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What Makes Your Business School Truly Distinctive?

Over the next two weeks business school leaders will gather for two big events, the AACSB Deans Conference in Nashville and EFMD Deans and Directors Conference in Milan. Nearly one thousand deans will attend either meeting or both, giving the gatherings enormous potential to shape the future of the industry.

The conferences will inspire participants and enable them to share experiences and ideas amongst peers, since both meetings are restricted only to the top executives of business schools. The deans will renew friendships and start new ones. They will come from all corners of the world, yet marvel at how small the business school community really is. They will bring questions, lots of challenging questions, for each other. The competitive landscape is indeed changing and everyone is trying to make sense of where management education is going.

Going into these events, I offer words of support and encourage every business school leader to take advantage of the opportunity to explore the most fundamental of all questions: “What makes your business school truly distinctive?” Indeed, I encourage everyone connected to a business school, including faculty, professional staff, students, and alumni, to consider the question.

Something more…

Many years ago, I wrote a note following a visit to Morehouse College, which is a private historically black liberal arts college for men based in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. In many ways the school is just like others. It “challenges itself to be among the very finest liberal arts institutions in the world,” it offers a wide range of programs, including business and management, and its academic community is dedicated to teaching, scholarship, and service. But that’s not all.

Morehouse College assumes the “special responsibility for teaching the history and culture of black people.” It cares about the continuing search for “truth as a liberating force” and seeks “students who are willing to pay the price of gaining strength and confidence by confronting adversity, mastering their fears, and achieving success by earning it.” Everything about enabling young black men, especially underprivileged ones, to realize their full potential. I was struck during my visit by the realization that every school has something special like what Morehouse has. I wrote about that in my note and called it “Something More(house)” to honor the school.

Something more can be expressed in different ways. It could be a defining philosophy or an approach. I love MIT’s Mens et Manus which is Latin for “mind and hand” and describes the combination of thought and action needed to solve challenging problems. Both mind and hand are reflected in MIT Sloan’s “Ideas Made to Matter.” For other institutions, something more could be an expectation, such as “to contribute to the sustainable development of society” which is the opening phrase in the mission of Fundação Dom Cabral, or it could be a commitment, as when Copenhagen Business School says it will make “responsible management integral to all education.” Something more can also stress the importance of a geographic region. The Olayan School of Business at American University of Beirut has a vision to “transform business thinking in the MENA region” and HKUST Business School aims to serve as a “gateway to China.” Or it could be about global leadership, as in INSEAD’s mission to “bring together people, cultures and ideas to develop responsible leaders who transform business and society.

What do all of the examples in the previous paragraph have in common (besides being about members of the Global Business School Network)? They all go beyond business, adding something that gives meaning to business and connects to the school roots, location, or strengths.

Higher education for business is not just about serving business needs with knowledge and talent, its about shaping the roles and responsibilities of business in society.

Something all yours

Whatever it is or form it takes, something more can be powerful. It has the potential to tie everything together and become an integral part of the school’s culture. It can inform curriculum development, serving as the ever-elusive “being” that gives meaning to the “knowing” and “doing” discussed in Rethinking the MBA by Srikant Datar, David Garvin, and Patrick Cullen. Discovering what makes your school truly distinctive also inspires innovation and can attract scholars and students who increasingly want to engage in a higher purpose.

Many people think that all business schools are the same. I believe every business school has its own reason for being. Every school has something more to offer, because it has unique origins, operates in different contexts, and engages different communities. Most importantly, a school has a unique set of people—the scholars, learners, and professional staff— that give life to the institution. That’s why I believe the process of identifying what makes a school truly distinctive is more about discovery than creating.

Breaking boundaries

The conversations in Nashville and Milan will naturally be grounded in long-held assumptions about what business schools do and what makes them great. After all, every community needs a common language to facilitate communication. These assumptions can be especially powerful in higher education. Most of us have had similar experiences, such as earning a PhD and living the life of an academic. And systems, like rankings and accreditation, reflect and reinforce these experiences and assumptions.

But the times are changing and narrow definitions of “quality” are giving way to broad categorizations of impact. The Positive Impact Rating was introduced this year at Davos, some criteria for rankings are being reconsidered, and accreditation standards are being revised to further elevate the importance of outcomes over inputs. At the same time, mission is making room for purpose and the differences we intend to make. As I wrote in 2016, “For Business Schools, Being Good is No Longer Good Enough.

So I encourage breaking free from traditions in the many conversations to come. “Question the status quo” (one of four defining principles at Berkeley Haas) and focus on differences more than similarities. Embrace something more for business schools. After all, our strength as a community, especially our collective power as a force for good, comes not only from what we have in common but also from our differences.

Dan LeClair is the Chief Executive Officer at the Global Business School Network. Widely recognized as a thought leader in management education, Dan is the author of over 80 research reports, articles, and blogs, and has delivered more than 170 presentations in 30 countries.

Connect with Dan on LinkedIn and Twitter @drleclair