Teaching Students to Lead With Purpose

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Tuesday, September 13, 2022
By Barbara M. Porco
Photo by iStock/PeopleImages
The Gabelli School of Business introduces a certificate program to inspire students to develop the values and skill sets of socially responsible leaders.
  • The Responsible Business Leadership Certificate program helps master’s students from all disciplines understand and apply sustainable business practices.
  • The certificate program incorporates three elements: cohort-based learning, self-reflection, and sustainability literacy.
  • As part of the program, students interact with responsible business leaders, receive one-hour sessions from leadership coaches, and participate in a workshop that covers ESG practices.

As concerns about environmental, social, and governance (ESG) topics become more mainstream, business leaders must consider how they will create value for all stakeholders, including suppliers, customers, employees, and society. With most of the world’s largest companies issuing sustainability reports, it’s important that business schools make responsible business leadership principles an integral part of their curricula.

How do we prepare today’s business students to be future leaders who embrace the importance of business with purpose? And how can we show employers that our students understand and can address ESG challenges?

The Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University in New York City is answering these questions in part through its new Responsible Business Leadership (RBL) Certificate, a noncredit program that our master’s students can complete at no additional cost. Although the program is not required, all master’s students are encouraged to participate.

The RBL certificate is designed to help students engage in self-reflection to identify their core values, cultivate growth mindsets, and build the skill sets of responsible leaders. Its design is rooted in the Gabelli School’s mission to develop students into compassionate business leaders who inspire and empower positive global change.

Responsibility at the Core

To determine the RBL program’s content, we first formed a committee that included members of our faculty, administration, and students. The committee sought additional guidance from several of the school’s advisory board members, who offered input at committee meetings, as well as alumni working in leadership roles at for-profit and nonprofit organizations across a range of industries.

Drawing on the committee’s comprehensive work, we first piloted the program in the 2021–22 academic year with approximately 60 students. The committee then surveyed these students and held focus group meetings to identify and address areas that needed fine-tuning.

Based on this feedback, the committee determined that every component of the RBL’s final iteration should incorporate at least one of three key attributes: cohort-based learning, self-reflection, and sustainability literacy.

Cohort-Based Learning

Research has shown that cohort-based learning models foster productive learning environments by facilitating social interaction and collaboration. Creating cohorts by program of study enables students to engage with trust and confidence, which leads to an interactive and supportive atmosphere. Furthermore, cohort models help students develop diverse and extensive networks among their peers that will be important resources for them after graduation. That’s why we made cohorts an integral part of the RBL program’s design.

As part of the cohort model, we invite students to enroll in RBL offerings designed for their own master’s programs, so that they can learn alongside other students in the same course of study. However, if they have scheduling conflicts, they are free to attend offerings for other master’s programs.

To create optimal cohort experiences, we vary enrollments based on the delivery modality. For example, for in-person workshops on effective presentation skills, we cap enrollment at our maximum class size of 35 students. But for remote workshops that focus on technical topics such as sustainable finance, we limit enrollment to 25 students so that all participants are visible on Zoom.

To build a cohesive cohort, the RBL certificate program begins with an orientation workshop, where students are introduced to resources such as Fordham’s Responsible Business Coalition (RBC). The RBC is a creative alliance built on the idea that our society can achieve lasting positive change only through collaborative responsible leadership practices. Members of the RBC include faculty, alumni, and distinguished members of the business community.

The Responsible Business Leadership program includes a weekend retreat, where students establish the basis for lifelong friendships. This level of engagement would not be possible in traditional classroom settings.

At the orientation, students hear firsthand about the personal journeys of these accomplished business leaders during presentations, roundtable discussions, and fireside chat forums. Students also have opportunities to ask questions and interact with speakers to gain greater insights.

Students in each cohort continue to bond during a weekend retreat, which includes a one-night stay at a hotel near one of Fordham’s three campuses. During the retreat, students also attend a group dinner, after which they return to the hotel to play board games. It is an evening that offers them the chance to interact with each other in an unstructured social setting.

