A Finnish Baby Box for Leaders

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Monday, August 9, 2021
By Stephen Taylor
Photo by iStock/Prostock-Studio
One government’s strategy to decrease infant mortality has lessons that business schools might apply to produce work-ready graduates.

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Every few years, a story pops up in the U.S. media about the enduring success of the Finnish baby box. It began as a post-World War II public health strategy aimed at encouraging more Finnish women to seek prenatal healthcare. Given to new mothers by the government, baby boxes were literal cardboard boxes filled with things like baby clothes, toys, bedding, books, and other useful items for newborns. Now a tradition dating back generations, the box has come to play a major role in influencing culturally specific parenting norms.

Since more than 95 percent of expecting mothers choose the box over a cash stipend, babies end up in cohorts that can be identified by the items in the boxes. See another baby in government-issued blue overalls? That child is likely the same age as your kiddo. The box itself also functions as a crib, reinforcing the Finnish idea that sleeping in open air is best. In these ways, the boxes connect people, through both the items the boxes contain and the practices derived from using them as intended.

While most media coverage on the baby box highlights its broader cultural and emotional role, we should not overlook that this large-scale, highly effective strategy was designed to reduce infant mortality. By onboarding new mothers in a program focused on prenatal care, the Finnish government also produced something that continues to shape and reflect the culture and people of the nation.

As educators in the discipline tasked with training future leaders, we might reasonably wonder if we could design a similar onboarding strategy for our students—and our own administrators—to achieve another worthy goal: to produce better work-ready leaders. What kinds of experiences or tools should we provide our students in their onboarding to leadership? What can we do to lead by example when it comes to bringing new leaders into our organizations and preparing them for success?

As educators who deliver graduate management education (GME), we should consider the Finnish baby box as an exemplar of what we can do for our students via curriculum and culture, and for our administrators via onboarding activities. What should be included in this toolkit that we use to set up new leaders for success? Let’s take a look.

A Leadership Box for Students

It’s might seem daunting to design the most effective leadership box, especially as a complement to our already robust curricular and co-curricular programming. But we need only consider the many sources of feedback we receive to know where we might want to focus.

Before their programs start, students regularly tell us that they’re looking for industry-recognized certifications in technical or practical areas. In their first year after graduation, many alumni report to us that they are struggling with the tactical challenges of managing others, especially the interpersonal aspects of direct supervision.

So, with that feedback in mind, why don’t we develop a set of recommended trainings, videos, readings, and exercises that aim to build a deeper understanding of management and leadership? These could include resources such as Peter Drucker’s Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, for example, but they could be presented in the discrete, mixed-format pieces that students past and present alike prefer. These trainings can be chosen and developed to reinforce each school’s unique philosophy and approach, and they can be updated each year as part of standard review processes. We can use these materials to build student cultures of feedback, which show students that we are listening to what they tell us. This approach also would lengthen the tail of engagement with our alumni, by offering them opportunities each year to seek out faculty’s suggestions on practical matters and stay current in their leadership knowledge.

We can use these materials to build student cultures of feedback, which show students that we are listening to what they tell us.

Employers, too, actively share feedback with our schools, both formally and informally, about how graduates of our programs can be more work-ready. And while we know that this feedback falls broadly into the categories of academic preparation, interpersonal skill, and leadership capability, employers often tell us they are looking for candidates fresh from GME programs who possess effective communication and presentation skills, broad critical thinking skills, and general technical and data analysis capabilities.

This kind of feedback also can help us know how best to prepare candidates for interviews. With COVID-19 pushing just about everything in the hiring process to virtual formats, there is perhaps an even greater need to prepare students for the complex task of interviewing. To that end, schools might partner with their key employers to develop guides, overviews, and trainings to teach students how best to position themselves for interviews. These trainings can be updated annually as part of regular school-employer relationship management.

Many schools embed credit-bearing courses on professional development in their curricula, but a well-designed leadership toolkit might provide them with a far more flexible way to inform their students about the importance of career preparation. These toolkits can include varying levels of interview preparation, online courses in group communication, and exercises designed to build leadership thinking. They can be more market-responsive and the choice of content less committee-bound, which would provide schools with not only a way to build relationships with key employers over shared goals, but also an important space where students can develop their careers.

Ask any faculty member—and most staff members—what skills they think students will need to be work-ready by the end of their programs, and you’re likely to get an earful. That’s because faculty and staff get to know the students so well; the students will share with them, often unintentionally, where they struggle and where they find ease. Most faculty and staff will tell you that students need more help managing difficult conversations to reasonable ends, a skill that undoubtedly will help them in their supervisory paths. This group also will point out that students can dramatically improve their abilities to work in team settings if they build better communication skills and practical ways of holding group members accountable.

Faculty and staff in each college will have highly context-dependent feedback from, and for, the students in their programs. Why not look to these groups to determine the materials, co-curricular groups and experiences, and activities that can help our graduates be better prepared when they graduate?

A Leadership Box for Administrators

“Do as I say, not as I do” is no longer an effective message for program administrators to send to students. Instead, administrators must be able to demonstrate to students, through their own leadership cultures, what work-ready performance looks like. That means each time a new team member is brought into the organization—especially in a student-facing or executive role—schools need to conduct a practical onboarding for that person, akin to the cultural level-setting that comes with a Finnish baby box.

Each time a new team member is brought into the organization, schools need to conduct a practical onboarding akin to the cultural level-setting that comes with a Finnish baby box.

The leadership box for GME administrators, for example, should contain much more than introductory meetings and a welcome note on the desks of new arrivals. Rather, it should give new leaders in GME the context they need to succeed: Which key cross-unit issues are being managed? Who gives overviews of each unit? What should be included in those overviews? What’s in the program portfolio, and more important, what are the key insights about the portfolio that will help the new administrative hire orient to current challenges. The box should go beyond “who we are” and “what we do,” to clarify how the school’s leaders partner across the institution to actually accomplish the school’s mission.

College and unit leaders need to be onboarded not only to their new roles and responsibilities, but also to the context in which they will get their work done. That context will include elements such as an overview of the college or unit culture and the way the school’s strategic positioning is reflected in its organizational structure. To provide this context effectively, however, we must have an organized onboarding program, one that serves as the first step in making sure our leaders are work-ready in the same way we want our grads to be work-ready.

A Model for Leadership Success

The pressure on business schools in today’s business climate is exceptionally high: They are asked to supply groundbreaking research; produce graduates with generalist approaches and specialist tools; and, last but not least, make the world a more just and equitable place. We cannot expect any school to achieve these challenging goals overnight.

Even so, as administrators and faculty at GME institutions, we can make focused efforts to create cultures of success, using the Finnish baby box as an innovative model that can help our graduates reach a new echelon of performance and fulfill society’s increasingly high expectations. If we design these toolkits well, we might even be able to identify these work-ready, context-aware generalists by their experience with their schools’ leadership boxes. It’s a strategy that worked for an entire nation. Perhaps it can work for graduate management education.

To get your own leadership box, visit lsnedu.com/AACSB.

Stephen Taylor
Research Director, BusinessCAS
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