Why Business Schools Cannot Develop Managers
Author: David Maister [davidmaister.com/blog.php]
This past Saturday I participated in the 7th Annual MIT Sloan Leadership Conference (25 February, 2006). My topic was the title of this blog: why business schools cannot develop managers.
This is not a new topic for me. As I have often reported, I have every business degree the planet has to offer, and even taught at the Harvard Business School. Yet at the end of all that I knew quite a lot about business and nothing about managing.
‘Business’ as a subject (and a degree program) is all about things of the logical, rational, analytical mind: Mike Porter’s five forces, the numerous P’s of marketing, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, etc, etc. It’s about knowledge.
Managing, on the other hand, is a skill, and has nothing to do with rationality, logic, IQ or intelligence. It’s a simple issue of whether or not you can influence individuals or organizations to accomplish something. It’s about influencing people, singly or in groups (or in hordes.) No amount of intelligence will help if you are not able to interact with people and get the response you desire. (Believe me, I have experienced the difference. I know a lot about management from my education. That doesn’t mean I’m any good at doing it.)
And of course, this is not accomplished by taking a college course in psychology, sociology, anthropology or any other ‘ology’ where we sit around and intellectualize about ‘human resources’ but never have to actually deal with a real live human being. (It reminds me of the Linda Ronstadt / Dolly Parton / Emmylou Harris song which contains the line — you don’t know what a man is until you have to please one!)
To help people develop as managers doesn’t mean discussing management (or even worse — leadership), but rather requires putting people through a set of processes where they have to experience it, try it out, and develop their emotional self-control and interactive styles.
MBAs are not getting the right education for management, although in developing their analytical skills the business schools are perfect for developing consultants, investment bankers and other professionals, as evidenced by where their graduates actually go. Henry Mintzberg, a professor at McGill has recently published a book — Managers not MBAs — which makes many related points.
There’s also a misunderstanding going on with executive education. Many large professional firms, in an attempt to develop their own managers, are linking up with prominent business schools to train their partners in management. The partners may be learning about business, but when it comes to managing it’s a case of the blind leading the blind. If you want to get experience (or even understanding) of how people actually respond and function, individually and in groups, it’s not clear that a group of scholars who are super-intelligent but have never actually managed anyone are the best providers of that service. Firms would be better off hiring the Dale Carnegie trainers.
The title of my blog may be too pessimistic. I found out that, at MIT, there is a course which put students through a simulation of a Bosnian peace-keeping force, and another in which students have to learn and put on a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V as an exercise in teamwork. These are creative and encouraging signs. I wish I had been required to take part in and occasionally lead such group projects during my education. It would have been nice to make my mistakes there instead of in more high-profile, high risk and career-threatening situations.
But such approaches remain the exception rather than the rule, and, I suspect, are still being designed and conducted by faculty who were specifically selected for their interest in things of the mind — intellectuals who predisposition is to draw analytical lessons from the experience, rather than to help people hone practical skills. Business schools are becoming MORE scholarly places as the years go by, not less.
I’m not saying business schools don’t do wonderful things for people (and perhaps to them.) I’m very grateful for what my education did for me, and proud of the institutions I was affiliated with. I just don’t think any of it had anything to do with making me a better manager — or much of one at all.