Students Aren’t Fully Prepared for Today’s Workplace—We Can Change That

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Thursday, March 14, 2019
By Victor Mullins
Photo by iStock
While b-schools are focusing on the student experience, companies are focusing on client solutions, in a space where change takes place at rocket speed.

The nature of business is constantly evolving. Advances in technology, the volume of data available, the speed of communication, and how decisions impact the environment and all stakeholders are major drivers of change. Organizations need people who are ready for any challenge. To truly prepare the next leaders to push organizations forward to success, business schools also need to evolve their often-dated curriculum and associated out-of-class experiences to prepare students to enter the workforce of the unknown.

While business schools are trying to figure out an experience that seems right for students, companies are trying to figure out the right solutions for their clients in a space where change is taking place at rocket speed. Companies need people who can think on their feet when plans change, who can work well with all types of people, and who can think critically and innovate. They must be able to frame problems, examine them, analyze them, and come up with out-of-the-box ways to solve them. Business schools must work alongside employer partners to ensure that students are ready to do so on day one. Here’s how we can do that:

Ignite their passions. People who are passionate about their work are better leaders because they are driven by a sense of purpose. I have been an active participant in higher education for more than 30 years and leading undergraduate programs for the last 20 years, currently at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. One thing hasn’t changed: Ask any student their major and they will spout it out with pride, but when pushed to answer “why,” few can pinpoint a meaningful reason.

Business schools must do better in creating experiences for students to identify their purpose, to define success, and to develop their value proposition, so they can live productive and fulfilling lives. Students must develop a deeper knowledge of themselves; they must have their own mission statement, they must know their skills and abilities; they must have an implementable personal leadership plan. I see the need every day when I interact with current and prospective students who are longing to be mentored on how to truly find their value proposition. So that’s where we are starting at the Smith School.

We are launching a new out-of-class program, dubbed iSmith, that aligns with our classroom experiences to help undergraduate students develop as young leaders. It’s a coordinated all-hands-on-deck effort among faculty, staff, students, alumni, and employer partners, and it starts with helping students identify and communicate their personal brands, passions, and purpose. The goal is to shape a collaborative, inclusive, and supportive team culture to help all of our students thrive. From their first year through their senior year, students will select among a portfolio of meaningful and relevant opportunities—including case competitions, interdisciplinary honors programs, organizational leadership opportunities, global immersion trips, and consulting projects—to gain more experience in critical thinking, working with different people, and articulating value.

Train them to be agile. Organizations need leaders who can adapt to change quickly. The best ways to learn how to adapt are through practice and mastery of the tools and techniques to do so. One of the more unusual examples I’ve witnessed has been here at Smith, where professor Oliver Schlake created a zombie apocalypse to teach students the art of improvisation and contingency planning, fundamental to business survival. With Schlake advising, undergraduate students participated in an outdoor adventure team-building and networking event at Little Bennett Campground near Washington, D.C. Teams competed in a GPS scavenger hunt through the woods and thought creatively to manage the allocation of scarce resources for a subsequent series of outdoor survival competitions, all while fending off “zombies” played by student peers.

Push them to solve problems. You can’t solve complex problems without knowing the information you need to do so and where to start. Get students started on problem-solving by giving them access to the right data and software platforms. This is what they’ll need to do in the business world, so business schools need to be the training ground. The Office of Transformational Learning at Maryland Smith brings companies like Target, Mattel, Deloitte, Unilever and others into the classroom to challenge students to provide innovative solutions to complex business problems. Company representatives and instructors guide students as they grapple with real business problems. Students get to network with professionals, connect course content to top companies, and hone their business acumen.

Another example: While associate dean at the University of Illinois Gies College of Business, I worked with faculty, staff and students to deliver Business 101. Throughout the required course, students are presented with various challenges and have two minutes to respond to each on the steps they would take to address the challenge. They learn that business leaders help shape society, and that it will be their responsibility to contribute by making ethical decisions.

Teach them how to work well with others. Business is global, and people need to know how to navigate the intricacies of working with others, whether they share an office together, work on the same team, or do business together on the other side of the globe. The best business leaders tolerate ambiguity, embrace diversity, display a global mindset, and understand business environments and growth drivers around the world, so that’s what we’re teaching our students.

NYU Stern is another school making great efforts in this area. While serving as assistant dean there, I worked with faculty and staff to manage the International Studies Project, a one-of-a-kind course all juniors take to learn the principles of international economies and trade. During the course, they travel to a foreign city to learn about a specific industry, meet with company executives, and observe a country’s culture firsthand. Then they present group capstone assignments to classmates, professors, and deans.

We must start implementing these changes at business schools now. You can incorporate these changes as we will, into the current curriculum, to make sure business school education is evolving with the corporate world.

We will conduct a pilot of our iSmith program in the fall with the incoming class of 2023, with plans to track and assess student engagement through a web platform. We will also work with faculty to incorporate this content into the current curriculum with plans to include it in a larger way in a revamp of our undergraduate program next year.

To be clear, the goal is not to better prepare students to get a job. Top business schools are already doing that well, boasting near-100 percent placement rates for undergraduates. This is really about making sure business school grads thrive when they are in the workforce, and are able to evolve at the pace of business. To do that, we must evolve too, continuously adapting to a marketplace that is forever becoming more competitive, more complex, more global, more innovation-driven. With new programs and imaginative approaches to business curriculum, we can teach our students how to analyze problems, think creatively, and work with people who are different from them to strategically tackle new challenges in business as they arise and anticipate ones that are yet to come.

Victor Mullins
Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies, Diversity Officer, Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland
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