Covid-19 Offers The Opportunity For Business Schools To Think Creatively

Business schools are going to be even more critical in shaping our agenda and recovery in the aftermath of Covid-19, assuming they can respond with agility to the astonishing breadth of challenges economies are now facing. The leadership skills needed to navigate countries and global companies out of the wreckage of Covid-19 over the next decade will not magically appear. In reality, the leadership education agenda needs an overhaul. Earlier in 2020 pre-pandemic the World Economic Forum demonstrated how higher education can adapt teaching to the new world of work. The starting point for this pivot always sits with the business schools to have a deeper understanding of how to effectively train leaders to be prepared and consciously build more pluralism in companies, communities and countries.

We are currently experiencing the most invasive overhaul of education across Universities and business schools, and this encompasses the instantaneous shift to online delivery for students across the world. The mode of delivery, which will move into a pragmatic hybrid or blended approach for most institutions, is only one element of this tectonic shift; equally important but less apparent is the approach to teaching. The meta-leadership skills of critical thinking and creativity are now more essential than leaders’ need to be prepared to create the ‘next normal’ in the wake of Covid-19. Of course, these discussions are the tipping point for addressing the various inequalities – economically and socially, that have erupted during this period and the future of work impacted by emerging technologies; each of these areas contains multiple layers of complexity, however, when dealing with these in tandem, the effect is a tsunami.

As with any organization, for business schools to change their cultures will require agility. For this happen, we need to evaluate the composition of these institutions critically. While reputation and brand are significant influencing factors in decision-making when embarking on an MBA or degree program, in reality, the intellectual capital of a business schools, or its faculty, will ultimately determine its success. While many companies have been working on the diversity and pluralism agenda for their staff, business schools have been slower to produce results that demonstrate progress. A recent Journal of Marketing Education paper by Krishen, Lee, and Raschke, using a broad range of universities, explains the contradiction of experiences faced by female and male academics and how this, in turn, supports the ongoing scarcity of female professors in the higher levels of business schools.

The gender balance of faculty is an essential component in the teaching fabric of business schools; broadening the diversity of staff creates the foundation to introduce broader conversations, case studies, and discussions around leadership and organizations. Furthermore, gender balance matters in role-modelling and creating a more inclusive environment for learning to help female and male students develop their leadership capabilities related to more diverse stimuli. 

Speaking to the primary author from this research, Dr. Anjala Krishen, we discuss how fear can become the default driver for female academics and, in doing so, creates even more barriers amongs these groups. Krishen identifies the asymmetrical experiences of academics in business schools starting with a disconnect between experiences; “If you are constantly mobbed and discounted by a system, you will experience chronic dissatisfaction. What happens over time is that you experience lower motivation. This satisfaction-motivation cycle can lead to a host of negative consequences, ranging from imposter syndrome to lower promotion likelihood.” The struggle to conform to the culture of academia underpins a sense of fear, the experiences of studying for Doctoral research and the culture of businesses often reinforce hierarchy with experienced academics. Drawing on the data from American business schools, there is an apparent disconnect between the supply of talent and the female representation in leadership. In the United States since 2006 over 50% of doctoral degrees have been awarded to women demonstrating a strong pipeline. The numbers alter dramatically when we look at the gender breakdown for faculty;  with 37.7% appointed as assistant professors and one fifth (20%) as full professors. The data shows that academia is a very attractive sector for women. When they get de-motivated, it’s not about fixing the women but about addressing the institutional barriers that impede progression. Speaking with Krishen, three areas need particular attention from deans and leaders to remove these barriers.

Challenge the culture

Addressing the culture of consensus helps to remove the structures of academic fear. Create the culture you expect business leaders to develop; academia and so many hierarchical organizations rely heavily on the norm of consensus. Behavioral consensus is the antithesis of innovation and discourages cognitive diversity; instead it forces academics to work in a way that requires similar thinking and behavior. Krishen explains: “When you’re trying to get promoted, and you work in a homogeneous environment that is dominated by consensus and agreement, it’s not good enough just to be excellent, you also have to be liked.” The gold standard is to create a pluralistic culture in business schools, where diverse thinking and experiences are expected. This innovation in thinking creates benefits across the wider stakeholder groups, from staff to students to the global business community. 

Build platforms to enable diversity to thrive.

Leaders build and create opportunities to role model diversity across the Business School. Inevitably, top-performing professors (many of whom are male) will have a strong profile and kudos associated with their work. The recognition of academic excellence is essential in a knowledge production setting, but more diverse leadership needs to be profiled to demonstrate the validation of different routes to academic success. A handful of female professors or leaders is not sufficient to match the diversity of female academics’ mid-careers. Of course, the issue is even more compounded when gender is intersected with ethnicity. The important and uncomfortable, questions for leaders to consider is how well do you know your staff; how can you use your team to amplify the diverse nature in the fabric of your community? 

Build a community for change.

Addressing the first two areas will provide leaders with the runway to effectively build a strong change culture. Creating change and progressing means challenging how things are done, introducing greater transparency around how resources are allocated to faculty members, sharing faculty research, teaching, and service performance information, and developing psychological safety to have open conversations about what they enjoy doing and how to reward contributions such as mentoring or outreach in addition to research publications. Building the strong fabric of a business school does not happen by chance. Ask any dean, because the culture is the result of staff providing much-needed citizenship, which is more likely to be done well when recognized and rewarded appropriately.

Reform across higher education is sweeping across the sector and business schools are at the vanguard, however the rate of success in navigating this change depends on the diversity and agility of their human capital.

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