What the world’s hottest MBA courses reveal about business in the 21st century
STANFORD UNION Graduate School of Business (GSB) asks his students to dream big. When one of his alumni in the class of 2006, Rishi Sunak, became prime minister of Great Britain last year, the dean greeted the news as if it had always been inevitable. “Rishi’s experience at Stanford raised his aspirations,” he said in a school-wide email. The GSB proud to offer the world’s finest Ms program. Its class of 420 students is less than half the size of its rival, Harvard Business School – and represents just 6% of applicants, compared to 10% or so for HBS. Although not all of them can become heads of government, many alumni such as the richest man in Asia, Mukesh Ambani, or the most powerful woman in Detroit, Mary Barra of General Motors, will go on to corporate fame.
This makes the GSB the perfect place to glimpse the future of management. And there may be no better lens to study it than the lens MBA the most oversubscribed courses in the program. Where is the GSBThe leaders will be led to choose to spend their valuable time talking volumes about what they think will be important to their positions. And, as strong as they will be in the end, these revealed choices are going to define how the world’s most successful companies are run.
Management education involves going through case studies, looking over financial statements and building sophisticated spreadsheets. And, anyway MBA curriculum worth its salt, the GSBHe has mandatory classes in accounting, finance and computer modeling, to be completed within the first two terms of instruction, out of a total of six. Look at the school’s three most popular faculty courses, however, and a more interesting picture emerges of the 21st century manager. All three almost require a decline in number. Instead they aim to cultivate in students a capacity for stubbornness, introspection and diplomacy, respectively. It is these qualities, the students seem to say, rather than any technical knowledge, that will determine success.
A model called “Paths to Power” is the first leg of the triad. Students like to say that it is designed for the young Machiavellian. The opening line of the course syllabus laments that “insufficient sensitivity to, and skill in dealing with, power dynamics” has cost many talented people their promotion and even their jobs. The goal of the course, writes Jeffrey Pfeffer, the instructor, is to ensure that “you never have to leave a job involuntarily”.
One way to retain power, which students are taught, is to avoid grooming fans. MBAs quickly draws parallels with contemporary events. After a recent speech a student observed that Donald Trump naively created “his own competition” when he endorsed Ron DeSantis for Governor of Florida in 2018. How do you protect against scheming competitors? One way is to hold “multiple overlapping roles in an organization, as the assigned reading suggests: it’s harder to be protected if multiple teams report to you. Xi Jinping, who holds at least ten titles, including president of China and leader of the Communist Party, is not known to have taken Mr. Pfeffer’s class but seems to have taken his lessons. bring in.
If “Paths to Power” trains future leaders to overcome external opposition, “Touchy Feely” guides them to turn their gaze to their own public image. The course, maybe the GSBand famous, having been running for fifty years. Its aim is to help students assess whether the way they come across to others is how they want to be perceived. Much of the class includes unstructured discussion in groups of 12, and a weekend retreat. No subject is off the table; dating history, mental health, political orientation are all fair. Students are asked to observe each other’s behavior, from emotional expressions to problem-solving skills.
The course will end with an activity known to bring tears to some. Students are asked to sort themselves into a line according to the level of “influence” each person has. Those who are sure of their brilliance can try to insert themselves at the front of the pack. They are in danger of being damaged. Disagreements often erupt as others jockey for position near the front. It is humiliating, even traumatic, to be sent to the back of the line. But this exercise in tough love offers an opportunity for self-discovery. Only when you know your weaknesses can you take action to mitigate them. For some this may mean speaking louder. For others it might mean laughing less and smiling more.
The third popular course, “Managing Growing Enterprises”, is not, as the name suggests, about small business accounting. Instead, the focus is on how to respond appropriately in sensitive situations, when many advanced managers are troubled by the inability to find the right words. How do you turn someone off? How do you refuse unsolicited advice and help from a big investor? How do you answer a curious journalist? The course is structured around role-playing, in which a handful of students are randomly called upon each session to carry out such an exchange. The professor and other students provide feedback, which can be intimidating. Prospective students who visit the GSB regularly being invited to sit in MGE, as the class is commonly known on campus. Candidates from Asia, many of whom were raised to be anti-conflict, seem particularly engaged, taking copious notes while the classroom performers try their best to be diplomatic. but firm.
The four pillars of the corner office
A degree of ruthlessness, self-awareness and tact can, indeed, be a familiar combination in corner offices and boardrooms past and present. The GSBThe courses suggest that they are likely to remain common in the future – although in different proportions depending on the individual. A fourth feature is always added. The director of admissions who accepted Mr. Sunak nearly 20 years ago recalls that the young Rishi had acted with “selfless ambition.” No course can teach steely proof – even at the GSB. ■
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