In 1971, U.S. postsecondary institutions awarded just over 26,000 master’s degrees in business; 40 years later, they awarded over 190,000. This increase reflects huge growth not only in the number of students, but also in the numbers of programs schools offer, including specialized MBAs and executive, part-time, and online programs. Despite this uptick and diversification, core curricular offerings in these programs tend to remain consistent. Fundamental business disciplines — including corporate finance, financial and managerial accounting, marketing, and management — must be taught, and taught well. This is true of any program a candidate is considering, since solid programs require big investments of time, money, and effort.
So, what really differentiates one MBA program meaningfully from its competitors in today’s expanding marketplace?
Leadership Development as a Form of Differentiation
One vital differentiator is each school’s core set of values, as evidenced by the resources they offer around students’ personal and leadership development, rather than content knowledge or specific technical skills. Taking a closer look at leading schools’ divergent approaches to this task yields useful insights regarding how they envision developing students as colleagues and leaders during their campus years.
Prospective students with offers of admission from multiple schools may use these differences to make sophisticated decisions about which programs resonate most closely with their values and aspirations.
Taken more broadly, a look at some of the distinct approaches cultivated by schools worldwide can provide a glimpse at elite institutions’ ideas of what constitutes leadership today — and how they cultivate it on their campuses and within the global business community. We’ll look at three formats here: academic or course-based opportunities, consultant-driven experiences, and extracurricular activities.
On the academic or course-based front, I came to my interest in this aspect of MBA education too late. Unfortunately, I was unable to take advantage of one of the signature offerings at my alma mater, Columbia Business School: Professor Michael Feiner’s course, High-Performance Leadership. By all accounts, I missed the boat — big time. A former Worldwide Chief People Officer at Pepsi-Cola, Feiner provided many students’ most memorable MBA academic experience by drawing on personal examples from his own distinguished career to support students in uncovering and living by their own deepest values. (I had to content myself with his 2005 book, The Feiner Points of Leadership – a highly recommended read.)
Perhaps the longest-running curricular offering in this arena, though, is the Stanford Graduate School of Business course in Interpersonal Dynamics. The school’s most popular elective for 45 years and counting is affectionately known to many as “Touchy-Feely” and comprises groups of 12 students, led by Stanford-trained facilitators, in a series of meetings intended to cultivate intra- and interpersonal insights for more authentic, effective leadership.
These curricular offerings, whether more traditionally lecture- and case-based or experiential in nature, are increasingly complemented in MBA programs by supplementary resources. For instance, the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School offers a data- and tech-driven approach that uses a multi-rater survey for MBA candidates to create a plan of action around their development opportunities and strengths. This strategy is based on the 360-degree feedback model prevalent in employer organizations.
The International Institute of Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland, takes a different approach, giving students 20 individual coaching hours with a trained psychoanalyst, focused on the development of self-awareness and moral judgment
Pros and cons exist for both homegrown and outsourced approaches to personal and leadership development. External consultants, for example, may provide some students with a greater feeling of freedom and opportunity for candor than development experiences with faculty who may serve as lifelong mentors and contacts (and short-term awarders of grades). Standardized tools, on the other hand, may provide a common benchmark for students and schools to understand their baseline leadership skills and development needs. Some students may gravitate toward the school-specific offerings that frequently become signature elements of both curricular offerings and alumni memories (as in the examples of Columbia and Stanford above).
An innovative approach, likely to be on the rise in coming years across more schools, is student-driven personal development initiatives representing an array of philosophies, structures, and formats. One leading example of this is the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School nine-week P3 program, launched in 2013, which integrates purpose, passion, and principles. P3 begins with a study of Professor G. Richard Shell’s book, Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success, moving forward into a series of sessions led by trained student facilitators addressing topics such as family history, motivation and confidence, and vision and goals. More than 400 Wharton students have completed the program to date, with demand exceeding the supply of facilitators so far. Since so much MBA learning in other domains takes place among students, P3’s success is no surprise — and is likely a harbinger of things to come in this space.
As a prospective MBA student, or anyone interested in the kinds of leaders top schools are producing (and the means they are employing to do so), continued attention to developments in this arena is likely to be worthwhile. If the biggest global deals can be fueled by the most minute personal interactions — a phenomenon that anyone who’s ever worked within a corporation has likely observed! — the ways in which schools prepare their students to handle those powerful interactions may be the one of the most important and illuminating differentiators among them today.
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