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BW Businessworld

Managing Uncertain Times

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The worldwide economic turmoil shows no sign of abating. The European markets are experiencing several simultaneous sovereign debt and banking crises; the US economy is having a very sluggish recovery and volatile equity markets; the Arab world is in the midst of serious political upheavals in a number of countries; and even where there is some economic strength such as China, India and Brazil there is a reliance on trade with the unsure economies of the West. Of course, all of this creates huge uncertainties for businesses. 

Management education must prepare young people to lead businesses in such tumultuous times; and on balance I believe that most top schools offer very effective leadership education, but surely the models will need to change as the working environments for our graduates change. 

If we look at the major MBA programmes of the world in the last ten years, we would have to conclude that they have met a market test. There is strong demand for the top programmes from a diverse world-wide population of experienced and well-educated applicants. The MBA programme has proven to be a global phenomenon with superb people applying to top schools from all corners of the earth. As a matter of fact, even though the absolute numbers applying to MBA programmes have grown in the last ten years, the number of top quality applications has grown even more. Being admitted into a leading programme is perhaps even harder than it was ten years ago. In result of this competitiveness, top schools keep raising their average GMAT scores and other qualifications for entering classes.  

On the other end of the student pipeline, graduates of top programmes are in high demand. At Tuck for instance, the percentages employed for the classes of 2010 and 2011 topped 97 per cent, with increasing salaries, year over year. The record was also seen at several other top MBA programmes. Such employment statistics prove that the demand for best of the managers is extremely high. 

Business schools have responded to the big movements in the business environment in the past, for instance the massive shifts in globalisation, technology, and innovation in the last thirty years have been incorporated into the curricular DNA as have ethics and social responsibility. MBA programmes in addition have worked hard to give a broad exposure to the functions of business, strategy, and general management skills, and they are structured to give ample opportunities for students to dig deep into specialties. And still the question remains: Are we doing all we can to prepare our students for the world of uncertainty and challenges that lie ahead?

My answer is that we have to work hard to stay ahead of these complicated trends, and training students to have flexible mindsets is a must. The business leader of the future must be extremely flexible about how to deal with new issues. She or he will need the wisdom and courage to be reflective, not impulsive, inspiring but careful of valued traditions, questioning without being discouraging, and creative but also grounded in knowledge and proof. 

Helping students achieve these characteristics is no mean feat. Our current curricula are replete with an incredible amount of knowledge and skills that come in the form of faculty-directed courses and other experiences that give broad coverage and opportunities for concentrations. 

In order to be flexible, leaders of tomorrow will need not only a whole array of skills and knowledge, but also new ways of approaching issues that will guide their inquiry. In most cases the right answer will be the result of an inquiry process and not a direct match with a data base of established knowledge. 

I propose that business schools go beyond the traditional coverage to give their students more flexible approaches to critical thinking. We have the core assets to achieve this exposure within our own research faculty - people who are steeped in critical thinking and who practice it every day and throughout their careers. We must move towards giving our students deep exposure to our faculty thought processes, and to teach how they approach evaluation of issues and evidence.  This exposure along with more explicit exercises in self awareness of our students' own thought processes will help them develop flexible thinking skills that will be broadly applicable in ever-changing business environments. No one can know it all, but every leader can have a powerful and flexible approach to evaluation and analysis, and business schools must help in developing this most relevant of leadership skills.

Paul Danos is dean of the US based Tuck School of Business