“Why isn’t there a really good business school?”

May 02, 2013 4 min read

A few years ago, I took a job as a dean of a business school in Japan. I did it for one reason: it seemed to me that there should be a really good business school in what was then the second largest economy on earth. I failed to transform that school. But in the ensuing five years, I have come to a conclusion that gives me some comfort: I don’t believe there is a really good business school anywhere on earth.

But I am holding on to hope that there could be—someday.

A year ago, I, and my team, launched a project to understand what corporate leaders think of business schools. Since then, we’ve interviewed over 100 executives on five continents. In general, the verdict has been less than sunny.

Even executives, who themselves had gone to big name schools and regularly hire graduates from those schools, had little good to say about graduate business education. Sidenote: Now, I’m not saying don’t go to Harvard Business School if you get in.  A degree from there allows you to say the dumbest things in the world, with listeners believing there must be some merit to your ramblings. I know: I’ve used the Harvard “Get out of Jail Free Card” many times in my life.

Regardless of the name-value of their business education, however, our executive interviewees uniformly thought that other than recruiting (winnowing students in the admittance process) and student socialization (giving them a diverse network of alumni peers), there was little reason these days to recommend a business school education. And that is a crying shame—literally. After 25 years of teaching in this industry, it’s a verdict that has almost brought me to tears. But I had to agree they were probably right.

Nevertheless, I cling to the belief that business education should be really important. On the education side, we humans get better from one generation to the next in large part because we pass along formal knowledge to make each succeeding generation better. As for the business side, 90% of Americans—and probably a higher percentage of much of the rest of the world—put bread, rice, naan, or tortillas on their families’ tables by doing some form of business. And of the 10% who are not doing business—those in the public sector—almost half are teachers who are preparing the next generation to make a living. So combining the two—business and education—should be done well. But no one does it.

Our interviewees unanimously agreed that business schools could be really relevant. In fact, almost all said that a school that really made its education germane to the real world would be one they would hire from regularly. A few CEOs even said they’d hire exclusively from a school that got it right. In other words, business education is actually really important to them—just not the kind of education that is currently being offered.

What do employers want? In two words: soft skills. But this does not mean more case study-based courses in organizational behavior, leadership, etc. This means transforming “students” into genuine “professionals,” armed with a skill set that allows them to make contributions right away. A partner at a top global consulting firm told me that his firm is moving away from hiring MBAs for the primary reason that they are not ready to do significant work upon graduating. In the first year or two after graduation, he said, “we have to make them human. A lot of time and money is spent, with no return. If students came out of the [right kind of] program … I wouldn’t have to waste that time. I’d get real work from them.  If they were getting [applicable training] in school, those people would be immediately more useful to me!”

So that is the challenge. And everyone knows it is. But knowing is not enough; and doing it seems almost impossible. Business schools are run by academics who have generally never practiced business in their lives; they are long on knowing and short on doing. And, remember, these are not your run-of-the-mill academics—the leaders of schools are almost always academics with tenure. In my experience, tenure is a natural enemy to action.

There must be a new type of school that can expose students constantly to the best new thinking, but ensure that those ideas lead to actual improvements in practice. Students have to be able to understand the latest notions and turn them into actions—not just plans for action—that are compatible with good business. The emphasis on a real world mindset and behavior is something that is lacking in business school programs around the world right now.

So what would an ideal business school potentially look like? Teachers would be a mix of academics, advisors and coaches responsible for identifying and addressing students’ skill gaps more than just imparting knowledge. Curriculum would be a combination of short, intensive core courses and real world assignments that get students to apply new learnings on thorny, complicated issues, without clear answers—requiring students to be agile, resourceful and experts at succinct communication. The subject of ethics would be interwoven in every class—in every project—and treated as more important than disciplines like finance or accounting.

As students “do,” they will learn more about themselves and each other than they ever thought possible. They will discover that they are good at some things and not at others. They will become self-aware. They will know their blind spots, and will have tried—even as students—to do something about them. They will be clear on their life priorities, and how those should influence their profession and employer of choice. They will understand that they need to exhibit a strong combination of soft and hard skills, and that without the former, the latter are probably useless. They will know that there are people behind all the numbers.

But all this is only possible through doing. A really good business education will produce graduates who are humble, ready to learn and improve, and able to contribute in putting more bread on more tables—not just on their own.