Leading questions

A French conference debates how to cultivate leadership qualities in MBA students, without losing sight of what really matters in life. Matthew Reisz observes

April 21, 2011

Business schools have to cater to the needs of students who embark on MBA degrees to accelerate their careers and get a quick return on the time and money invested. But some institutions also hope to nurture the leaders who will enable business, and society, to meet tomorrow's major challenges. So how can they reconcile these divergent goals, helping some talented young people into bigger and better jobs in major corporations while encouraging others to strike out on their own and develop bold new thinking?

One way of trying to square the circle is to build into their programmes events such as HEC Paris' annual Visions of Leadership week.

École des Hautes Études Commerciales (HEC) was founded in 1881 and has been located on a campus at Jouy-en-Josas near Versailles since the 1960s. It incorporates one of France's highly competitive grandes écoles, traditionally used to train the country's administrative, commercial and political elite, and is regularly ranked as the best business school in Europe by the Financial Times. Valerie Gauthier, now associate professor in the Visions of Leadership Centre, was associate dean of the MBA programme from 2002 to 2010.

As soon as she got the job, she says, she was determined to "review the curriculum with the idea of injecting some leadership training and mind-opening. The MBA is great, but students don't have enough time to think, so we wanted to do something really radical with the curriculum."

In putting this into practice, Gauthier has drawn on several strands of her rather unusual background. She was once "almost a professional tennis player and skier, so sports have been very important in my life. I've had a few MBA students who came from sports and didn't have a background in finance, marketing and so on, but had the energy, willpower and critical skills of leadership." One former tennis star, for example, went on to become a business developer in an investment fund.

It is hardly surprising, then, that this year's Visions of Leadership week should have included a whole day on sport and its value in building leadership skills. This included presentations by successful businesspeople and public servants.

"Through talent, plus the killer instinct acquired through sport, you learn to win," argued Sir Peter Westmacott, the British ambassador to France - fresh from his own sparring with the media over Britain's policy on intervention in Libya.

Theory was followed by practice as participants got a chance to develop their sporting skills - although the female Chinese students were clearly surprised to be asked to take part in the rugby training provided by coaches who work with the French national team.

Nor is Gauthier's academic background necessarily what one might expect in the dean of a business school. After studying psychology and English, she did a PhD on comparative literature, with a dissertation on poetic translation. Yet she is convinced that "this has nourished me in doing business communication and in what I can offer to future business leaders, helping to open their minds and giving them the capacity to look at the world around them with a much more encompassing perspective".

Key qualities that she hopes to promote in HEC's graduates, and she claims that companies welcome, include humility and a collaborative spirit.

Although Gauthier greatly admires the US management guru Warren Bennis, distinguished professor of business administration and founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, she found a closer collaborator in Theodore Zeldin, a far-from-typical management consultant.

Former dean of St Antony's College, Oxford, he made his name as a historian of France before writing more popular books such as An Intimate History of Humanity (1994) and becoming a homespun philosopher, public speaker and adviser to businesses. He was also appointed to the committee advising Nicolas Sarkozy's government on labour market reform in 2007.

Zeldin is fascinated by the attempt to find ways to improve the quality of human conversation, echoing Gauthier's interest in the concept she has called - and even trademarked - savoir-relier. Roughly translated, it is the ability to build bridges between people, generations, cultures and ideas.

"When I met Theodore," she recalls, "I automatically thought that bringing this into an MBA would open up the curriculum and give it a dimension that is necessary for businesses to survive. That was in 2003, long before the economic crisis and all the debates about corporate social responsibility and sustainable development.

"I felt it was absolutely paramount to have these issues within the curriculum and not marginal to it. You can't separate business ethics off into an 18-hour course, put it in a box or swear an oath and think that everything's fine. It's a daily process of reflection, and that's why you can't measure the results right away. Some of the students may think it's bullshit at the time."

HEC's annual Visions of Leadership week started in 2004 and has become ever more active and interactive. This year's focused on the themes of "agility and sense of purpose", and incorporated a student-organised one-day conference on sustainable business.

