The Search for a Higher Purpose

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Tuesday, March 30, 2021
By Federico Frattini
Photo by iStock/NirutiStock
What is the role of business schools in determining the future of management—and society?

In recent years, business leaders have begun reflecting on what the ultimate aspirations of their organizations should be. By focusing primarily on maximizing shareholder value, industry has contributed to a series of urgent global problems, such as environmental degradation, economic inequality, and inequitable access to education.

Several authoritative voices have suggested it is only possible to resolve problems of this magnitude by revising the current capitalist system. They believe that, because business leaders have rethought the purpose of companies and their role within society, we need a new model in which profit, equity, and sustainability can co-exist.

One of most profound reflections on this topic was provided by Harvard Business School’s Rebecca Henderson in her recent book Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire. For instance, she notes that, “Taken literally, single-minded focus on profit maximization would seem to require that firms … fish out the oceans, destabilize the climate, fight against anything that might raise labor costs—including public funding of education and health care.” She believes it is both a moral and financial imperative for businesses to address these issues.

I am convinced we will be able to solve these grand global challenges, but only if we find a way to direct the resources, skills, and energy of each company toward the pursuit of a higher purpose. Business leaders will need to move beyond simply maximizing value and instead express the broader impact they wish to have on their companies, their colleagues, and the wider community.

In particular, my hope is that more entrepreneurs and managers will begin to understand how it is possible to generate high profits while making tangible contributions to building a better future for all. Although many leaders remain skeptical of this management model, a growing number of companies are demonstrating that such balance is possible.

The Pursuit of Meaning

Realizing this transformation involves building deeply “human” organizations in which leaders articulate their core values, their aspirations, and their motivations for being in business. Everyone from top executives to frontline employees should be able to find meaning in their work. It is vital that organizations also involve their partners, clients, and collaborators in open, thoughtful discussions aimed at building a shared, heartfelt purpose that goes beyond pursuing profits.

Everyone from top executives to frontline employees should be able to find meaning in their work.

This deep transformation will take time to manifest. It will not be achieved just because governments promote it and financial markets encourage it. It will only come about when all managers, entrepreneurs, and business leaders recognize and accept the challenges they face and the responsibilities they have.

Colleges, universities, and business schools can play key roles in creating this transformation by training thousands of professionals who will be the protagonists of change in the future. If schools overhaul the programs they have on offer, they can help leaders develop new mindsets about the purpose of business.

‘The Purpose Perspective’

At MIP, the business school of the Politecnico di Milano in Italy, our goal is to inspire conscious leaders and decision makers who are committed to building a more responsible society. We want to stimulate our students and our partner organizations to actively contribute to building a better future for all. We think this should be the aim of business schools around the globe.

As one way to train our students in the nuances of business transformation, we have started a partnership with The Mind at Work, an independent business consultancy that helps leaders imbue purpose into culture and strategy. Through this partnership, we are starting to realign the purpose, values, and culture of the school itself.

We are creating rich new initiatives that will challenge the traditional economic model of business that places profit above all else. These programs and courses leverage diverse teaching approaches and formats to introduce a purpose-centered approach across all MIP courses and student groups. We are achieving this by blending MIP’s educational and research capabilities in the fields of strategy, innovation, and technology with The Mind at Work’s experience in taking a human-centric approach to bringing purpose to diverse organizational settings.

Among our new offerings will be an executive program on Leading with Purpose, which launches in June 2021 in our international i-Flex format. It will be delivered over our personalized digital learning platform, FLEXA, which uses Microsoft artificial intelligence tools to help students identify skill gaps and the classes that will address them. The executive program consists of eight thematic modules that include videos, live question-and-answer sessions, interactive lessons, and project work. It offers coaching opportunities in which participants can hone their leadership and entrepreneurship skills.

Business schools must shift from believing that our sole purpose is to help individuals succeed in their careers to embracing the notion that we serve a wider, collective, and elevated purpose.

We also have started to rethink the traditional MBA from a purpose perspective, and we have been creating ways to expose all MIP students and alumni to this paradigm through short courses and leadership coaching services. At the same time, we are reaching companies through our Purpose Lab, which blends executive education and strategic consulting capabilities to provide business leaders with the space, resources, and support they need to create purpose-led businesses. Through the lab, executives can gain insights on how to envision and enact purpose-led strategies. They can also benefit from one-on-one coaching sessions and the chance to interact with a community of practitioners who share experiences and perspectives.

Finally, we have sought and received B Corp Certification, which recognizes the commitment companies make to pursuing sustainable development and building a more inclusive society. MIP Politecnico is one of the first business schools worldwide that has received the designation.

The Third Challenge

One of the biggest challenges for the business school market has always been understanding what goes on inside companies so that we can prepare our students to become managers and leaders. Another challenge is finding ways to integrate businesses into the fabric of our schools.

Today we have a third challenge: innovating our educational methods so we can help future managers, entrepreneurs, and business leaders understand that profit should not be the sole goal of the organization.

As the landscape of business changes, the aims of business schools also must change. We must shift from believing that our sole purpose is to help individuals succeed in their careers to embracing the notion that we serve a wider, collective, and elevated purpose.

Universities and business schools have always been places where people and ideas meet. They’re places where future leaders develop their critical thinking, build their creativity and leadership, and pursue their purposes. This is the tradition of higher education that we want to continue. We want to help our students—the next generation of leaders—discover how they can make a wider positive impact on society as a whole.

Federico Frattini
Dean, POLIMI Graduate School of Management
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