Conversations with MBAs

The other night, I had a chance to speak (along with Rich Sternhell and Laura Rittenhouse) with a small, intimate group of about 20 students from Columbia’s Business School. They were a great group, and we all had a delightful time.

One impression stayed with me because it somewhat surprised me. I was struck at what I think was a general skepticism about the level of impact that they, as individuals, could have.

They seemed to feel that the world of business is dominated by systems, analyses, structures, institutions, and that the role of the individual is rather limited.

I do not think this is true, nor did my fellow-oldsters there that evening. So my question is:

a. Were the 3 of us just a trio of old-timers, dinosaurs from the days of white-out (dare I say mimeograph?), oblivious to the encroachment of powers well beyond individual control which have come to shape our business destinies?

or

b. Have these young people become disillusioned, depressed, and generally disinclined to believe in the role of the individual because our MBA programs have stopped teaching managers about managerial decision-making, replacing that with analyses of industry structures and mathematical risk models?

or

c. Is this just how it looks from the front end of a career as an MBA?

Me, no surprise, I’m with option b. But what do you think?

8 replies
  1. lance e. osborne
    lance e. osborne says:

    Tough, tough question. Perhaps it’s deeper and earlier in the education cycles where the problem hides. I think Buckingham would argue that effective leaders, long-term leaders demonstrate the aptitude early in college, even in K-12. I wish we would adopt his Strengths Testing in all school systems. Truly knowing your strengths and your passions will inevitably brighten your outlook, and if you have the aptitude and desire, your optimism in regards to being able to make a difference. Then again, Charlie, maybe those kids just don’t trust "the system." We don’t talk about it much, but what does lack of trust do for public morale?

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  2. James A. boyd
    James A. boyd says:

    Hi Charlie,

    I believe the answer lies somewhere between b and c.  My MBA expereince was after law school.  That was in the Neolithic era and everything is foggy so I can’t speak much to current MBA teaching, but I do note two things.  First, technology has dehumanized much of the world of business.  Second, closely aligned to the first, we are hell bent on commoditizing all aspects of business relationships.  In fact, the word relationship, while it has not lost its meaning, it has lost much of its understanding and thus its impact.

    The young turks I work with , consumed with ipods, ipads tweets and texting, have not been given an opportunity to experience a real inter-personal relationship.  It is little wonder that they believe the world of busness is dominated by systems, etc.  Perhaps the B-schools need to teach control of the systems by humans who care about other humans.  Add to that some real life examples of success from individuals over systems and the light will turn on.

    Jim.

    PS.  After reading your post of Tuesday this week, I am ready to write your name in for President.  We need your kind of leadership thinking in Washington.

     

    Reply
  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    “Have these young people become disillusioned, depressed, and generally disinclined to believe in the role of the individual because our MBA programs have stopped teaching managers about managerial decision-making, replacing that with analyses of industry structures and mathematical risk models?”

     

    I don’t think we become disillusioned, depressed and generally declined to believe in the role of the individual at 19-20-2. It startes much, much earlier.

     

    Too, your experience is partially what generated my early-on skepticism of the highly-touted “MBA Oath.”

     

    The challenge, as I see it, is the gap between the inner individual and the external, outer individual, the stuff of which is sorely lacking in (elementary through higher) education and even in most parenting.

     

    If there’s no focus and conscious exploration of the inner being (e.g., core values, attitudes, feelings, assumptions, judgments, belief systems, thoughts and the like), there’s no way to support one to allow for and expand their spiritual (not religion, not theology) connection to positive external results. So we have successive generations that are obsessed with being rich, “successful” (hmmm) and outwardly focused.

     

    The MBA program (generically), IMHO,  is not an external system that encourages inner individual empowerment, authority, integrity, etc.  All of life is relationship and this starts with the relationship one has with one’s self, the absence of which leads to much of the experience you had with these folks.

     

    With no focus on internal being and external doing (no, it’s not “business-ey,” Charlie, but you get what I mean), what’s left is a simple, easy and often misguided focus on the externals. Folks’ doing is a function of their being. When their “be-ing” is off, well, we see the results of that daily.

