Leadership challenges facing the MBAs of today

QS asked Gerard Seijts, associate professor, Richard Ivey School of Business and executive director of the Ian O Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership to explain how business schools successfully teach leadership on their MBA programs...

Business today is unruly, complex and unpredictable. With instant networking across companies, industries and borders, economies are dynamically inter-connected. Across a maze of global markets, business legislation, regulation and policy are in constant flux.

With the stunning growth of social media, people anywhere have the unprecedented ability to influence other people around the world. And with the rapid, unstoppable pace of technological and market innovation, competition is increasingly intense.

As a result, strategies that worked in the past probably won’t work in the future

Crises often emerge in an instant and are usually unexpected. There are no fast and easy answers, no simple rules to guide actions, and no pat solutions to the myriad of evolving issues that face organizations on a daily basis. In this vibrant and volatile environment, the need for effective leadership has never been greater.

Traditionally, most managers have focused their attention on their own company and traditionally, business education has focused on how to understand, make and execute decisions within an organization. But, in today’s business environment, the value a company creates and how it succeeds depends on much more than simply ensuring all the parts within an organization work together. It depends on working effectively within the ‘enterprise’ – or the rich complexity of interdependencies both within the organization and between the organization, as well as the environment in which it operates.

In other words, to build and sustain a high performance organization, a leader must not only point his or her people in the right direction. Rather, a leader must also have vision and the ability to connect with and continually nurture a network of relationships with other companies, organizations and people.

This enables leaders to see the big picture and understand how it is evolving. They become adept at anticipating the impact of economic trends, competitive challenges and global-scale market issues. And they know how to capitalize on the synergies that result from gaining this fulsome perspective.

Such leaders are cross-enterprise leaders with the competencies, character and commitment to build and sustain the profitability and growth of their firms.

Leadership in the MBA classroom

At the Richard Ivey School of Business, we strive to develop leaders who embrace the complexity of doing business today, who are decisive despite the uncertainty, and who can foster the commitment of their employees, partners and other stakeholders to the best course of action moving forward. Basically, our approach is to help prepare today’s MBA student to think, act and lead in the cross-enterprise way now required for business success.

The cross-enterprise approach is reflected in Ivey’s case study approach, where students are presented with real life challenges faced by actual companies. Like business today, these case studies are not limited to a specific business discipline, like finance or marketing. Instead, they depict situations where analysis and decision-making involve a variety of multi-disciplinary issues at any given time.

In effect, the classroom becomes a ‘business simulator’ where students can test their thinking and judgment in a low-risk, supportive environment, receiving instant feedback from professors with diversity of insight and knowledge. Equally important, students gain the opportunity to hear and benefit first-hand from top executives who share their experiences and the lessons they learned during these experiences in the classroom.

This hands-on approach enables students to learn the specifics of functional disciplines while also experiencing how each of these functions affects one another. This provides students with the opportunity to think holistically about the enterprise in tackling the delicate and often complicated work of a cross-enterprise leader.

Leadership initiatives

Beyond the classroom, an effective management education should also give MBA students the opportunity to act on the knowledge and capabilities they gain in the classroom. At Wharton, for example, students have the opportunity to spend several weeks of the summer in Asia, Africa or the Americas through the Wharton International Volunteer Program. Meanwhile, the Centre for International Business at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth organizes spring break trips for Tuck students to selected host countries.

At Ivey, our MBA students can learn to act in a cross-enterprise way by participating in the LEADER Project, a student-driven overseas economic development program, where MBA students teach foundational business skills to students and entrepreneurs in the newly developing economies of Eastern Europe and Russia.

A second student-driven initiative is the Ivey China Teaching Project, which offers MBA students the opportunity to volunteer their time to teach a case-based course to business undergraduate students at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade. These rich exchanges benefit both the overseas students and the volunteer instructors, who gain a better understanding of how leadership differs in other cultures while securing valuable international experience.

While it remains true that companies exist primarily to create shareholder value, the best business leaders today see their companies as part of an ‘enterprise’ – a rich, growing and continually evolving network of mutually-beneficial relationships. They value the role that their organizations can and should play in enriching that enterprise and as a result, they consistently gain positive results for their companies.

 

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