that purpose?” Dawson says. “If you can’t answer that in terms of your identity and the purpose of the organization that you’re with, then you need to think again and ask: ‘Do I belong here or should I go somewhere else where I can really articulate a purpose?’”
Adds Loch: “Ask yourself: ‘What would I like to look back on 30 years from now and be proud of?’ — and go for that. It doesn’t have to be ‘the one right thing’ because you will have opportunities to change course.”