The event brought together around 350 students, mainly from HEC but with a few engineers from the Ecole Polytechnique, which forms part of the same consortium. The large majority were from the MBA programme, which is taught in English and draws 85 per cent of its intake from outside France. With an average age of just under 30, they inevitably have to cope with issues of diversity and intercultural communication on a daily basis. Those studying for an MSc in management at HEC, by contrast, are largely French and considerably younger.

Zeldin opened the proceedings with an ageing sage's challenge to his young audience.

Just as the crisis of the 1970s had led to "the collapse of the ideal of the manager" and a period when "everybody had been taught to be a leader", he suggested that the new crisis called for new ideals. It was not enough "just to tweak the system like an old car. Every Utopia has failed, so we have to try a series of small experiments in new ways of doing things - and, just as in science, many of them will fail. The next generation has a choice between the excitement of exploring and just continuing to go to the same office every day."

Today, pretty much every profession, in Zeldin's view, "feels dissatisfied and is asking itself: have we inherited habits from the past that no longer suit us?"

He cited a couple of examples from his own work with companies. The hotel industry was still "shaped by César Ritz, who thought people wanted luxury and gold taps" and had failed to embrace any new thinking. Yet when people travelled, they were often keen to make contact with and discover other types of people. Instead of isolating their guests within glitzy bedrooms, why didn't hotels help to enable this by forging links with universities and other fields of city life?

A similar concern applied to the retail industry at a time of anxiety over Western consumer lifestyles. Zeldin had encouraged one well-known retailer to introduce into its stores theatre, music, dance and education for children and refugees. At the beginning, he admits, shoppers tended to be puzzled if asked about poetry or Indian dance. Yet it was still well worth considering whether "we can change retail businesses into something more, without cutting into profits".

Above all, Zeldin wanted his student audience to seek meaning in their lives as well as money, since "once you do things for money, you are giving up your self".

What was often helpful in determining one's life and career choices, he said, was to reflect on what one would want to appear on one's gravestone.

Zeldin's presentation was followed by the first of a series of "live cases", in which six French companies - and the US ambassador to France - sought help from the highly international student body in addressing their diversity issues.

The bank BNP Paribas, for example, wanted suggestions on "how to increase the number of non-French in senior management positions". NYSE Euronext, which operates the largest stock exchanges in the world, needed advice on rolling out its financial literacy programme in different countries. The best ideas were brought back for presentation to a plenary session.

Diversity was also the theme of a presentation by Hamid Senni, co-founder of Vision Enabler Consulting and the child of Moroccan immigrants, who believes that far too many French companies "recruit only Barbie and Ken, and the problem with Barbie is that she might go on maternity leave". Shortly before securing a place on BP's High Potential programme, he had himself been offered nothing better in France than a door-to-door job selling vacuum cleaners.

The system of welfare and scholarships provided by what the French call l'école républicaine - the modern, Republican school system - made it, according to Senni, "one of the fairest educational systems in the world" and "gave many opportunities to talented children from the ghetto". When they reached the world of work, however, they were often told that they didn't understand the codes. This contradiction, he believed, was part of the explanation for the riots of 2005.

An exercise specifically designed to promote self-awareness and savoir-relier paired people up on the basis of differences in gender, culture and generation and then put them together across coffee tables so as to develop in-depth one-on-one relationships.

All the students were also required to get out on to the sports field and into the gym for athletics, basketball, football, tennis and rugby (although the golfers spent quite a while wandering around, vaguely seeking a "sense of purpose"). The aim was not to create champions so much as to foster analytical and observational skills, since students took turns participating and assessing the individual, interpersonal and group performances of others. The detailed scorecards then formed the basis for a matrix setting out the key factors in good performance and leadership.

It remains to be seen how effective and how distinctive this programme proves in creating the leaders of the future, as well as measuring up to the challenge Zeldin set for them, to seek meaning as well as money.

Many of the great revolutions, he reminded his audience, had been started by a small group of people, from the creation of scientific method to the transformations in women's rights and the project to put men on the Moon. The key question for tomorrow's leaders was: "Where is the next Moon we want to go to?"

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