4 ways business schools can shape leaders for a better world

Business schools play a key role in shaping the ethical business leaders of today and tomorrow.

Young people recognize that ethics in business are critical. And business itself is increasingly conscious of its impact on the future. In response, business schools are reworking their approach to ethics and sustainability to incorporate human rights and environmental values in their curriculum, research and impact.

Academic authorities including representatives from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the Thunderbird School, Lagos Business School, The Global Education Department of the Financial Times, INCAE Business School (Costa Rica) and St. Gallen University (Switzerland) came together for a dialogue during Uniting Business Live.

They discussed how to recondition academic institutions for greater social and environmental impact by

prioritizing four core points:

1) Defining a moral mission and impact

Business schools must define their mission and impact in advancing human rights and striving for the achievement of eco-friendly goals.

While all academic institutions have a key role to play in the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal #4, which concerns education and lifelong learning, they can also contribute with their research and activities for strides in many other of the goals of the 2030 Agenda.

Throughout the decades, universities due to the various governmental and self-regulating incentives have evolved in their purpose: from teaching-driven to research-driven and now impact-driven.

It is in this area that accreditation agencies hold the highest power for change. Some key accreditation agencies such as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) have already built standards connected to the mission and societal impact for the accreditation of business schools around the world. AACSB’s 2020 standards dictate that accredited schools’ research, teachings and activities, whether internal or external, should have a positive societal impact.

Dr. Sanjeev Khagram, Director General of Thunderbird School (which is accredited by AACSB) agrees with these standards. “In my view, that's where it starts: it is mission! What is our mission?” he said. “And all of our missions have to be about impact and everything has to lead to that impact.”

2) Developing work that is regionally relevant

Business schools do not exist in a vacuum. It is important for today and tomorrow’s business leaders to be equipped with the necessary tools to operate ethically within their regional context.

Wilfred Mijnhardt (Rotterdam School of Management) said that there should be clear linkages between the regional ecosystem and schools’ mission and impact. “You want a regional ecosystem to serve, and based on your mission, you find your metrics,” he said.

While the pursuit of the achievement of 2030 Agenda is global, regional focus on specific issues might be the key to global success. Business schools should follow the example of the more than 10,000 businesses participating in the UN Global Compact that have convened and identified regionally relevant action lines for their stakeholder communities.

Diversity, equity and inclusion are also issues that must be understood at a regional level. In countries hosting a wide variety of languages and ethnicities, issues concerning inclusion are different than those that host homogenous societies. Dr. Enase Okoned (Lagos Business School) explains: “In Nigeria we have 250 tribes and 400 languages and therefore for me, inclusion has a different connotation,” he said. “It's also about ensuring that we're able to reach people from all over the country who do not have access to the same quality of education.”

3) Integrating sustainability in core business teachings

The path to educating ethical business leaders does not solely involve teaching sustainability courses in business schools. 

Sustainability must be understood as a transversal theme to all core business skills. Dr. Urs Jäger (INCAE Business School and St. Gallen University) said, “We need to educate not experts on sustainability but [rather] integrating all sustainability topics in experts of other functionality like digital revolution.”

Integrating sustainability across all core business teachings is a logical step for impact-based business schools as while business and youth are increasingly concerned with societal and environmental issues, companies’ recruitment departments still prioritize people with core business skills. Hiring professionals that have all the core business skills and a deep understanding of sustainability issues is great for companies. 

Andrew Jack, Editor of the Global Education section of the Financial Times, makes the added case for the integration of sustainability as a transversal core business skill learning rather than standalone subjects. “Very often when I talk to employers they say we would rather hire people with core business skills and then add on the expertise on sustainability,” he said. “So there is a cautionary tale in going too far on these newer skills at the expense of underlying capacities.”

4) Measuring impact

Measuring impact is crucial in assessing progress in the pursuit of a positive societal mission.

Metrics are fundamentally important. While there are a few things that can only be captured anecdotally or qualitatively, there are also a core set of activities within higher education institutions that can and should be measured to allow comparison and benchmarking.

In terms of research, universities can and should make their contributions on the topics approached by the 2030 Development Agenda. Wilfred Mijnhardt (Rotterdam School of Management) offered details about the work being developed in mapping and compiling SDGs-related research through the creation of bibliometrics and altimetric. “Recently I developed an SDGs mapper to make sure that we can check all SDGs-related publications,” he said. Andrew Jack of the Financial Times highlighted the importance of assuring research is applicable to today’s business “So we're not just writing a paper that says here's an interesting piece of research about SDG4,” he said. “We're actually saying are, there are fresh original, impactful implementable insights in this research!”

Consistent metrics across business schools could also be helpful in assessing societal impact. In terms of measuring progress for activities the appreciation of information submitted by schools could be done by stakeholders with the goal of extracting best practices.

Indicators and metrics should be developed in intra-business collaborations. As Business schools become impact-base the dialogue should focus on identifying the right metrics to really measure the value of contributions and impact.

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