Talking the talk

Economist reports that an increasing number of US business schools have instituted an oath, sworn by their freshly minted MBA-s before them being launched into the wide and wild world of international finance and pledging to play a “positive role in society”.

Having spent about 15 years in the investment banking industry (broadly defined), you will have to excuse me for not letting out a sigh of relief over the issue of immoral markets and predatory capitalism with its inherent culture of greed henceforth being solved. As anyone who has so much as met a true-blood investment banker can readily attest, playing a positive role in society is not something that would rank very high in the collective agenda of the profession. Their motivation for getting out of the bed in the morning tends to be something completely different and will probably remain so in the future. If someone wants to make their mark in terms of improving the collective lot of the humankind, MBA is an unlikely education choice, and to make your graduates swear a solemn oath to that end is not going to magically change this.

However, the changes in curriculum that have been reported over the last couple of years by several top-tier business schools are perhaps much more interesting and, in the long run, could potentially have a real impact. Scrapping core subjects such as marketing or strategy in favor of problem framing, innovation or business and society might in fact be little else than rearranging the deck chairs — but if this ends up as a genuine shift away from telling people what the world is like towards teaching them how to conceptualize it in a different ways, then this may well prove to have a real impact. The MBA programs have been increasingly criticized both for being irrelevant as well as producing look-and-think-alike zombies — it remains to be seen if those changes will be perceived as an improvement on either of those accounts.

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4 thoughts on “Talking the talk

  1. I could only agree with your argument as it is also your experience.
    Two questions come to my mind: During those 15 years what was your motivation to embrace the morning and the rest of the day? And what is your motivation since?

  2. Hm. I guess my motivation did go through some changes over that 15 years. As far as I can remember, initially it was a lot about money and career — and not so much in terms of “making it” in terms of some corporate hierarchy, rather than simply becoming good at what I was doing. Then there was always a sense of challenge and competition — which this industry provides aplenty. A big part of your job as an investment banker (once you’re out from the grunt status) is about finding solutions to some quite complex problems and situations, usually under substantial time pressure and stress, and often against other very intelligent and highly motivated people who try to outsmart you. In M&A there is also some remarkable variety involved, as by doing deals for your clients you will have to familiarize yourself with their business. For instance – I could talk to you about cheese, for hours and hours. How is it made, what are the different kinds and how exactly do they differ, what makes a good cheese, why are there holes in soft cheese (and not in hard!) and even what determines their size. All this because I happened to do an IPO for a cheese manufacturer many years ago.

    As for now — I guess I’m back to the beginning in some sense: I am still simply trying to become good at what I do now ;).

  3. I wonder if some of these changes could not be accounted for by the bottom up demand for such ideals. Only anecdotally, it seems that increasingly, people who are socially minded to begin with opt to do an MBA or a joint MBA instead of straight social work, development studies, nursing, refugee studies, education or public health -simply because being well versed in the ways of business will give one definite advantages for getting things done in any sector, anywhere in the world. JD and working in consulting for 2 years can often have the same function.

    On the other hand, one could argue that if the rest of the crowd in some MBA programs would be susceptible to competitively pursuing the mastering of any socially defined notion of success, albeit outdated, then tweaking with this definition of success and including “a positive role in society” in it could lead to scores of smart people competing to make a positive difference. The danger there would of course be the long-term inflation of the notion of “positive role”, but hey, you gotta start somewhere.

  4. Good point. However, if we consider for a moment these people graduating and assuming positions in different large organisations (which, of course, are by no means the only options available), I would say that despite of their expensive and reputable degree, they will find themselves at the lowest rung of an incredibly greasy corporate ladder — and at least in investment banking I can say with certain confidence that one’s notion of success incorporating “playing a positive role in society” is not conducive in terms of speedy ascension thereof.

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