Teaching Leadership for the Future

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Monday, May 23, 2022
By Federico Frattini
Photo by iStock/JohnnyGreig
The New Generation MBA at POLIMI Graduate School of Management develops leaders who combine shareholder value with a positive impact on society.
  • To train the next generation of business leaders, POLIMI has realigned its own purpose, values, and culture.
  • POLIMI has partnered with The Mind at Work to co-create courses that emphasize a more expansive purpose for business.
  • Students learn to combine hard skills with humanistic and life skills to achieve careers that are personally and professionally fulfilling.

In the last few years, many business leaders have realized they need to rethink the purpose of their organizations and the roles they wish these organizations to play in the world. As they develop an increasing awareness of their responsibility to address pressing issues within society, they understand that profit must not be viewed as the be-all and end-all of their companies. Profit should co-exist with equity, sustainability, and inclusion.

Universities and business schools can play key roles as change agents that help future business leaders, managers, and entrepreneurs pursue a higher purpose. But first, schools need to transform their educational methods.

Of course, this is not a process that can be completed overnight. At POLIMI Graduate School of Management in Milan, Italy, we are responding to the unique challenges of the 21st century by reconsidering our own purpose in society and the way we train the next generation of business leaders.

We have begun by changing the name of our school, which was formerly MIP Politecnico di Milano. The acronym MIP stands for Master in Ingegneria della Produzione (Master in Production Engineering), but that no longer reflects our focus. Today, we are committed to building a more equitable, inclusive, and mindful society where innovative and practical solutions are born to solve the most pressing problems that our society is experiencing. To that end, we have realigned the purpose, values, and culture of the school itself.

Sustainable Leadership

The MBA experience at our school has always been greatly shaped by the intersection between innovation and business. But the qualities that have been perceived as essential in a leader have changed a great deal in recent years.

Previously, MBA programs typically prepared students to become knowledgeable about business functions; education was very much based on hard skills. However, as both business and society have experienced sweeping changes, managers have realized that hard skills are not enough. Just as important are the capacity to engage people, understand motivation, and connect to emotions, especially in highly charged situations.

At POLIMI, we believe that we must teach today’s students the concept of sustainable leadership. We want our students to take personal journeys of discovery so they can grow professionally and personally. We believe we can impart the knowledge that will enable them to become not only more successful, but more satisfied—so they will not just make a difference, but can become the difference.

We want our students to take personal journeys of discovery so they can grow professionally and personally—so they will not just make a difference, but can become the difference.

To achieve this goal, we knew we had to transform the way we deliver business education. We began by collaborating with The Mind at Work, a company that strengthens the performance of teams and organizations. Based in London and Milan, The Mind at Work operates by gaining deep insights into the individuals and organizations it partners with. For decades, its passionate professionals have helped companies achieve remarkable results through the power of acting with purpose. In their view, purpose is not simply a repackaged mission statement; it is a fundamental human force and an opportunity to do new things.

By co-creating programs with The Mind at Work, POLIMI has been able to emphasize a more expansive purpose for business: one that embraces profit while positively impacting employees, customers, and society. As one crucial step, we have redesigned our Full-Time MBA—our flagship program—into what we are calling the New Generation MBA.

A Different Kind of MBA

The New Generation MBA is different from a traditional program because it integrates two important dimensions, blending fundamental technical skills with additional life-enriching layers of meaning.

On one side, the MBA program provides the hard competencies and skills that students will need to perform appropriately and become managers who have a 360-degree view of how a company works. Students learn the extremely valuable traditional core topics, including the interpretive frameworks and tools they must have to gain an overview of a company and understand the direction it needs to take in the future.

However, we have revised the approach and method we use to teach these topics. We keep in mind that the end purpose can no longer just be the maximization of profit. We encourage students to connect these traditional activities to a higher purpose that will inspire employees to make their best contributions.

On the other side, we expose MBA students to humanistic and life skills. We give them cutting-edge tools to elevate their performance by developing their awareness of themselves and others. We want them to be able to design career paths that are meaningful to them and to consciously choose to create higher levels of engagement, motivation, and alignment within their organizations.

In addition to focusing on purpose, we have put sustainability initiatives at the heart of the philosophy we endeavor to pass on to our students. Sustainability acts as a compass guiding our choices, and we want it to guide the choices of our graduates as well. Therefore, as students develop a deeper awareness and understanding of complexity, we want them to simultaneously pursue the goal of making a positive impact on society with sustainable financial results.

Graduates will be able to give meaning to their careers and contribute to a better future for all. They will truly become the agents of long-lasting change for society.

Our belief is that, by the time students graduate, they will possess the skills they need to achieve both superior performance and personal fulfillment at individual, team, and organizational levels. They not only will succeed in their careers, they also will be able to give meaning to their careers and contribute to a better future for all. They will truly become the agents of long-lasting change for society.

‘The Discipline of Purpose’

One good example that demonstrates this shift in focus is the “Self” aspect that we address in a four-day workshop. In this experiential, interactive workshop, we introduce students to the discipline of purpose and build their ability to work with it. Students explore topics such as defining and differentiating purpose, generating purpose, creating purposeful relationships, driving purposeful performance, and creating strategy with purpose. This workshop lays the foundation they will use in the future when they take core courses.

Throughout the overall MBA program, students will have regular peer group coaching sessions where they will discuss how the different topics of the MBA are connected to purpose. They also will discuss how they can implement these concepts into their experiences—during their courses and during the internships they complete in the final part of the program.

In addition, they will participate in career development activities, including 10 one-on-one sessions with personal career advisors. These activities will support them as they design their own conscious strategies for pursuing meaningful careers.

Elevated Impact

Business schools have been criticized for their inability to train a new generation of leaders who can combine shareholder value with a positive impact on society. POLIMI’s New Generation MBA is a direct response to this criticism. We believe it has the potential to pave the way for a new approach to management education—one that is suited to the challenges that confront our society, such as climate change.

I truly believe that, over the next decade, we will see an increasing number of schools that will do more than train students to embark on successful careers and make money. Our MBA will be just one of many programs that help tomorrow’s leaders realize that their success is defined, not just by what they’ve achieved personally in their careers, but by what consequences have come about because of their actions. Have they made the world greener? Have they made the economy more sustainable?

Universities that put purpose and sustainability at the forefront of their agendas can play strong roles as agents of change. They will promote the idea that every individual can have a wider, collective, elevated impact.

At POLIMI, we have articulated our own purpose: We want our MBA to have an impact, not just on our students, but also on the broader society.

Federico Frattini
Dean, POLIMI Graduate School of Management
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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