Training High-Potential Leaders Amid Continual Transformation
If companies expect graduates to be experts as soon as they enter the professional world, it is up to higher education to plant the seed that will help them evolve quickly and over time.
In the past 30 years, the world has changed erratically, shaking up our beliefs and certainties at an increasingly intense pace. In this same period, I have dedicated my time to training and preparing high-potential managers through teaching and research on the one hand, and support to companies on the other. This continuous proximity with top management has strongly inspired both the pedagogical aspect and content of my teaching. From this long-term experience, as well as from a study I conducted for ESCP Europe with the Netexplo Observatory on Talents of 2030, I have drawn a number of lessons, summarized here in three challenges that I consider to be priorities for business schools.
1. Our geopolitical context has shifted from that of a cold war with a binary analysis of the world to a happy and total globalization, promising an even more simplistic approach to the world (“The world is flat”), before giving way to a multipolar reality with uncertain futures. We now operate in a world where globalized companies face very different national and cultural realities: the political, legal, cultural, and societal playing fields of these global companies have remained segmented.
In this context, acclimating “business leaders”—to use a contemporary buzzword—to the business world cannot happen with a mere global cultural veneer, combined with weak English (a common truism once held that mastering 500 words of English was enough to succeed everywhere in international business!). On the contrary: the ability to know two or three cultures in depth and to have the mindset to discover other cultures throughout one's life is a distinctive feature of tomorrow's leaders, whether they are part of a multinational group or a startup whose horizon, by nature, is often global.
2. The technological revolution that started more than 20 years ago, despite bubbles and skepticism—Minitel specialists in France declarining that the decentralized nature of the internet would not allow online commerce to flourish is well remembered!—has disrupted all our activities: trade, information, training (probably the sector probably lagging furthest behind). Today, digital is no longer a world apart; the “internet of things” teaches us that the frontier between the real world and the digital world has been abolished. The digital world is literally at out fingertips, and thus deserves more than ever to be called digital.
This revolution, which has become more the permanent state of work, requires more than shortened adaptation times. Responsiveness commands professionals to be able to think and work in project mode rather than in established processes. In this context, interdisciplinarity prevails and everyone must master a profession—a speciality while being able to dialogue with other specialists. Lawyers cannot understand and elaborate rules without a solid digital culture; engineers and developers will see their innovative products doomed to failure if the designer and the marketer are not involved upstream in the project, and so on.
3. Finally, these incessant transformations are only meaningless pictograms if one remains with their nose pressed to a small part of the canvas. The leader must be able to connect information, detect weak signals to extract the real underlying trends, embrace a long-term perspective ... in short, stand back as if looking at an impressionist full picture. But modern professional life does not facilitate this mechanism.
So it is at the time of initial training—where business educators play a critical role—that this ability to contextualize, relativize, and prioritize should be acquired. We must provide tomorrow’s leaders with broad knowledge to help them understand what the present age can learn from the Renaissance—to revitatlize an interest in European humanism. And we must go beyond the mere technical approach or exclusively economic purpose of a company, providing a solid grasp of the economy, politics, societal, and environmental issues so we might enable learners to comprehend not only the challenges businesses face but also the corporate responsibilities beyond shareholder interests.
These three dimensions—multicultural, multidisciplinary, and humanistic—constitute the foundation of the elite education, in the noblest sense of the term, and must be built into the education provided by the top-quality universities, not only those dedicated to management or engineering but also those teaching arts or political science, for example. If companies legitimately expect young graduates to be experts as soon as they enter the professional world, it is up to the higher education institutions to plant this seed that will help them evolve quickly and over time.
The world without borders does not and will probably never exist, whether these borders are geographical, cultural, or disciplinary. And what a fortunate thing, because the world is made up of diversity as much as of singularity. It is up to us to train the next leaders who will be able to successfully bridge borders.
Frank Bournois is executive president and dean of ESCP Europe Business School, where he is also a professor of general management and cross-cultural leadership.