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GOODBYE TO THE COMFORT ZONE

Business schools and top executives must rethink how they work together

By IMD Professor Thomas W. Malnight - February 2014

How do weary, overstretched senior executives deal with big strategic challenges and get their companies ready for the future? They hire a consultant and get served with ready-made answers that have been fed to other clients. Or perhaps they call a business school and learn new frameworks or case studies that often miss the real issues facing their company. Or maybe they organise an off-site meeting and buzz with ideas that fizzle out once everyone gets back to the office.

These approaches generate a flurry of activity and might even improve a company's short-term results. But they tend to address immediate symptoms rather than identifying and tackling deep-seated issues. And they don't challenge top executives to leave their comfort zone of using yesterday's approaches to solve tomorrow's challenges.  

Having spent more than 20 years as a business school professor in both America, at Wharton, and Europe, at IMD, I am particularly concerned with how business schools work with top executives in preparing to transform organisations for the future.  

Business schools often rely on a stale formula. They teach the latest frameworks and cases, often with "action learning" projects in which executives are asked to apply the lessons back at their companies. Then they teach how to execute, with more frameworks thrown in. And they finish by explaining how to strengthen individual executives' leadership skills. 

This approach has several problems. It assumes companies already know what their challenges are, when in fact they often do not. It adds little value to the courses that are now delivered cheaply online. And it treats strategy, organisation, culture and leadership separately, which makes no sense for companies trying to chart their future course.  

Unfortunately, senior executives are also often comfortable with the status quo. In their obsession with short-term results, too many look at their own companies' past, over-emphasising lagging financial performance indicators when measuring success. What they should do is focus externally on how the world is changing, and look forward at how to succeed, not backwards. This is where business schools should be able to help.   

Let's collaborate 

Effective relationships between business schools and top executives must start with two critical elements. First, leaders need to be personally involved in a programme as participants and must be willing to challenge their own views, understanding and thinking. If they just want to delegate the work to others and then give a nice talk on the last day, then there's little point in going ahead.  

Business-school professors must also be more engaged and challenge themselves. Their key role is not broadcasting material. It is drawing on their ability to make sense of complex situations to develop knowledge and understanding.   

The second element is to see the relationship between a business school and a company as a journey, not an event. Effective journeys involve three phases of working together. 

The first involves co-defining the true underlying issues a company must face in preparing for the future. This is not about taking pre-defined issues or answers off the shelf. It is about openly exploring how the company's environment is changing, and developing an explicit point of view on the uncertain future and on what it will take for the company to succeed in this new world.  

The second phase is co-learning, or identifying lessons that are relevant to the company. Again, this is not about applying yesterday's answers. It is about being open, flexible and willing to explore and challenge existing thinking. As one executive told me recently: "With all the changes that are happening, our future is already being experienced somewhere today. The challenge is that it is not usually happening where we are looking."  

The third phase involves co-creating the way forward. This does not involve launching yet another strategy or cultural change initiative. It involves defining and initiating a transformation path for the future, and explicitly challenging where the company is going, what resources it will need, which ways of working will be necessary to support the change, and what the individual and collective roles of top executives are. 

Both top executives and professors need to leave old answers behind and focus on learning and challenging themselves and their organisations. Leading a business is an honour and a responsibility. So is being a business school professor. These journeys are not easy, and they take courage on both sides. Business leaders and professors will feel vulnerable because they cannot rely on old ways of working anymore. But the potential rewards of this new approach are huge. And the alternative, if they fail to change, is long-term irrelevance for both the companies and business schools in general. 

Thomas Malnight is professor of strategy and general management at IMD. He is the co-author, with Tracey Keys and Kees van der Graaf, of "Ready: The 3Rs of Preparing Your Organization for the Future." 

This article was first published in The Economist's "Which MBA?" section.



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