Why Traditional MBA Programs Still Don’t Get It

see-no-evilBy Martin Melaver

Recently, I was invited to meet with the Dean of a prestigious MBA program. I didn’t haven’t the foggiest notion what he wanted from me. Still don’t for that matter. As I waited outside his office, I felt all of ten years old being called in to see the principal. His office reminded me of that line from The Great Gatsby: It smelled like money. As the Dean prattled with me over the ensuing hour in that sort of casual type of peripatetic chit-chat that told me I was being interviewed and somehow failing the test, I never did relax completely. He wanted to know things like my big-business experience (none) and the global scale of my company’s sustainable projects (not).

I knew, though, what I wanted: to convince the Dean that his school should grab first-mover advantage and become the first of the top ten MBA programs in the country to overhaul its curriculum so that sustainable principles suffused everything being taught. I was playing to a deaf audience.

The case seemed simple and obvious. For one thing, I had been a visiting lecturer at this school for the past three years (a business case study had been written about my company and one of our projects) and, in those three short years, you could see a sea-change in the students’ thoughts about sustainable business practices. Initially, sustainability was seen as a cross between something trendy and oddly curious. Now, the vast majority of students I spoke with and taught viewed sustainable principles as fundamental to running a business. In MBA jargon, the school’s customers were starting to demand a new product.

Point two: A number of other MBA programs are already making some very innovative moves to retool their curricula. Granted, these schools weren’t exactly on the Dean’s radar (I’m not even sure he registered familiarity when I mentioned them). Still, just that very month I had had three separate conversations with folks involved with three different programs in three very different parts of the country ─ Golden Gate University, Marlboro, and Georgia Tech ─ and these programs were all rethinking the way business needed to be taught. Golden Gate has been considering ways to redo the way conventional subject areas, such as accounting, organizational management, finance, marketing, supply chain management, are taught. Marlboro is looking at ways to enhance its curriculum by having students address real-time planning issues in the larger community (Brattleboro). Georgia Tech is looking to leverage its first ever endowed professorship in real estate in order to teach sustainable real estate practices from the ground up. In MBA jargon, the early adopters/innovators are already stealing a march on their more conventional competitors. One of these days, some of these older, more staid and prestigious MBA programs are likely to find they are out of step in the marketplace.

Point three: Surely the Dean was familiar with one of several studies done over the past decade indicating 1) that the competition for top workforce talent in the upcoming decades was going to intensify greatly, particularly as the American population starts to age and 2) that the key thing being sought after by most young talent entering the market place was a place of employment that enabled them to make a difference in society. More and more employees, while they might not “get” sustainability themselves, are looking to hire talent that does get it. Mr. Dean’s school prided itself, of course, on its placement record. In the years to come, would businesses on Wall Street and McKinsey and beyond still look to the Dean for its young associates . . . or would they instead focus their recruiting at places like the Presidio?

Point four ─ and this is where I think I really crossed the line from sounding sober and analytical to sounding like a dyed-in-the-wool greenie: Would the Dean please think for a moment of the top environmental issues facing us today, things like carbon emissions, energy, water, toxic chemical emissions, loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, loss of marine species and habitats, etc. Now take any business you want, I don’t care what it is or where it is located, and ask yourself this: can you do true scenario planning for this business for the long haul (say 35 -50 years) without confronting the fact that the viability of this business is highly dependent on one or more of these environmental issues? In short, how can you teach business today without placing it in the context of the environment? How can you prepare students today to run businesses tomorrow if they aren’t sufficiently prepared to understand the environmental context of that tomorrow?

“Thank you, Mr. Melaver, for visiting us,” said the Dean as we parted. “If there’s any role you’d like to play in our school, please drop me a line.”

I was thinking the general blogosphere could help me here and perhaps let the Dean and his counterparts elsewhere know that the upcoming classes of MBA students are looking to see a business school of a different color.


Martin Melaver is CEO of Melaver, Inc. and the author of Living Above the Store: Building a Business That Creates Value, Inspires Change, and Restores Land and Community.

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