     

    Frankly, B-schools could narrow that being-doing gap, and you can fill in the blank with why that’s not feasible. (Begin with the underlying fear that fosters the "We can’t do  that with them…" responses.

     

    One’s external state reflects their internal state – and a lack of congruence between the two produces individuals who find  it challenging to trust and be trustworthy, be in integrity, manifest low self-orientation, blow the whistle, etc., etc. –  a function of not knowing who we really are – except that “I have an MBA from…”

     

    “They seemed to feel that the world of business is dominated by systems, analyses, structures, institutions, and that the role of the individual is rather limited”….

     

    as taught and perpetuated by individuals whose sense of their own self (over and above ego) is equally limited.  More’s the pity.

     

    No surprise for me either here.

     

    The world is a looking glass and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face” – William Makepeace Thackeray.  

     

    Reply
  4. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:

    "…They seemed to feel that the world of business is dominated by systems, analyses, structures, institutions, and that the role of the individual is rather limited."

    Aren’t most people a product of their environment? These folks grew up w/ nothing but structure that was programed by a higher authority (parent / nanny / babysitter/  teacher/  tutor /coach), including no "free play" to allow the individual imagination, decision-making, risk-taking, teaming or leadership skills to develop.  Everything was pre-determined for them, they went from one organized activity to another. Most didn’t even have to figure out how to navigate walking 3 blocks of a neighborhood, they had a parental taxi service dropping off & picking them up. Their parents screamed like crazy & demanded change when their pre school was focusing on social skills  & free-based activities instead of reading skills, math & structured activities, and parents bought every outwardly focused, electronic external stimulus device that was available. 

    I may be over-generalizing a tad… but why wouldn’t their thinking be dominated by structures and systems??

    Reply
  5. Bob Bowers
    Bob Bowers says:

    Barbara, I completely agree with you, but I have hope that the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way.  As the parents of a 7-year old and 5-year old, my wife and I have actively sought out an early childhood education for our kids that was focused on social skills, free play, and imagination.  We’ve encountered many similarly-minded families in our community, leading us to become founding members of a new Waldorf-inspired elementary school (www.urbanprairie.org) in the heart of Chicago.   Let’s check back with each other in 20 years and see if any of that has an impact on attitudes of current MBAs.

      

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  6. Moid
    Moid says:

    I am inclined towards option b… the primary reason being business school. Right from day one, we are introduced to a mechanical view of business and the focus is so much on building formulaic knowledge. Rarely do I get to answer a business problem with intuition since the expectation is to have a quantitative, model-based evidence to back my response. And I definitely echo Barbara’s comment above that this mindset is prevalent in most aspects of our lives.

     

     

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  7. Rich Sternhell
    Rich Sternhell says:

    While I was disappointed by the degree of skepticism as well, I was less surprised than Charlie.  I have observed an increased sense of risk by individuals in recent years that is no doubt worrisome.  "Going along" is clearly seen as the safe way to go. 

    At the same time, I found some very encouraging signs during our dinner.  The enthusiastic discussion of approaches to increase personal impact was a clear indication that the students embraced the idea that they could have an impact.  In addition, Professor Hitendra Wadhwa, our moderator, leads a course in Personal Leadership that touches on many of these themes.  The first step in driving change is recognition of the need.  The students we met with clearly want to take personal responsibility and while their experiences in the corporate world have not encouraged them, they haven’t conceded defeat.

    Reply
  8. Howard Wolosky
    Howard Wolosky says:

    My choice would be "d" –"all of the above and probably a couple of reasons not elucidated." I understand the surprise but I think this common perception is rather significant on a number of levels. The best and the brightest, the future leaders of businesses, when they should be most optimistic on the future impact they will have, see significant limitations on the possibility of making a difference on an individualistic level. What does this say about the current business models? Wonder if a number of MBAs in business for a number of years were asked, how many would   agree that "the world of business is dominated by systems, analyses, structures, institutions, and that the role of the individual is rather limited."

    Howard

    Reply

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