Innovative MBA Program Highlights Seven Leadership Secrets

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Expectations can be dangerous. When reality doesn’t match your vision, disappointment is almost inevitable. Eliminating expectations is nearly impossible, so maybe the next best thing is being open to having your expectations challenged.

TopMBA.com spoke with MBA students at the University of Edinburgh Business School, along with program director Dr Malcolm Kirkup, about how innovations in business education help prepare managers for a borderless, global world where leadership and stewardship go hand-in-hand and expectations are challenged on a daily basis.

A history of intellectual leadership

In the 1700s, it was not just the people of Edinburgh’s passion for Greek architecture that led to city being termed the ‘Athens of the North’. Scotland’s capital was a cauldron of intellectual life, with the University of Edinburgh, which was founded as a law school in 1582, at its center.

As MBA student Bogdan Georgescu explains, “[The University of Edinburgh] has a rich tradition of delivering some of most innovative thinkers and groundbreaking research. Whether we are talking about Adam Smith, David Hume, Thomas Bayes, Charles Darwin or Alexander Graham Bell, this university has shaped our world.” Today the University of Edinburgh regularly features in the top 25 in global university rankings, while its MBA program is earning accolades for its innovative leadership training, its featured management consultancy project and its forward-thinking curriculum.

From day one, students’ expectations are subverted. Their MBA education begins with a global focus. Students examine water insecurity, population growth, climate change and other issues facing developing economies. Kirkup describes the process as a “transformational experience. It’s quite a revelation for some MBA students to realize how acute some water problems are in different countries.”

Students have five opportunities throughout the program to work with different organizations from spinouts to multinationals, getting involved in some very challenging consultancy projects. “We go from sort of semi certainty to very uncertain situations,” Kirkup reflects. By design, the program inserts its students into situations that are uncomfortable and different.

Students enrolled in recent MBA classes represent over 20 different countries. To Kirkup, this is validation that this approach attracts a diverse range of potential MBAs. “[Innovation is] something that is required nowadays, given the fast-paced and indeed volatile business environment,” notesMette Friis, the school’s head of admissions. “We need to prepare our MBA students to be innovative so that they can thrive and deliver effectively in the future.”

The innovative program is what attracted students Kate Traver, Bogdan Georgescu and James Carver.  Traver left her small western Massachusetts hometown for New York City and the bright lights of Broadway. But her dreams changed. Even before graduating from New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, Traver remembered, “I got pulled into the idea of acting as a business – how to sell the product yourself, how to build a theatre company, usually a nonprofit organization, and how to get funding to put on plays – marketing and strategy. I realized that pulling the puppet strings in an industry was much more interesting than feeling like a victim of its whims. That’s probably politically incorrect – but it’s true.”

After graduation, Traver began working for nonprofit organizations. She realized acquiring a solid set of business skills would benefit those she was working to help. Hoping to work for an organization like the World Health Organization or the UN, she looked to international programs, focusing on English-speaking regions. “My experience interacting with the administration of University of Edinburgh Business School was so consistently stellar that I quickly became prejudiced towards it. Their sense of community, investment in their MBAs, and prioritization of finding a happy medium between entrepreneurship and stewardship in global business all made my choice very simple.”

Although Bogdan Georgescu’s path was more conventional, similar reasons drew him to the program. Born in Romania, he has called NYC home since he was a toddler. After earning a BA in economics from Rutgers University, he went to work on Wall Street. To Georgescu, “[Earning an MBA] is not just about getting a better job; it’s building a toolkit that will enable me to compete in tomorrow’s economy – including the personal and intellectual rewards.”

For Carver, the journey from his hometown of Henley in Oxfordshire to Edinburgh was shorter in distance but no less profound. After earning a master’s degree in earth sciences at Oxford’s Jesus College, he spent 15 years in the financial services industry. The University of Edinburgh Business School’s triple accreditation appealed to him, along with, “Malcolm Kirkup’s very well-rounded view of the course, the type of people who attend and what a student should expect to come out with.” As an athlete who has enjoyed rugby, rowing and triathlons, Carver felt well-prepared for the school’s intensity.

Core curriculum: Stewardship, leadership and entrepreneurial action

While innovation is always key in business, as with any discipline, there are some constants at its core, which engender, however, an ability to have one’s expectations challenged.  For Kirkup, preparing managers who’ve headed small divisions to take on senior leadership roles or even run entire corporations means focusing on the core skills, which don’t change massively and which, accordingly, he places at the core of his curriculum.

