This is the unedited, original English version of my interview to the UVA-Darden’s dean Robert Bruner, published by AmericaEconomia on 16 April 2013.
Robert Bruner, UVA-Darden’s dean, is one among the most respected academic leaders in the business schools universe. As well, he is highly influential in terms of his vision about leadership, and the role of business schools in the preparation of future business leaders.
Back in 2011, at the IESE Conference “Globalization and Leadership Development in an Integrated World”, you observed that “schools think of management training, but what they need to think of is management development, based on developing competencies and high-engagement learning”. What do you mean by that and where does Darden stand in terms of this vision?
The difference between training and development can be thought of this way: training is fit to build knowledge and some very basic skills. Training is typically one way, from the teacher to the students. It is typically regarding information that is very standard, might be reflected on lectures or tutorials you could find online. The student is trained to achieve certain level of proficiency in what could be building a spreadsheet or managing accounting or something rather mechanical.
If you think on what good education consists of, it consists of three things: knowledge, which it’s names and dates and mechanics. It consists of skills, things like selling, communicating and negotiating. It means a variety of things that are actually best learnt in a face-to-face environment. It is very difficult to learn these skills over the internet or from a distance.
The third set of characteristics of a great education consists of the development of a character. And these should be attributes such as emotional intelligence, social awareness, empathy, integrity, work ethics… A variety of virtues a good education would help to build. I believe those virtues are best built through face-to-face education than rather over the internet.
As a result, management training focuses mainly on knowledge, whereas management development really focuses on all three, knowledge, skills and attributes of character.
My criticism was not aimed at IESE Business School. I have taught at IESE and I feel a high regard for the school. Instead my criticism of business schools is that they give up too easy. They focus on training when they really should focus on building competencies of knowledge, skills and attributes of character, which is more challenging and expensive to do.
It takes time, talent, and ultimately financial resources. There are over 13.000 institutions in the world that award degrees on business of some kind. And many of these schools are really focused on training. It’s understandable considering many of them are located in developing economies and they may not have the resources to rely on. But the truth is to really create the leaders for tomorrow you must focus on building competencies across knowledge, skills and attributes. That means something very different that just training.
At Darden we are focused on all three. We are known for having a strong residential MBA of 21 months. It is a very demanding program, face-to-face education. We teach by the case method, which is active, highly engaging learning. The students who come to us for education say it’s unlike any other previous experience they had.
Darden truly emphasizes management development in the development of leadership qualities through the use of case studies, games, simulations, small seminars… that’s why I say it’s very expensive to develop and deliver.
Darden is known by its focus on leadership. How is Darden preparing future business leaders to relate or deal with emerging economies, where culture can be so different?
We have a very deep commitment to diversity and we practice diversity and inclusion in all ways. Not merely about diversity across gender and races but diversity across geography and ethnicity. We bring to our school students from all over. About a third of our students come from outside the USA. Given the size of the populations in the world, we receive many students from emerging economies.
We have an international students’ business club, which is perhaps the largest club in our school. It is very popular and hosts many cultural events. We have a diverse faculty who come from most continents, among them several Spanish speaking faculties who can speak to Chileans, Spanish students…
Our education is in English, which is the language of business globally, but it is a school of great respect for cultural diversity. We teach, and write, case studies actively –over 250 new cases per years – and many of these are set outside the USA. We actively look for cases set in the emerging economies because those present some of the most interesting managerial aspects.
And we have a global executive MBA program that visits 3 of the biggest emerging economies –India, China and Brazil– as well as Europe and the USA. This is a program for people in their mid career who decide they want to get an MBA but they don’t want to quit their jobs in order to attend. This program delivers them instruction in very intensive residencies lasting two weeks and each residency is in a different country. In between we deliver instruction online. The students’ feedback to this program is very high. They are very enthusiastic about the cross-cultural experiences and the sensitivity developed on them about the emerging economies.
I believe it’s not possible to develop the leader of the future without gaining great social awareness about the issues faced in the emerging economies, about the challenges that must be resolved.
Social media are widely assumed as a tool for self-presentation, advocacy or marketing tools, and information channel, but could social media be used for leadership purposes?
The challenge that any leader faces it’s helping his or her followers to understand what are the challenges and the opportunities that the enterprise faces. And helping the followers to understand what is in the leader’s thinking.
A leader gains authority not because authority has been conferred, not because the board of directors has appointed him or her as CEO of the company. Rather the leader gains authority by building trust in the organization. And social media helps to build awareness and empathy for the leader, and ultimately trust.
This may sound counterintuitive to some leaders, who believe they must be very distant in order to command the authority and the sentiments of the followers. But a great deal of research recently suggests the reverse is true. Followers today, especially in the environment of social media, expect to learn more about the thinking of their leader and social media help a great deal.
The term of self-presentation is very appropriate but it’s more than just expressing facts about you as leader. It is expressing values, outlook, and a critical point of view about things.
You can tell when a blog or a Twitter account is being managed by the PR department of a company as opposed to be authentically written by the leader. The difference is that the PR department simply presents facts, such as “the leader gave a speech today”, or “the leader had dinner with some government officials”, or “the leader granted this award to someone”. Those are modestly interesting. Also the PR department tends to present only the good news, the news that make people feel good, but the authentic blogs and tweets really present the dilemma that managers face, the values by which managers will work their way through the dilemma. And it’s those values that prove to be very important in building strong cultures within companies. I think social media help that process very much.
The alumni ambassadors is one strategy Darden has implemented to attract candidates from around the world. What other strategies are there in place? What level of success has been experienced in terms of Latin American candidates?
We very actively seek to engage graduates of our school in the recruiting process of new applicants. We find that applicants, when they are looking for which school to attend, show the greatest interest in really wanting to know the students’ experiences. They almost rather hear from graduates of the schools than from official representatives, either the dean, or the director of admissions, or members of the faculty. We actively send our faculty and staff around the world. But it’s the engagement of the alumni which proves to be influential.
Darden is different from many business schools. We teach by the discussion method, all taught in English. It is a challenging program, it isn’t for everybody. So it’s very important for the applicant to really get to know any business school that he or she would be interested in applying to. The rankings, and the guide book and the information on the internet are only the start of what any applicant should strive to get.
Some observers notice a decreasing number of applications to MBA programs, the higher cost of the programs as one possible reason. Is that the case of Darden?
We are experiencing an increase in applications. We are in our third year of steady increase in applications.
I think the decline is only representative in the developed economies, the USA, Europe and Japan. If you look at the trends, the USA has been in decline since 2002, a very slow decline, practically flat, but still a decline. In Japan it’s much sharper and in Europe it’s sharper as well. I think all three are reflective of the very severe global financial crisis and recession that occurred. Meanwhile, applications from other countries have been increasing worldwide.
At Darden, we have actually experienced a very healthy volume of applications from the USA, but we are experiencing a large increase in applications from outside. Generally my comment on the decline is that it’s due to the recession, but also due to the maturity of the developed economies and the questions that young people may have about the availability of jobs for them after they graduate from an MBA school.
In reality the economy, the employment numbers are continually to grow in the USA. It looks like these restrictions would be relaxed, although that’s still very much in discussion in the USA congress right now. But there’s a very new mood in the USA which is characterized by increased growth, faster growth, greater interest in business expansion, all of those mean that ultimately there will be a more buoyant job market.
I’m optimistic. I think there is virtually an infinite need for management development in the world today. We haven’t found the bottom, we haven’t found the limit of demand for management development, it’s crucial. In economies as large as Chile, Brazil, India or China there are enormous needs for learning and implementing the best practices. I’m an optimist about the future of business education.