The retreat venue creates a setting for students to build camaraderie and share personal information with classmates, faculty, and alumni. These interactions establish the basis for lifelong friendships and strengthen our school’s community—which we often referred to as the “Fordham Family.” We would not be able to achieve this level of engagement and personal development in traditional classroom settings. 

Self-Reflection and Self-Discovery

Our school is informed by its Jesuit identity, which includes the belief that when individuals reflect on their experiences, they make better decisions and cultivate greater self-awareness. RBL Certificate participants engage in several activities that encourage self-reflection and self-discovery through assessments of their personal strengths and values.

A DiSC assessment. Students measure dimensions of their personality using DiSC, a popular professional assessment instrument that profiles human behavior in various situations. The committee chose this assessment tool after several alumni noted its usefulness in corporate settings. As students complete their DiSC assessment, they answer questions that explore areas such as how they react to challenges, how they influence others, and how they respond to conflict.

We use this assessment not to measure students for their intelligence or deficiencies, but to help them understand their own styles of responsible leadership. Through the assessment, students gain valuable, personalized feedback about their most positive attributes, as well as knowledge of what motivates them. They then can identify how they can develop their strengths further through self-discovery.

Dialogue with peers. The program also includes space for sharing. Through exchanges among peers, students have opportunities to see the world through the eyes of others. Such dialogue elevates students’ respect for differing opinions, which acts as another pathway to their own self-actualization.

Students gain valuable, personalized feedback about their most positive attributes. They then can identify how they can develop their strengths further through self-discovery.

Leadership coaching. Another way we encourage self-reflection is by providing each student with a one-hour private session with a certified leadership coach. We source these coaches from an external organization that specializes in working with students. All students schedule their sessions independently through an online system; their discussions with their coaches are confidential.

During these appointments, students learn responsible leadership strategies such as heroic leadership, a concept highlighted in the book Heroic Leadership: Best Practices From a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World by Chris Lowney. They also learn servant leadership and gain insight into how to overcome recurring obstacles.

Collectively, through self-assessment, cohort workshops, and coaching, students develop personalized leadership action plans.

Sustainability Literacy

This concept can be defined as the knowledge and skills that enable individuals to become deeply committed to building a sustainable future. During this part of the certificate program, students deepen their understanding of the environmental, social, and governance criteria that align with the concept of social responsibility, and they learn how each element of ESG can be used to create long-term value and positive impact. The ESG portion of the program is also offered as a part of our executive education program.

For instance, students participate in our sustainability workshop that analyzes the utility of sustainable business and ESG reporting. This experience presents a history of ESG practices and examines real-life business scenarios that illustrate how organizations can generate profit while maintaining ethics and integrity.

In addition, students review actual sustainability disclosures, which are distributed by organizations such as the Global Reporting Initiative and International Sustainability Standards Board. They also review current and prior reports to determine if companies are meeting their benchmarks for a sustainable future. In this way, students learn to recognize that generating profits with purpose is the future model for success.

Our Mission-Driven Goal

At the Gabelli School of Business, the RBL Certificate Program recognizes the growing market demand for conscientious decision making, compassionate capitalism, and sustainable business practices. Now that we have moved beyond the certificate’s pilot phase, we hope that all our graduate students will participate in some form of the program

By earning the certificate, students gain an understanding of the importance of profit making with purpose. In addition, they are prepared to engage in ethical business dealings, and they are positioned to act with integrity to create inclusive cultures as leaders within their organizations.

The RBL certificate indicates to employers that our students have learned and internalized responsible and compassionate leadership perspectives and capabilities. Ultimately, by creating this learning experience, we seek to inspire our students and the companies where they will work to build a world where everyone can thrive.

Barbara M. Porco
Clinical Professor and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies, Gabelli School of Business, Fordham University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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