Reforming Management Education
Reforming Management Education
This series will showcase seven visions for how to reform business management and public policy schools.

There is a great deal of business education, but hardly any management education. What, then, should a manager do who is performing quite well, only to be repeatedly bypassed for promotion by MBAs who are not? Join them in conventional “management” education, and then do damage control?

Should they really be sitting quietly in rows, listening to lectures about action and discussing cases about other managers’ experiences, while their own actions and experiences are ignored? Moreover, is it the administration of business that requires most of their attention, or the practice of managing?

Five Basic Premises

My colleagues from schools around the world (England, Brazil, Canada, China, India, and Japan) and I have addressed these concerns for more than 20 years. Here are our basic conclusions in the form of five premises, followed by a host of novel applications, all of which we offer as a manifesto for the reform of management education.

1. There can be no management education for non-managers. Management is a practice, learned primarily on the job—not in a classroom. Management education can thus be reformed only by focusing it on experienced managers, in combination with management development.  

2. This practice is rooted in craft (experience), and the best of it uses art (vision, insight). But beyond conventional analysis, there is relatively little science (evidence), compared with professions such as medicine and engineering. Because management is not a profession, it can be practiced successfully only with a deep understanding of its particular context. That is why conventional management education cannot be fixed: As I wrote in my book, Managers Not MBAs, and reiterated in my blogpost, “MBAs as CEOs: Some Troubling Evidence,” it trains the wrong people (those with too little experience) in the wrong ways (using too much analysis), and it produces negative consequences (like too much disconnect).

Nor can leadership be separated from management. It has to be embedded within it. Organizations of all types need to eschew lofty leadership in favor of engaged management. We not only need programs to create tomorrow’s leaders; more critically, we need initiatives that engage today’s managers.

3. The art of managing cannot be taught, and the use of analysis must not dominate the way it does in conventional MBA programs—whether through the use of tools, techniques, or cases. Managers in business certainly need to understand the functions of business, such as marketing and finance (which can be taught to non-managers), but that is not management.

4. The craft of managing cannot be taught in the classroom either. But it can be used in a classroom comprising practicing managers. Managers bring wonderful experience to such a classroom—centuries of it, in fact—so what can be more effective than letting them build on that experience with each other? (The case study method, by the way, while often touted as experienced-based, is many steps removed from experience: The information is collected by a case researcher from people who may have likely had only some of the experience directly; this goes to a case writer, and then is used by a case teacher, to direct students who likely knew nothing about the company before reading the case.)

5. The key to educating and developing managers, therefore, is to enable them to tap into their own experience: to reflect on it and share their reflections with each other. Sitting at round tables, rather than in the rows of a traditional classroom, is conducive to small group discussion, without having to “break out.” Here they can spend as much time learning from each other, and together pursuing the consequences of this, as they do listening to conceptual inputs from faculty. When these managers attend a program in teams from their own organization, with shared experience, this kind of social learning can be even more powerful.

“We had the experience but missed the meaning,” T. S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets. Managers have to understand the meaning of their experience. Of course, the experience can be lost by taking the managers out of their jobs to attend full-time programs. Accordingly, they need to remain in their jobs, going back and forth between their work and the classroom in short enough periods so that the experience remains fresh (or else they need to engage in the learning directly on site, as described below).

This can be summarized and compared with conventional management education and development in the two diagrams below. One shows the conventional “self in a development silo”—sitting in a U-shaped classroom, facing the “instructor.” The other shows the managers sitting at a round table as a “representative of a development community”—both in the classroom and connected to the organization back home.

We have been doing this kind of educating and developing for 20 years, initially in the International Masters Program for Managers in business, also later in the International Masters for Health Leadership. Both programs bring mid-career people to the classroom five times for periods of 10 or 11 days every four months, with other learning activities taking place back on the job, designed to use their work more than make new work.


Another program, CoachingOurselves, takes this approach into the workplace itself, where managers meet in small groups periodically to investigate particular topic areas (for example, “Crafting Strategy,” “Developing Our Organization as a Community,” “Beyond Bickering”). For 30 to 80 minutes, they share ideas on the topic, bring their common experience to bear on it, and pursue the implications of that for their own organization. A shorter program, of one-week duration, has also been established for managers—many of them on EMBA programs—to experience a similar form of development and compare their practices around the world (see Roundtables for Experienced Managers).

A Host of Innovations

We have developed a host of innovations that extend the boundaries of management education and development. These include managerial mindsets, morning reflections, novel seating, friendly consulting, reflection papers, tutoring, managerial exchanges, and IMPact teams.

Managerial Mindsets | In place of business functions as the organizing principle (marketing, finance, accounting, strategy, HR, etc.), which is common even in programs for non-business managers, we use managerial mindsets—namely, how managers face their world. Five in particular: The Reflective Mindset-managing self; the Analytical Mindset-managing organizations; the Worldly Mindset-managing context (in contrast to global, which implies a kind of conformity, worldly means coming to appreciate other worlds to better appreciate one’s own); the Collaborative Mindset-managing relationships; and the Action Mindset-managing change. Each is the central theme of one of the 10- or 11-day modules.

