What Can Business Schools Do to Avoid Bad Apples?
This month's column resulted in a number of suggestions for sorting out the "bad apples" among applicants to MBA programs across the country. But just as many respondents questioned the underlying assumptions of the column.
Many respondents expressed the view that while care might be taken in admissions to sort out the "bad apples," the primary responsibility of business schools is to provide a place where ethics and values can be discussed by all, rather than just those clearing some admissions hurdle regarding values. As Mike McCarthy put it, "... it is very presumptuous for business schools ... to feel they should 'weed out' or 'license' the moral credentials of students." Alexander Magoun echoed this view when he asked, "Would it not benefit society and corporate culture as a whole if these individuals, who will doubtless pursue a career in business in any event, were socialized in corporate ethics courses with the rest of the world's best and brightest?" Others objected to the assumption that teaching values to adults is difficult at best and impossible at worst. Sven Bislev commented, "'teaching values to adults is done every day. Not so well by us in the business school field, but in the training of genuine people-handlers like nurses and social workers."
Others responded to questions posed (whether or not they accepted the underlying assumptions) more directly. This resulted in an interesting list of suggestions, including: 1) designing "a practicum where MBA students [with a focus] on ethics ... practice ... hiring/interviewing skills ... by interviewing 'short list' candidates that are being strongly considered for admission by the school." (Ted Ruddock); 2) "... look[ing] for a person's commitment to service outside of their profession ... as good an indication as any of a person's commitment to more than just achieving status and making money" (Tammy Doty); 3) encouraging a school's admissions group to "focus inward and nurture in its own people and systems the kind of qualities that it wants to see in its students." (Umar Khalid); and 4) suggesting that "letters of recommendation ... comment on the applicant's exercise of leadership or judgement in an ethical situation." (Jasper Ho)
Those who appeared to have responsibilities associated with the sorting process in industry were generally more sympathetic to business school admissions offices and the Herculean task they face in taking values into consideration in admissions. As Linda Abraham said, "Considering that ... time devoted to evaluation is so limited, admission offices do an admirable job of separating out the bad apples. However, assigning them the job of 'first line of defense' reminds me of expecting the cavalry to defend against a blitzkrieg."
It is admittedly difficult to know whether admissions practices in place today will produce the desired results twenty years from now. But is it unreasonable to expect continued efforts to improve the quality of the process with regard to personal values? Or should a greater effort be made to identify the "bad apples" after they are admitted and sort them out as part of the educational effort? Failing both of these, should we, as someone suggested, strip MBA degrees, once awarded, from recipients who later prove unworthy of the designation? What do you think?
New students are arriving on business school campuses for the first fall term since the flood of management malpractice disclosures hit the headlines. For this reason, it is perhaps a good time to solicit creative ideas about how leading business schools that mint a high proportion of senior executives in large organizations can identify and weed out candidates whose personal values suggest potential long-term risk to themselves and to business in general.
I'm not suggesting we delude ourselves into thinking that business schools can solve the problem. As we have been reminded many times, the problem begins in the family, or what serves for one. But can schools at least attempt to "license" leaders and managers in whom they can have some degree of confidence? Judging from the large proportion of those accused of wrongdoing as part of the "Enron syndrome" who possess MBAs from leading business schools, this is a valid question. It's a question made more urgent by what we now know as the immense cost to individuals, and the economy in general, of a loss of trust in our business institutions and those who lead them.
We know a few things on which to base a judgment. First, any organization can best avoid loss of productivity and the achievement of quality through the quality of its hiring. Several outstanding organizations I have studied regard hiring as their leaders and managers most important task, an "almost religious experience," in the words of one. The admissions process at business schools thus becomes the first line of defense in raising the quality of eventual graduates. In business, we "hire for attitude and train for skills" because it is very difficult to shape attitudes in adults. An MBA program can provide an opportunity to discuss and make us aware of the nuances of business "gray areas" when it comes to ethical business decisions, but no method has yet been devised to teach values to adults with any expectation of success.
In addition to academic performance and test scores, the devices that are used to sort applicants to MBA programs today include letters of recommendation, essays written by applicants about how they have handled or would handle various value-laden leadership challenges, and careful checks for inaccuracies in resumes that might suggest fraudulent claims. Applications are read and reread for suggestions regarding an applicant's sensitivity to the needs of those whom he or she might one day be leading. Only in some of the smaller programs are personal interviews by admissions personnel of every candidate possible.
What more can be done at the MBA program entry level? Or is it unrealistic to expect that there is any set of processes that can adequately address the problem of sorting out "bad apples" at this point? Specifically, what kind of evidence, in addition to that described above, would you try to obtain in order to insure that our graduate schools of business grant the MBA to those in whom society and the business community can have some degree of trust? How would you go about getting it? Is it worth the effort? What do you think?