Defining and leading with purpose

Peter Tufano, Dean and Professor of Finance at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, talks to Jack Villanueva about the importance of personal purpose in business today and the need for Business Schools to work with organisations to establish a common purpose

You presented at AMBA’s 2018 Global Conference in Stockholm. What did you cover? 

There were four parts to my presentation. The first was about a variety of books and other sources giving a sense of where we are in the world right now; good times and bad times. I then questioned what this means for businesses in terms of implications. Third, I considered what it means for Schools and fourth, I gave Deans four questions that they can ask when they go back to their Schools to ensure they are on track in actively addressing issues facing the planet today. 

These questions are: 

  • Do your students graduate knowing about the macroforces fundamentally altering society around the world? 
  • Do you provide your students with sustainable development goals as one way of understanding the generally agreed upon agenda? 
  • How much do we talk about the unintended weaponisation of technologies and products and companies’ responsibilities? 
  • How much are you teaching about systems change in your programmes?

Do you think some Business Schools struggle to answer these questions?  

I think Business Schools, like other organisations, often get so tied up in trying to achieve excellence in their day-to-day activities, that sometimes they don’t stop to think about the larger implications about what they do, both for the business world and for society at large.

Should Business Schools and organisations work more closely to find common purpose? 

The whole agenda for my School is summarised in one short statement: ‘Lead with purpose’. 

This is not only true for us, but for the businesses with which we work. We have large research initiatives around CEOs and other types leaders and, in many cases, the research is quite convincing: they already understand the importance their personal purpose, how this aligns with their corporate purpose and they have made sure their organisations are set up to achieve the objectives they’ve set out. 

We work with large private and family-owned firms and we know that, just because a family might articulate a set of objectives, doesn’t mean the organisation will follow them. 

So these businesses have to be mindful as to how they set up their incentives and organisational structures. 

What are the main challenges that Business Schools face in the current economic climate? 

Business Schools are academic organisations pursuing truth – or multiple truths – embodied in both our research and our teaching. At the same time, we’re beset with economic challenges: trying to stay in the black; coping with the requirements our universities put on us; the ranking systems which are often used to evaluate us – and which largely evaluate short-term performance. 

While maintaining our vision for the future, we are constantly having to watch the bottom line and comply with university and legal processes. We have to worry about the same things managers do and that’s a complicated balancing act. 

Why is it important for Business Schools to innovate in terms of their teaching methods?

The world is changing very rapidly. Any number of statistics you can look at will show this. Consider Moore’s law doubling the capacity of electronics, climate change, population, or the amount of information being generated. In each of these cases, what you will see are exponential rises in… ‘stuff’: terabytes, petabytes, degrees and population. 

In this kind of world it’s important that businesses are able to move quickly and adjust to the changing situation. If we’re going to help train the next leaders – and the current leaders – of these organisations, we can’t fall behind. 

Why did your School launch a virtual classroom? 

The Oxford Hub for International Virtual Education (HIVE), a hi-tech conference facility, is an international hub which we adopted within the past year (see box page 17). I saw it when I visited IE Business School in Spain. They’re using it differently, to deliver online degree programmes and we don’t have that purpose at Oxford. 

In saying that, I could see the potential for this technology to be used in conjunction with our existing programmes and activities in very much an ‘and’ strategy. In other words, it’s in person and online, it’s alumni events and online, it’s research activities and bringing digital capabilities to them. 

The insight came from seeing it in action, but the adaptation came from seeing how it could work best in Oxford. 

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Defining and leading with purpose

Peter Tufano, Peter Moores Dean and Professor of Finance at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, talks to Jack Villanueva about the importance of personal purpose in business today and the need for Business Schools to work with organisations to establish a common purpose

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