Reversing the MBA Stereotype

In the midst of the current economic crisis, it seems that some of the ire—and at least a modicum of the blame—for Wall Street's rippling effects on the world economy have been directed at U.S. business school education. A recent article in The New York Times states one common conception: that MBA students "graduate with a focus on maximizing shareholder value and only a limited understanding of ethical and social considerations essential to business leadership."

My purpose in writing this piece is not to argue the falsity of these claims. Rather, it's to offer a tangible example of a program whose fundamental mission is to reverse them—and to show how it and other programs like it could serve as a model for how MBA programs can ride out the current economic challenges, while teaching students how to avoid them in the future.

Over the past few years, we've seen business schools like the Yale School of Management (Yale Full-Time MBA Profile), the Stanford Graduate School of Business (Stanford Full-Time MBA Profile), and Emory's Goizueta Business School (Goizueta Full-Time MBA Profile) revamp their curricula from the top down. That's all well and good, but the effects of those changes might not be felt for years to come. Instead, if more schools were to adopt a model requiring MBA students to implement projects and programs designed to live on after they graduate, then management education could instill a long-term view that includes ethical and social considerations.

The Park Leadership Fellows Program at Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management (Cornell Full-Time MBA Profile) is one such program. Now in its 11th year, the program includes a series of immersive workshops and self-reflection exercises. I, along with 25 of my classmates, have been a member of the Park Program for the past two years. In that time, I've witnessed how its focus on servant leadership, and the mandatory project each Fellow must undertake, has affected individuals, the Johnson School, Cornell, and the larger community in turn.

No Mixed Messages

What makes the Park Program fundamentally different from other leadership development curricula—and from business education in general—is the steadfast focus of the man who leads it. Clint Sidle, the program's director, is a practicing Tibetan Buddhist, leadership guru, and author of three books on the topic.

The message Clint sends to students isn't mixed. He doesn't tell us to go out and earn the big bucks, then give back to the community. The message is to learn about your values, strengths, and weaknesses through feedback, and learn about leadership by doing it. In the process, you discover who you are, and that makes you more likely to be happy and successful, and more likely to make a positive contribution in the world. "We were into doing well by doing good before it was a cliché," says Clint. "It's in everyone's nature. We just have to tap into it."

You may argue that it's impossible to learn leadership in a classroom, and no amount of self-reflection can teach a businessperson values-based leadership. And I'd agree. That's why one of the requirements of the Park Program is doing a project that benefits the Ithaca (N.Y.) community, Cornell, or both.

Observing the effects that some of those projects have had on the community—and the fellows that have undertaken them—provides a glimpse into what the business world could be. Take Mark Dennis, for example. He's a former U.S. Army specialist, an auditor for PricewaterhouseCoopers— and a self-confessed "stock junkie." For his career, he would like nothing more than to sit at his desk and analyze stocks all day. Yet, for his Park Project, he's carrying forward a project started last year called the Johnson Board Fellows. The program places MBA students on nonprofit boards in the local community.

Making Community Waves

The newest addition to the Park project portfolio at Cornell is Big Red Microcapital (BRM), the Johnson School's answer to subprime lending in this country. The program provides micro-loans and technical assistance to small-scale entrepreneurs in Tompkins County, N.Y. Today, through a partnership with Alternatives Federal Credit Union, BRM is making waves in the community. And though incubated as a Park project, the program is now owned and operated by the greater community of students who run it, in cooperation with the community it inhabits.

The Park Program is far from alone in fostering student-led initiatives and programs. Students from Harvard Business School (Harvard Full-Time MBA Profile), who are partnering with their Kennedy School counterparts to put on the annual Social Enterprise Conference, provide but one small example. Indeed, students at other top MBA programs actually developed the Board Fellows program; it's been around at Stanford since 1997 and at Berkeley's Haas School of Business (Haas Full-Time MBA Profile) since 2003, among others.

Many of the students involved in these initiatives will graduate with the best of intentions, taking positions at big companies that they hope will allow them to make those companies a force for social good. But how do we know the institutional cultures of these large corporations won't change us right back into the ambitious, win-at-all-costs Gordon Gekko's we're often written off for being?

Well, I guess we don't know for sure. But there is some evidence that the Park Program has a lasting effect on people. According to a recent survey of alumni, 73% of the Park Fellow alumni, compared with 50% of Johnson School alumni, volunteered time and/or money to alumni and other community service organizations. According to the same survey, Park fellows have a higher degree of job satisfaction than their non-Park peers.

To be sure, these measures aren't perfect. But there's no doubt that the Park Leadership Fellows Program, and the fellows themselves, are striving to, in Gandhi's words, "be the change we want to see in the world." If the business world is going to right itself anytime soon, it will be programs like this one that will nudge it in the right direction.

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