A conversation with Henry Mintzberg, Professor of Management Studies at McGill University.

By Brooke Allen, founder of No Shortage of Work

“Perhaps business schools should issue recall notices.” These words were spoken last week by Henry Mintzberg, a featured speaker at a Fordham University conference titled, “MBA Under Siege: Reimagining Management Education

Because I feel my MBA is one of my all-time worst purchasing decisions, I gave Professor Mintzberg a call at his office in Montreal.

I began, “As a hiring manager, I can report that there are lots of recently minted MBAs with upwards of $100,000 of debt, who, as far as I can tell, have no skills or knowledge I’d pay them a dime for. Worse yet, they come with an attitude, and it usually isn’t a good one. Are you saying that business schools have an obligation to tell students when their product is faulty?”

He replied, “There is no question that schools have a moral obligation to disclose, but it isn’t clear that they have a legal one. Toyota has a legal obligation to let people know when they uncover a problem, but the case can be made that schools are not failing all students, and in many cases they add value. I refer to the functional courses in business, not the courses in management, where they do very badly.”

“But, the fact that most Toyotas work just fine does not mean they should cover up a fault in a few,” I said. “Besides, one of the things I hated about my MBA education was that the discussion in Ethics class was about legality, not morality. Isn’t a moral obligation enough of a reason to do something? Shouldn’t universities hold themselves to a higher standard than businesses?”

Mintzberg laughed, “Don’t look for too much morality at most Universities these days. It is popular for academics to make the case that honesty pays, that ‘It pays to be good’ n – not so– it’s a sham. Sometimes, it pays to be bad. Shouldn’t you always do the right thing, whether it pays or not? I’ve written about that in my book, Power in and Around Organizations.”

“In your more recent book, Managers, Not MBAs, you say that businesses are all about making things and selling them, but MBAs don’t study that. Instead they develop a disdain for production and sales.”

“That’s right. Selling is earthy, and business schools don’t do earthy things. Marketing is one-to-many, and it is hard to tell if you are doing a good job. Selling is one-to-one, and there is instant feedback.”

“And rejection can make you feel bad,” I said, “I once took a day-long sales training class that began with the instructor asking each of us why we where there. One fellow said, ‘I want to manipulate people so they will do what I want.’ The instructor took out his checkbook, refunded the $100 fee, and told him to leave. He said selling was about helping people make decisions that are in their own best interest. Then he taught us how to do it. On that one Saturday, I learned more of value than during five years of night classes at N. Y. U. where not once did I see anyone, professor or student, called on the carpet for their ethics or morality.”

He said, “If you want to be a doctor, you should go to Medical School, and if you want to be a nurse, you should go to Nursing School, but if you want to manage in business, you should not go to management school.”

“So, how can someone learn about management if not in school?” I asked.

“Some colleagues and I have created a program called Coaching Ourselves. We provide materials and guidance, but the basic idea is that small groups of people can learn a lot by reflecting on their own experiences, and sharing their thoughts and feeling with others. Rather than send employees to business school, we created an in-house program that helps develop groups of managers for a few thousand dollars, rather than hundreds of thousands.”

I was impressed. “We’ve sent three people in our group for master’s degrees with explicit instructions to report anything they learn that we can use, and they have not reported a single thing. I can certainly imagine it would be much better if we just got together and discussed things in the context of our own circumstances. But what advice do you have for our readers, many of whom are unemployed or working at firms with no education budget whatsoever?”

“They could do Coaching Ourselves by themselves; implement our methodology without us. They would get the benefits of pre-selected and synthesized material, not a person to help, but people can certainly implement these concepts on their own.” Of course, on their own, managers can still get the benefits of reflecting with each other on their experiences, just without the CoachingOurselves content downloaded to stimulate their discussions.

“It may be much more time-efficient for us to buy a solution for our employees, but if my friends and I were unemployed, we’d have more time and much less money, so perhaps we could roll our own. Professor Mintzberg, I, and our readers, thank you for your time.”

“And I thank you.”

It is refreshing to hear a business school professor call it like it is.

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