How We Train Business Leaders Needs To Change—And Higher Education Needs To Step Up

Current models of business education are preparing students for the world of the past, not the future. That has to change.

How do we educate college students in the 21st century for productive careers in business and to become leaders whose companies serve the variety of stakeholders who depend upon them?

Leaders in business education are asking themselves these questions as they recognize that business programs are too narrowly focused on a specific set of applied skills that students can, increasingly, develop through online modules provided by platforms such as LinkedIn or open access courses.

Current models of business education are not preparing students to become “a new breed of leader to future-proof economies, ride the chaos and innovate through complexity.”

Existing undergraduate business programs are preparing students for the world of the past, not the future.

Business focus has changed

Today’s businesses need employees and leaders who bring new ways of thinking to help them thrive in complex, rapidly changing and competitive global markets that can be severely impacted by crises such as the Covid pandemic. And society needs businesses to operate in ways that serve the needs of shareholders, workers, consumers and communities.

In today’s world, companies can no longer afford to focus exclusively on optimizing their bottom line.  Instead, as articulated in the Business Roundtable’s 2019 Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, the discussion has turned to considering the interests of all the stakeholders involved in the success of an enterprise.

Recent research by McKinsey & Company demonstrates the link between a company’s ability to “manage for the long haul” and its attention to “multiple stakeholders.”

Finding this balance requires the ability to see all sides of a situation and make the best decision based on a variety of sources. A broad-based liberal arts education helps students to develop precisely these crucial skills: general knowledge that lets them see connections, adaptability to rapid change, and creative thinking to solve volatile problems.

But for students to make good use of their education as they build careers in business, we must teach them how to connect the dots across all aspects of their college experience.

Creating New Pathways

First, we need to show students that they don’t have to choose between pre-professional training that gives them “day one” skills and a broad-based education that helps them learn to think, adapt and create. The best choice is to have both. And liberal arts programs can offer both, but we need to think differently about how to help them integrate those two pieces.

Traditional academic disciplines are full of the skills and knowledge that will help students to understand the complex factors that shape how markets operate, how business practices vary globally, how local businesses and global corporations function. Studying subjects such as history, philosophy, foreign languages, economics and anthropology allows students to grasp the global dynamics of business in deeper and more useful ways than a standard business curriculum.

With a liberal arts approach, students can understand not only how but why markets and business practices work differently in China or Brazil than they do in the United States. They can move beyond identifying the path of a supply chain to analyzing how local circumstances and expectations will affect the security and resiliency of that supply chain.

Across all kinds of subjects, the liberal arts train students to frame questions quickly, to make connections that others don’t recognize, to spot emerging opportunities, to manage diverse teams, to learn new skills, and to have the ethical capacity to be good managers and leaders who can contribute to the vital shift from shareholder to stakeholder capitalism.

In other words, the best preparation to enter today’s global business environment starts with a strong grounding in the humanities and social sciences.  To make our students’ education complete, this foundation of broad and deep thinking needs to be integrated with applied business skills that can be easily changed and adapted depending on the needs of the current job market.

Business education for the future

Seven years ago, a few professors at Denison University set down the path to create this kind of integrated program. We recognized that our campus had everything students needed to prepare for successful careers in business. But we needed to create new pathways to help students build more effective combinations of learning experiences across their time in college.

We developed a new major called Global Commerce which pairs existing courses in economics, modern languages, and the humanities/social sciences with a set of four core courses that teach students to understand the dynamics of global commerce and business and to apply their understanding to solving problems.

Now one of our most popular majors, students combine their classroom learning with workshops, speaker series, networking opportunities, internships and study abroad experiences. Our goal is not just to help students get their first job, but to give them lasting tools to understand the big picture, address the needs of a wide variety of stakeholders, and help to build sustainable companies and organization that will last for the long haul. 

In the 20th century, business schools claimed a monopoly over teaching applied skills, leaving liberal arts schools to defend the value of the humanities and the social sciences.  But in the 21st century, students don’t have to make this binary choice. Colleges can provide the complete education that students need by combining the strengths of their liberal arts programs with focused training in business skills outside the classroom.

Creating new pathways to collaboration across campus gives students what they need to start careers in business, and to become leaders of the kinds of sustainable companies that society needs.