What are B-schools doing now?

Wharton graduates
Wharton MBA graduates will be learning a whole lot more in the coming years - and it's all for the better to prepare them as future leaders

I am absolutely intrigued by this article from Business Week online talking about how Wharton has revamped its MBA curriculum for the first time in 17 years.

Here are a few of my favourite quotes, with some of my own commentary:

One of the cornerstones of the curriculum overhaul is a new commitment by the school to offer an executive education course to MBA graduates free of charge once every seven years.

I love seeing this – a commitment to life-long learning. When I graduated from my MBA program in 2000, I was told unofficially that the “shelf-life” of an MBA was somewhere around 3-5 years. In 2005 I started working with MBA students as a team coach (then called a team facilitator) and I was astonished at how much had changed in only five years since I had graduated. When I was doing my MBA, the 90s were in full swing and dot-com seemed unstoppable. Well the world did change quickly and I’m glad that MBA professors kept up. On the other hand, I was also surprised by what didn’t change… but that’s another story!

(Although – come on… Once every seven years? The world changes a lot faster than that… but it’s a start!)

Truly, in order for MBA students to be the leaders of tomorrow, they need to keep up not only with current thinking in the business world, but they also need to value learning. As I mentioned in a previous post, I occasionally encounter students whose workplace does not support them at all for their on-going education. Perhaps, with more MBA grads returning for updates and renewal, this appreciation for learning will become part of the organizational fabric as well.

The school has spent several years working on the curriculum overhaul, interviewing thousands of students, alumni, corporate executives, and deans from as far away as Brazil, India, and China on how they foresaw the business world evolving in the next 20 years…

Again, another instance of forward-thinking – the school has involved students, alumni and other stakeholders in the renewal of the MBA program. As many readers know, I recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s MAPP (Master of Applied Positive Psychology) program. As this program is now five years old, it is undergoing a standard Penn review, and a hallmark of this review has been talking with past graduates. I’m so glad to hear that professional advanced degree programs are coming out of their academic ivory towers and seeking feedback from those on the ground – the people whom the program is supposed to serve, the people who take that degree out into the real world. You would expect that those are the ones who know what is working and what is not – there is key knowledge there to be tapped into. Wharton is doing it.

Students must participate in a two-year leadership coaching program that will provide professional feedback coaching three or four times a year on what they’ve accomplished in their MBA program, as well as complete 360 degree leadership evaluations.

What? Mandatory leadership coaching? This is perhaps the most eyebrow-raising part of the new program – and one which I am truly appreciating and loving! Coaching has been around for well over a decade now in the mainstream of organizational life, yet I believe that Wharton’s inclusion of an embedded required coaching program may be the greatest validation that the profession of coaching has received to date. I do coach MBA students under an optional model and I know, as a certified coach, that the client must be “coachable”. Typically, this means open to the process and willing to change. This has often been evidenced by choice – the client chooses coaching, and is therefore open and willing. However, Wharton seems to be implicitly saying that if you choose Wharton (and Wharton chooses you back), then you are also choosing to be open and willing in the coaching conversation. For me, this is a win for Wharton – they will get more applicants who are open and willing to change in all areas – not just in coaching.

All too often, there are MBA students who are in it just for the pedigree – the three magic letters after their name. Yet those students are missing out on most of the learning. Yes, the academics are important and yes, unless you are applying to top financial or consulting firms, almost no one will ever ask you about your grades; however, the real learning comes from being open – open to your colleagues, open to discussions, open to other points of view, open to extra-curriculars and so on. Open to coaching implies more openness to the rest of the MBA experience – and, in my mind, that translates into organizational leaders who will carry with them that openness and support that within their future corporations.

The article goes on to talk about other required courses and what has happened at the University of Virginia’s program as well. But for me, the real clincher was this:

The curriculum change … was approved by approximately 87 percent of the faculty in a vote…

Wow. I mean – wow. When was the last time you made a proposal that was supported by 87% of your reviewers? That’s an unseen landslide in an election. Those approval ratings never happen on American Idol. That’s an overwhelming vote of support for MBA graduates who will be supportive of life-long learning, participative change and leadership coaching. I’d call that a significant win for corporate America.

I hope the other MBA schools catch up soon.

Lisa Sansom

Lisa Sansom has her MBA from the Rotman School of Management, and over two decades of experience in teaching and training. Her years of work in the organizational development field have included projects on change management, employee engagement, leadership development, team coaching and employer of choice strategies.