Career Stages and Learning

28 09 2010

I believe that business education can be segmented into four basic components and that managers require these components at different levels and different intensities depending on where they are in their careers.

Functional competence. At the most basic level of ability, managers must understand the fields of finance, accounting, marketing, strategy, IT, economics, operations, and human resource management. Business schools are actually quite good at fulfilling these needs at both undergraduate and graduate levels. Business school departments most frequently are organized by functional silos, and academic journals also mirror those disciplines. Many studies acknowledge that graduates at this level are satisfied with their knowledge acquisition and value their increased skills once they are in the workplace.

 An understanding of context and strategy. Problems begin to appear at the next level of management. Rising executives need to understand how organizational processes interrelate and occur within a context. They must be able to make sense of societal changes, political drivers, social values, global interaction, and technological change. These needs present a dilemma for schools. One reason is that there is little cross-functional research at many institutions. Not only are there few outlets for interdisciplinary research, but it is difficult for any professor to be well-versed in a broad range of subjects. But there is a more critical reason. Without practical experience, it’s impossible for faculty members to acquire an understanding of the multidisciplinary nature of the world and the specifics of managing within context. To understand—and teach—such skills, professors must have had hands-on experience within managerial environments, whether they were in the private, public, or nongovernmental sectors.

 The ability to influence people. Building on their understanding of the interconnected nature of management, executives at the third level want to learn how to exert influence on their organizations. It is one thing to formulate a strategy, and it is quite another to implement that strategy while getting the buy-in of the rest of the staff. To be successful, managers must understand human drivers and the development of collective views. They must cultivate a broad understanding of societies and the sociology of organizations, and they must be able to challenge and communicate. Again, this presents a significant difficulty for business schools. There are simply not many faculty members who have a psychological understanding of human drivers. In addition, few faculty have any experience in practically influencing social constructs within organizations.

 Reflective skills. At the top level of management, executives need to develop themselves as human beings. Two considerations move them. First, as their seniority increases, they begin to reflect on their own wants, needs, and capabilities so they can set priorities and spend time on what’s most important. Second, as they rise within management ranks, they inevitably are aging. Top managers not only must prioritize their work efforts, they must prioritize their life goals. As they realize they are mortal, they must consider what they want to accomplish with what time they have left. Helping executives through these sorts of challenges is difficult for business schools. In fact, the best service providers at these times might be psychologists and life coaches, rather than traditional business school academics. It certainly won’t be the resident professor of accounting!