Michigan Prof’s New Program: Helping Students Decide Whether Business Is Their ‘Calling’

Andrew Hoffman of Michigan Ross in 2017. University of Michigan photo

Theory, meet practice: Andy Hoffman wrote a book about management as a calling, and now he gets to put it to the test.

Hoffman, the Holcim (U.S.) professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and School for Environment and Sustainability, has been awarded a grant to put his most recent book, Management as a Calling: Leading Business, Serving Society, into educational practice by developing a program to help undergraduate and graduate students examine their vocation in management.

Hoffman has designed “an immersive retreat experience” for four dozen students – undergrads in their senior year, MBAs in their second year, and dual-degree students in their third — to “look deep inside” as they consider the all-important question of whether they chose their career path for the right reasons.

A PROGRAM STARTED THROUGH SERENDIPITY

In Management as a Calling, released in March 2021, Hoffman examines the power that business leaders have in society and calls for recognizing the responsibility that comes with that power. The book focuses on the potential of MBAs re-entering the workforce to become forces for good as leaders of large, world-shaking companies — and how business schools aren’t doing enough to ensure those MBAs are equipped to pursue vocations based on more than just making money, but on serving society, as well.

The book’s lessons have formed part of Hoffman’s classroom lectures for years. Earlier this year, the opportunity arose to do more. During a call with a program officer at the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, Hoffman was told that the philanthropic group that has given millions of dollars’ worth of grants to colleges and universities was starting a new focus on sustainability — and would he be interested in meeting with them to go over some ideas of where they should to direct their money?

“At the end of the conversation, he said, ‘What have you been working on lately?'” Hoffman recalls, “and I told him among other things about that book, and he found that very intriguing and said, ‘What would you do if you’re going to do that in a program?’ And so I just gave him a quick reaction and he said, ‘I think you should pitch that. I think we might be interested.’ And so we went back and forth, honing the idea, and now I have a program.

“So it’s not like I initiated this — it started through serendipity.”

A TEST OF ONE’S CALLING

Andy Hoffman

The core of the program is a sequence of weekend retreats where 48 students “will be put in the company of others who think and feel deeply about similar aspirations,” so that they can “examine and discern your idea of what kind of a manager you are meant to be, what kind of career you aspire to have, and what kind of legacy you hope to leave.”

A key point, Hoffman tells P&Q, is that it’s only for final-year students — seniors in undergrad, second-year grad master’s students, or third-year dual-degree students. “This is important because I’ll get them at the beginning of their final year, we’ll do a remote retreat and then I’ll get them again at the end of the year to fine-tune it,” he says. “And that really builds the idea that this is a process and frankly it will never end. You’ll constantly look for purpose.”

Having a mix of people at different stages of experience is vital to the program, he says.

“This is a proof of concept, and there are arguments either way. Some people say that the graduate students have more life experience and therefore they’ll be able to absorb this or engage this much more,” Hoffman says. “Others suggest that the older students are a little more jaded and the younger students come in with an energy and an idealism and their whole life’s before them and they’ll benefit more from this kind of activity. The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations were very interested in the undergrad group. I wanted to bring in the grad group. So we’ll do a test and see: A. Will they get the same experience? And: B. Maybe they’ll influence each other, mentor each other, help each other through this experience.”

A PROGRAM, NOT A COURSE

The participants will convene again through social media a year after they graduate because, Hoffman says, echoing Colin Powell’s famous dictum, “every battle plan is perfect until you meet the enemy.”

“They can have the calling of vocation in the safety of the university, but going out there, it’s going to get tested,” Hoffman says. “And so we’ll reconvene and see how’s it going. Do you need to tune up? Do you need some more mentoring? How can we help you along the path? And that is an interesting part to my mind also, it’s just the idea of this continuous engagement.”

It’s the ultimate “put your ideas into practice” exercise, and applications are now open. Among other requirements, applicants must write an essay to gain admission, Hoffman says.

“I’m looking for students with a maturity and an interest, aptitude, and awareness of this idea of a calling or a vocation, a purpose in their life. Ideally someone who’s taken some time to try and figure this out already.”

He adds that though he initially tried to establish course credit for the program, by the time he had the grant in mid-March it was too late. But that may turn out to be a good thing.

“In retrospect, I think this might be better because if I did it for a grade, I would have to grade on a curve and that would change the experience,” Hoffman says. “‘Discern your calling in management and I’m going to grade you on a curve’ — that just seems antithetical to what I’m trying to do. So it’s a program, it’s not a course.”

THE BEGINNING OF SOMETHING BIG?

Hoffman and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations hope to see the program expand to other schools.

“One thing that is important to them is that this isn’t just something that’s tried at Michigan and stops there,” he says. “They really want me to work to try and get it out there. So I will freely share all the materials we developed to run this program with anyone who wants to do something at their own school.

Already, despite no major announcement or effort at communication with other schools, he has heard from one other top university.

“The word hasn’t gotten out yet,” Hoffman says. “We haven’t fully set up the program, but I did get an email from some folks at Duke already.”

Learn more about the Management as a Calling program here.

DON’T MISS MANAGEMENT AS A CALLING: HOW MBAs CAN MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE

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