The Race to the Top: Focus and Imagination

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Publication date:

December 17, 2021

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Having been a dean of a number of business schools – including two that I helped built from the ground up, I have thought quite a bit about what it takes to put a school on the map. CEIBS, one of the two schools, had its full-time MBA program ranked in the Financial Times top 20 in the world in less than 20 years after its founding. It was the first non-North-American, non-European school to do so.  It took a lot of hard work and luck, but also undivided attention on what really mattered. Keeping your eyes on the ball is key. The question is: who is that ?

Business schools have lots of stakeholders, all requiring attention and careful nurturing and management. It is quite clear to me, however, on where the focus should be when the ambition is to take a school to the top:  the students and only the students. If significant, meaningful, and unique value is created for them, all the other stakeholders will fall in line. Taking your eyes off that ball and you will tumble down the rankings rather quickly. That will surely put all the other stakeholders on the war path.

My strategy in building a world-class business school was always two-fold: first, make sure that those who do the rankings notice you for what you are doing, and mention you as a place to watch. Second, try to change the rules of the game. Whatever your ambitions and/or available resources might be, you will not beat HBS at their game so why even try. There are easier and faster ways to join the club of elite business schools.

The key is to understand that the game the top schools play is not the only game in town. Furthermore, their success constraints them in where they can innovate or what they can experiment with. That prevents them from pursuing radical innovations and, as a consequence, the learning that comes with that. In many ways, their strength is also a weakness in that they have a lot to lose but little to gain from deviating from the path they chose.

In contrast, when building a new school, you got nothing to lose but everything to gain from pushing the boundaries. If you focus on the students and bring unique but meaningful value to them, you have found an effective avenue to rewrite the rules of the game. That is not only the fastest but also the only way to get to the top. As children, we all knew this but forgot as we got older. Kids intuitively know that their best chance at winning a game does not necessarily come from playing it well but from setting the rules. They will do so as the play unfolds and as they learn more about the game. We need to emulate that in our race to the top.

For any aspiring business school, the quickest way to the top is to redefine the game in a way that matters to the students; i.e. creating a learning experience that will significantly enhance their job market opportunities. Perhaps not immediately evident to many of you, but there are many avenues that can be pursued to do just that and that will secure a path to sustainable leadership. This is how HBS and all the other top business schools got to where they are.

What it takes is imagination, entrepreneurial flair, and a can-do attitude when devising a unique learning experience for the students. It is not exactly rocket science. In fact, and my offer is still on the table:  give me a small fraction of the endowment of any top business school, and I will build you a word-class business school for the future. Its identity and character will be inspired by what that future holds for the students and their ambitions. One thing I can assure you of is that it will not look much like any of the existing elite schools. There would be some overlap with them but only in tangential areas and then only to secure its credibility as a business school. The fastest way to the top is to redefine the game and not start a new game. The latter is far more risky and definitely not the fastest way to the top.

Before you role your eyes, take a step back and consider the reality of business education as we know it. The game the elite schools are playing (and accreditation forces all the others to fall in line with) is defined quite narrowly, and there is plenty of room to innovate in meaningful ways that would help students in their future career paths as business leaders (and beyond). The fact is that we have plenty of top business schools, but neither individually nor collectively do they exhaust what is possible in business education. Innovation (in, eg, the use of smart technologies) and an evolving reality (with, e.g., the need for lifelong learning) continuously expand the field of opportunities to innovate and establish a new reference point for business education.

When we created MSM SKOLKOVO in Moscow, for example, we had a big challenge on our hands: Russia was not exactly known for its business schools (or business education). As Russia is a challenging environment to do business in, we took that defining characteristic as an opportunity to craft the school’s identity around it. We set out to focus on developing entrepreneurial leaders for difficult environment. That gave us a unique identity, and we could credibly claim we knew something about that being in Russia. In essence, we turned our location into an asset, and leveraged that in ways that created unique value for our students (and value many businesses would appreciate in fresh recruits).

Keeping our eyes on the students, we created a unique full-time MBA program that reflected our identity and leveraged our location. For most top business schools, the MBA is their core program and the one that they rely on to shape and define their unique identity. We started there because we wanted to be seen as a business school and not just a curious oddity. We wanted to join the big league as a credible player.

We created an MBA program no top school could easily match. Using our small size as an advantage, we built an MBA that was almost entirely experiential. Students would not spend much time in the classroom but would get the required knowledge under their belt working on five projects in different parts of the world. This was a very novel approach, and we were quite successful recruiting caliber students from around the world. In fact, we were not only inspiring budding entrepreneurs but also the top business schools as the latter were curious about what we were up to and how we were going to pull this off.

In all this, we kept our eyes on the ball, and did not look over the wall to see what the others were doing. In fact, we succeeded in them looking over the wall at us. This is how you redefine the game and change the rules. The MBA program we created was difficult program to execute and manage, but all the challenges we encountered were opportunities to learn and fine-tune the way we had set out to play the game. Note that in doing so, we were also practicing what we were preaching, and that could only strengthen our credibility.

Building and running any business is a challenge. In business, however, it is generally pretty clear who the customers are and that they are the ones to keep ones eyes on. Business schools, who teach this stuff, claim that their game is different. They claim to have a much more diverse set of stakeholders, all of whom need to be considered – and often consulted – when making decisions. This is where things unravel quickly. Many schools are a living proof of that. Business schools have created complex ecosystems, and it does not take much for them to take their eyes off the ball.

As with any endeavor, success depends ultimately on three key ingredients: focus, hard work, and luck. We often underestimate the importance of the latter, and when success is achieved we often discount the role it played. Luck is undeniably important. If China had not rid itself of the shackles of its past and taken the road to fundamental economic reform, it is doubtful that CEIBS would be where it is today. A big part of school’s success was just riding China’s meteoric rise.

Luck cannot be discounted in any endeavor, but it is not something we can control. In contrast, we do control focus and effort. Hard work is unavoidable. At the end of the day, it takes a lot of effort to achieve success, and nothing worthwhile is ever easy. As with luck, when we achieve success, we often forget all the sacrifices that we had to make to get there. Just listen to any climber who reached the summit of Mount Everest. They rarely if ever talk about the efforts it took to be able to spend a few minutes on the roof of the world. Most people would be shocked at the number of fingers and toes that got lost to frostbite for that moment of glory.

When people ask me what it takes to build a world class business school, I mention effort and luck but quickly zero in on the undivided attention on the students that is needed. That is far easier said than done, and mistakes are easily and quickly made. Keeping your eyes on the students will also define the luck you need and the efforts required to make it. Student focus defines the recipe for getting to the top, and it should be the only one that does. Never, ever take your eyes off the ball.

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