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Passion, People and Principles

Why Business Schools Cannot Develop Managers

post # 23 — February 26, 2006 — a Careers post

This past Saturday I participated in the 7th Annual MIT Sloan Leadership Conference. My topic was the title of this blog: why business schools cannot develop managers.

This is not a new topic for me. As I have often reported, I have every business degree the planet has to offer, and even taught at the Harvard Business School. Yet at the end of all that I knew quite a lot about business and nothing about managing.

‘Business’ as a subject (and a degree program) is all about things of the logical, rational, analytical mind: Mike Porter’s five forces, the numerous P’s of marketing, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, etc, etc. It’s about knowledge.

Managing, on the other hand, is a skill, and has nothing to do with rationality, logic, IQ or intelligence. It’s a simple issue of whether or not you can influence individuals or organizations to accomplish something. It’s about influencing people, singly or in groups (or in hordes.) No amount of intelligence will help if you are not able to interact with people and get the response you desire. (Believe me, I have experienced the difference. I know a lot about management from my education. That doesn’t mean I’m any good at doing it.)

And of course, this is not accomplished by taking a college course in psychology, sociology, anthropology or any other ‘ology’ where we sit around and intellectualize about ‘human resources’ but never have to actually deal with a real live human being. (It reminds me of the Linda Ronstadt / Dolly Parton / Emmylou Harris song which contains the line – you don’t know what a man is until you have to please one!)

To help people develop as managers doesn’t mean discussing management (or even worse – leadership), but rather requires putting people through a set of processes where they have to experience it, try it out , and develop their emotional self-control and interactive styles.

MBAs are not getting the right education for management, although in developing their analytical skills the business schools are perfect for developing consultants, investment bankers and other professionals, as evidenced by where their graduates actually go. Henry Mintzberg, a professor at McGill has recently published a book – Managers not MBAs – which makes many related points.

There’s also a misunderstanding going on with executive education. Many large professional firms, in an attempt to develop their own managers, are linking up with prominent business schools to train their partners in management. The partners may be learning about business, but when it comes to managing it’s a case of the blind leading the blind. If you want to get experience (or even understanding) of how people actually respond and function, individually and in groups, it’s not clear that a group of scholars who are super-intelligent but have never actually managed anyone are the best providers of that service. Firms would be better off hiring the Dale Carnegie trainers.

The title of my blog may be too pessimistic. I found out that, at MIT, there is a course which put students through a simulation of a Bosnian peace-keeping force, and another in which students have to learn and put on a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V as an exercise in teamwork. These are creative and encouraging signs. I wish I had been required to take part in and occasionally lead such group projects during my education. It would have been nice to make my mistakes there instead of in more high-profile, high risk and career-threatening situations.

But such approaches remain the exception rather than the rule, and, I suspect, are still being designed and conducted by faculty who were specifically selected for their interest in things of the mind -intellectuals who predisposition is to draw analytical lessons from the experience, rather than to help people hone practical skills. Business schools are becoming MORE scholarly places as the years go by, not less.

I’m not saying business schools don’t do wonderful things for people (and perhaps to them.) I’m very grateful for what my education did for me, and proud of the institutions I was affiliated with. I just don’t think any of it had anything to do with making me a better manager – or much of one at all.


Coert Visser said:

Jeffrey Pfeffer has provided some additional reasons which explain why many MBA graduates often don’t turn out to be great managers. One of those is that economic theories and models have a too dominant position in MBA’s in particular and in management science and education in general. Many authors, like Jeffrey Pfeffer, Daniel Kahneman and Robert Frank have shown that many of the economics theories and practices are based on faulty premises about human behaviour. Management education needs better theories! More about this here: http://www.iese.edu/research/pdfs/DI-0530-E.pdf

posted on February 27, 2006

David Koopmans said:

As a marketing consultant I meet a broad range of managers from all walks of life, especially in medium sized businesses. Many senior managers now undertake post-graduate courses with the idea that this will give them an almost automatic ticket into the next management level.

In reality, they often forget what made them so good in the first place (which is often learned over decades) and start to focus on text book approaches to business management.

Then there is the group who believe they will magically be turned into manager when they do the post grads, and find out that no one is impressed with post graduate qualifications alone…It’s a tough world out there…

posted on February 27, 2006

Peter FRIEDES said:

As you know, David, I believe that there are two fundamental skills that managers need to have to be effective. The skill to Relate to their employees and the skill to require of their employees. Relating includes the skills to Ask, Listen, Include, Coach and Encourage. The Requiring skills include the ability to focus on goals, Declare, Insist, Control and Confront. If a manager has both sets of skills, and a reasonable sense of when to use each set, they will be a good manager. Almost no schools teach the Relating skills.

posted on March 12, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Full disclosure to everyone out there – Peter Friedes, the ex-CEO of Hewitt Associates, wrote a FABULOUS and PRACTICAL book called ‘The 2R Manager”, for which I wrote the foreword. I still think it is essential reading for anyone taking on a managerial role.

posted on March 12, 2006