Morning Reflections | Every day begins with morning reflections. First, managers reflect alone by journaling their personal thoughts—about the class, their job, their life—into their own “insight book.” Then they share their insights around the table, and then on to the plenary discussion, which usually takes place in one big circle. Years after she graduated, one manager from Lufthansa referred to her insight book as “the best management book I ever read.”

Novel Seating | Key to this design is the leveraging of the experience of the managers in various seating arrangements, beginning with the roundtables themselves, which foster direct communication through the face-to-face engagement among students. Even just asking for table questions―“Take five minutes to come up with a question together”―can enhance the thoughtfulness of a discussion. These tables become little communities of learning unto themselves, which helps to ensure that the classroom activity is owned by the participating managers.

Usually the morning reflections, as noted, bring everyone, including faculty, together in a big circle to share what they have learned at their tables. Sometimes, however, at each of the tables, a keynote listener sits with his or her back to the conversation, later to join together in an inner circle to share what they learned, with all the talkers now being the listeners. After those in an inner circle have had their say, others who wish to add something can tap someone in the inner circle and take their place. The discussion carries on, in fact, gets renewed, still, with the same number of people. Here we have something quite fascinating: a running conversation, with a few people at a time, yet everyone participates—listening intently and able to join, with no one in charge.

Sometimes we arrange one set of managers facing another in a clamshell arrangement, while the rest of the class looks on. They may be debating some issue, say the pros and cons of evidence-based medicine, or, when back from a field study of some organization, present what they found to representatives of that organization on the facing side of that clamshell, who then respond.

Friendly Consulting | In friendly consulting, a concern of each manager becomes the focus of attention of a small group of colleagues, dedicated to helping him or her think it through. As practicing managers, the consultants bring expertise and experience to issues they understand because they have lived them in one way or another. Topics might include, “How do we enhance and sustain a culture of customer service?” or “Should I take the job my boss just left?” With no axe to grind and a sense of community in the classroom, everyone learns, consultants and “clients” alike.

Reflection Papers and Tutoring | Practicing managers don’t need exams or grading; they need learning experiences. Accordingly, reflection papers provide the incentive to look back on each classroom module and consider it in light of their return to work. It is remarkable how astute managers can be given the chance to consider their self between formal learning and ongoing experience. This is reinforced by tutoring in the classic sense. Between the modules, the managers work with a faculty member, or sometimes a graduate of the program, in a small group, to discuss each other’s reflection papers and other activities in the program.

Managerial Exchanges | The managers participating in the program pair up and spend the better part of a week observing each other at work. This is a particularly appreciated part of the learning, a chance to watch a colleague in his or her own job, and so reflect on one’s own work—the essence of developing worldliness. At the end of one exchange, the observer proposed to meet with any members of his colleague’s staff. All of them lined up to convey their impressions of her management style. This “was like a mirror for me,” she reported.

IMPact Teams | It’s been said, “Never send a changed person back to an unchanged organization.” But in the education and development for managers, that is what almost always happens. Most managers come home from a developmental program alone. Ways need to be found to anchor and extend their learning into their organization, for impact. The approach under discussion here—managers shuttling back and forth between regular work and engaged learning—encourages the managers to change their organization as a consequence of their learning, by creating what we call IMPact teams at work.

IMPact teams are made up of reports and/or colleagues, perhaps four to seven in number, through whom the learning can be shared in the organization (coaching impact), to drive constructive renewal (action impact). Not only does this allow the sponsoring organization to develop several other managers for each one they send on the program, with no additional fees, but the teams themselves can become forces for renewal. In one small company that had run into a serious problem, the manager in the program, who had to pick up the pieces, formed such a team, which saved the company.

CoachingOurselves is a self-standing enterprise, of which I am a partner, that enables organizations to do in-house much of what has been described above. But CoachingOurselves topics can also be used to seed the activities of the IMPact teams, since a number of these replicate what one of the team members has already experienced in the classroom. For example, if the manager who is attending the program heard a presentation on crafting strategy, the team back home can use the topic of that name to share that learning and pursue its consequences for the strategy of their own organization.
Impact back at work can take other forms—for example, circulating interesting articles used in the class and conveying insights to appropriate colleagues back home, and even applying some of the pedagogy in the organization. A manager who had attended one of our programs emailed us with a picture of the round table he installed on the floor of his factory in Mexico City, where he said that he and his staff get together to reflect on how to approach difficult problems.

Imagine bringing all of these innovations into the workplace: roundtables, morning reflections, friendly consulting, keynote listening, taping in and out, big circles and inner circles. We have yet to turn the CEO of some major corporation around for keynote listening (maybe because they are too busy turning their companies around), but we and others have taken many of these to different places. We have used keynote listeners to replace keynote speakers in large conferences. We have even used inner circles in a room of 200 people, all sitting at roundtables. After presentation and workshop discussions around these tables, we said: “Quick, point to someone at your table who had a really good idea.” We invited the first few targets to come forward and share their ideas.

Developing Communityship | An effective organization is not a collection of human resources, but a community of human beings. We talk about leadership and ownership, so why not add communityship to encourage more engagement within organizations? This is what we seek to develop, from the content of our programs—the mindsets, friendly consulting, managerial exchanges, and so on—and design of the classroom, to the carrying of this sense of communityship into the organization. The message of our own experience is that there is nothing so powerful, or so natural, as engaged managers developing themselves and their organizations.