1. A holistic and strategic understanding of business

“By examining how the various functions and operations in a business come together to deliver value to consumers and customers students are able to develop a holistic, strategic understanding,” Kirkup states. “You are preparing yourself to lead – what does that mean in terms of challenge and what does it mean in terms of opportunity?”

2. Innovative and creative thinking

Being a creative, innovative thinker is vital in a world where new tech is upending old traditions. “It is becoming more important as the world becomes more turbulent and complex and unpredictable,” Kirkup says. This approach attracted Georgescu, who believes, “Today’s business leaders need to think more in terms of how to operate in a volatile, competitive, and unpredictable world. The Edinburgh MBA teaches you just that. It’s not just the finance, accounting, and management classes, it’s how you interrelate all these courses into a framework for dealing with tomorrow’s challenges in an international context.”

3. Entrepreneurship in action

It isn’t sufficient to just identify a problem. Leadership means developing solutions. The right MBA programs prepare students, Kirkup believes, “so the individual is motivated to do something – rather than just notice innovation, they are prepared to implement it and see how innovations can translate into new business opportunities.”

 

Georgescu points to innovator Steve Jobs: “Being entrepreneurial means inspiring young leaders to take risks and follow their dreams in changing the world. You cannot be an entrepreneur if you do not have imagination and the will to make it reality.”

4. Sustainability and responsible leadership

“We have a significant focus on sustainability,” notes Kirkup, “on responsible leadership, on ethics. Thinking about the decisions you make and the consequences of your decisions for different communities and stakeholders.”

Traver believes, “Corporate social responsibility is the zeitgeist in a world where we have ceased to trust our companies and economies. We have an obligation to be better corporate citizens because we are brave enough, we are smart enough and it’s high time we evolve.”

To Georgescu, “This means setting an example of corporate values that promote sustainability and long-term success not just for your firm but for society as a whole. Treating stakeholders as an integral part of the business decision-making process. Corporations don’t lead themselves; people lead corporations.”

5. Leadership is stewardship

Kirkup believes leadership means careful stewardship of financial, social and natural resources. “Someone takes on a leadership position for a period of time,” explains Kirkup, “It’s not permanent. It’s never permanent. You take on an organization and you are essentially looking after that organization’s capital – financial, social and natural – and that’s what drives the business leader of the future to see themselves in that light.”

6. Global in mindset

“Being global in mindset means seeing business opportunities as borderless and seeing the globe as a potential market and seeing cultural barriers and geographical barriers as not necessarily a limitation or a confinement,” Kirkup explains.

Travers draws from her experience working in an NGO which worked in 35 countries globally. While running online training for the organization’s global technical specialists who were mainly infectious disease physicians specializing in HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, Traver learned something important.

“We were using a Blackboard platform to run these trainings, and I very quickly discovered that these very intelligent, highly-trained professionals from Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, etc. had never used an online training platform, or engaged in online learning of any kind,” Traver recalled. “This changed the narrative of the experience for all of us. For these brilliant doctors, some of whom had literally risked their lives to achieve the level of education that they had, the idea of scarcity as an innate challenge in education was deeply ingrained in their world view. Coming from a middle-class, educated background in the US, I had my entire perception of the value of education and accessible information shifted. A global mindset means having had concrete experiences like this which contribute to your ability to empathize and learn from others.”

7. Collaborative mindset

Kirkup emphasizes collaboration. “You can do a lot more if you work with others,” he explains. “Yes, of course one brand competes with another but, equally, behind the scenes one can be very collaborative, share operations, share waste even. The waste of one business can be raw product input for another business.”

Georgescu notes the collaborative nature of working with 44 other students of 24 different nationalities, and Traver states that, “The most important part of this program is how we learn to work quickly and effectively with others. All of the content is vital, but not all of us are going to go into corporate finance, or strategic consulting. What we do all need to know is how to be thrown into a situation with people who you don’t know at all, and with whom you have seriously divergent opinions, but still have to deliver a product on time and scope with. This is what we are doing during every single group project this year.”

Capability to lead change in an organization

All seven core skills work together in preparing graduates for leadership roles and ideally effecting change in their places of employment.

“I think an MBA has a responsibility to work through all of those seven aspects and we would say that’s preparing people for a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world,” says Kirkup.

For Georgescu, “The program has changed how I think about leadership and team building.” He thinks when you consider schools, “Your choice should be influenced by what you think you can give back to your school, community, and society.”

Traver earned her MBA this year; Georgescu and Carver will graduate in 2016. They’ve all been exposed leadership training designed to prepare them so they will, as Kirkup puts it, “know what to do when they don’t know what to do.”