Grand Plans In Milan: P&Q’s Exclusive Interview With Federico Frattini, Dean Of POLIMI Graduate School Of Management

P&Q: Talking of sustainability, just about every top B-school is talking about it right now, in Europe and the United States and elsewhere. How does your school stand out? In what way would you like it to stand out even further?

Federico Frattini: I think that today, most of the efforts of business school in the field of sustainability are very much related to teaching sustainability skills framework, how to design a sustainability strategy, a materiality matrix, stakeholder engagement. So the classical approach is to enlarge the component of more traditional MBAs, master’s programs that deal with sustainability and impact. So that’s the most common approach that I see. I see discussion in conferences organized by AACSB or others about whether we should design new programs entirely focused on sustainability, or whether we should add modules, majors, electives to existing programs, so this is kind of the debate. I’ve seen very few attempts — and this is what maybe we are trying to use as a lever to distinguish our school — I’ve seen less attempts in challenging the core assumptions of the MBA and master’s programs that business schools teach.

And the core assumption in my view means exactly what I was saying before: Sustainability comes by necessity through a stronger attention to the human side of management and leadership. To really create sustainable, impactful organizations, we need to start from building a more conscious and meaningful style of leading organizations. We need to switch from the idea that businesses are such a technical system designed to maximize some measurable objectives, to a view of organizations as expressive systems where their inner meaning is to give sense to the work of people. And through these sense-making activities, we create energy, engagement, commitment, positive emotions. That is what can unleash the achievement of higher purposes, more expansive purposes. As many professors talk about, such as Ranjay Gulati from Harvard Business School, or Rebecca Henderson from Harvard, George Serafeim. But then it’s not reflected in programs.

So our attempt, especially with the New Generation MBA that is starting this fall, is really to change from scratch the approach and start from the self component of an executive MBA. So workshops, coaching sessions, bringing into the program other disciplines — spirituality, psychology, sociology, philosophy — to build better people more than better leaders. Then on this, you can build the hard technical skills that any MBA candidates need to have. So that’s one distinctive aspect, which is more reflected in our New Generation MBA as a pilot project. And then next year, if it’s successful, we want to extend this approach to other programs.

The second thing is that business schools are businesses themselves. There are business schools with $200 million revenues and hundreds and hundreds of staff, but I’ve seen very few business schools behaving authentically — working hard to become, themselves, really conscious, really impactful, really sustainable organizations. So all the standards that are being discussed in accreditation bodies or ranking institutions are much more on mapping sustainable development goals in courses, how much you teach sustainability — not enough, in my view, in terms of how you are behaving as a real authentic sustainable organization.

P&Q: Following on that, you just received the B Corp Certification, and that supports what you’re talking about, doesn’t it?

Federico Frattini: The decision to go through this process, which has positioned us as the first, and I think today still the only, business school in Europe with that certification, is really to test ourselves as a sustainable organization. And we are just publishing the first sustainability plan of the school, done exactly as real sustainable businesses do. It’s a plan where we state our goals, where we plan actions, that was built by listening to stakeholders. So we are trying to establish a serious commitment in being authentically a sustainable organization as a way to be, I would say, authentic in also teaching sustainability or teaching impact. I think these two aspects are what we are trying to use as levers to position our school in a different way, in the debate about sustainability.

P&Q: Sustainability takes on a more urgent character when you look at what’s happening in Italy and Europe right now with climate change, with massive droughts and weather changes and the strife that results from that. Is there an urgency to this, to your school’s rebranding, and to graduate business education embracing sustainability?

Federico Frattini: “We are committed to a more active role in creating a new generation of leaders who are deeply aware of their inner values, their inner motivations, the meaning they give to their work — and through this process of building awareness, they are also able to become positive agents of change in their organizations.”

Federico Frattini: It’s a priority for one reason, because there are 13,000 business schools in the globe, millions of people studying in these business schools every year and millions of alumni who are in touch with their business school. I really don’t see another place from which to source change, from which a trigger for positive change can come. It will not come from institutions. It will not come from regulation. It will not come from financial markets. It will come from a new generation of leaders trained mostly in business school who become more aware of the role that they can play, of the paradox that they can solve between maximizing profits and shareholder values and impacting positively on society. As I said before, there’s growing evidence in research that this can be done — that there’s a way to combine the happiness of shareholders and the suite of higher purposes. But it’s still not, I would say, in the core of business schools’ actions.

And so it’s really, I would say, a social responsibility that we feel for ourselves. We have a belief that education is the most powerful weapon that you can have to change the word, using the words of Nelson Mandela. This is the time when, in business schools, we need to act. There are special issues in top management journals discussing repurposing business schools — forums, books — but action is still lagging behind. So this is our little attempt in our small business school.

P&Q: It’s been an interesting two years since you became dean in 2020, amid a pandemic in addition to all the urgent issues related to climate change and a hundred other issues. Talk about your two years in charge at POLIMI.

Federico Frattini: On one side, the breakout of the pandemic, of course, was a big mess to deal with, as with any other business school, because we have half of our students coming from abroad, from 55 countries every year. And so traveling was not possible. And so we had almost no students in 2020, and also beginning 2021 to travel to Italy for many, many months. So it was on one side a negative, a barrier to a big change like the one we want to do. But on the other side, designing our strategic plans, setting out our priorities, choosing who we want to be in five years’ time during the pandemic, because basically we did so starting from February 2020, was a rich opportunity to really ask yourself, “What can we do in a context that is changing in these directions?” And if you think about the pandemic, this problem is human, but not in terms of polluting or things like this, in terms of their systemic nature, in terms of their lack of collaboration, lack of trust, lack of common purposes, lack of empathy, all these big grand challenges at the very core, have a human component, have a lack of, I would say, humanization of relationships, of exchanges, of supplies.

I see business schools doing wonderful jobs in combining management with the distant disciplines like the ones I spoke about before. This is what we are doing. I really think that we need to broaden the perspective. We just did an attempt in 2021, just to tell you a story, and we launched a short program on spirituality and management. You can’t believe it. It was a huge success. A lot of people enrolling, a lot of companies asking for corporate programs on the topic. It’s a clear sign that people understand the importance of going deeper into the human nature of their being leaders. And so this was very reassuring in moving even further. So on one side it was a delay, the pandemic and all what was a consequence; on the other side, it was a trigger in thinking boldly about what we can do.

P&Q: Let me ask you for your views on traditional MBAs and what those need to do. What challenges does the MBA face in today’s world in 2022? And how is your school addressing some of those challenges? 

Federico Frattini: I think the MBA for younger people who just graduated, two or three years of experience, is not suffering in terms of applications like executive MBAs. So I think it’s a format that still has a meaning. I see more attention of students toward shorter MBA programs. So in the U.S., they are almost all two years.

I’ve heard and read about the fact that two years is a little bit too much for stopping a career. Our program was until two, three years ago, one year and a half. One important move that we did is to shorten it to one year. So very concentrated, very full-time experience. What we are doing is two things. One is improving the component of internship and hands-on experience in companies, because we believe that this gives a different value proposition to the program — less theoretical, more practical. And because the longer you stay in a company, the higher will be the chances that then you get a permanent job. So it’s a way also to improve our placement.

And the second thing is the one I mentioned before: We are really starting from the person at the center. So the MBA starting in September, it’s called “New Generation MBA” because it aims to be in itself an MBA of a new generation and to prepare a new generation of leaders. So it really has a strong weight to the personal, human, inner development of these people through a series of really unconventional experiences like real coaching sessions with professional coaches, workshops where we work on the psychological dimensions of living in a company and working in a company, on cross-fertilization from other disciplines.
And then the more hard-skill start is a real redesign of the importance of the different components. I think that in our MBA until this year, the leadership component was very much technical — leading teams, managing negotiations or conflicts, public speaking, time management, attending a job interview. In my view, this is something that has already become a commodity. The new leadership component is the human development of people, as I said before. So that’s the other stage we are taking.

And to be honest, all the people who are enrolling in this MBA starting in the fall 2022 are acknowledging the importance of these aspects. So I received many messages saying, “I chose your MBA full-time because I see that it gives weight to what I consider important and to what other companies are increasingly searching for, in the talent that they hire.” So not only technically skilled people, but also more grounded, 360 humans, I would say.

P&Q: And perhaps related to this, but I see in The Financial Times ranking where your MBA ranked 91st, that you have 49% women in that program. What is your advice to other European MBA schools who are struggling to get anywhere near that? Some of the top business schools are stuck in the 30s for women in their MBA program. So you are doing something right there.

Federico Frattini: Oh, it’s a very positive number because we are perceived as belonging to a technical school. And this typically creates a little bit of a barrier toward women taking part in our programs. I think that what paid off in this direction is, it seems to be a marginal thing, but we worked very much on inclusion, in the touchpoints that we create with our students. So the tone of voice, the brand we want to convey. It’s not the typical, I would say, masculine environment — power, success, career — but really something that positively waits and gives importance to values that go outside this.

I would say that also comparing ourselves with other Italian business schools that are more on the traditional, I would say, leadership and management archetype — this is a distinguishing aspect. Then we do many things that other business schools do, waivers and scholarships for women to encourage their participation.


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