The ever-evolving MBA

Only those MBA programmes that adapt quickly to new challenges will succeed in the long term. ESMT Berlin’s Rick Doyle explains how his Business School is ensuring ongoing evolution

As we constantly read, hear and experience, these are volatile times – politically and for business. 

Digitisation and the disruption it causes have made it onto Business School campuses and into curricula. Vast environmental and social challenges, such as climate change and an increasing disparity between rich and poor, have done the same. MBA programmes are constantly evolving to help students recognise upcoming challenges and give them the skills to be successful, responsible business leaders and entrepreneurs. 

An MBA helps students change their careers by continuously challenging them through an innovative curriculum and programme design. Throughout the programme, they work on academic and professional projects that are designed to place them in unfamiliar situations. The groups rarely have two students from the same country or professional background. 

This fosters a learning environment in which they can explore new areas of business, develop fresh competencies and a new career plan, while working in an international environment. By the end of the programme, students develop managerial and cross-functional skills needed to branch out in new directions and to succeed professionally. 

Constant evolution

European MBA programmes have to evolve constantly to remain competitive in the market. As most people know, a typical MBA programme in Europe lasts one year. The goal is to offer a general management programme in a condensed format. This is so candidates minimise their time out of the workforce, while gaining practical experience that helps them change or transform their career. 

Some MBA programmes are shorter, while longer ones might offer a modular format allowing the student to customise their studies. For the latter, students can often add on exchanges, specialisations or internships, but they spend more time out of the job market, so there is, as always, a tradeoff. 

The ESMT MBA programme lasts 12 months. To get the most out of the one-year programme, students need to have a clear idea of the outcome they would like to achieve. Most students have significant work experience from the beginning, with the average experience of ESMT MBA students being six years. By participating in the practical aspects of the programme – company visits, masterclasses, international field seminars and consulting projects – our students gain experience in a new field or delve deeper into managerial issues in a sector already familiar to them. 

Combining theoretical and practical aspects of the MBA is critical if students want to gain the skills necessary to become better managers. These ‘soft skills’ are often missing in company hierarchies and are aspects of the MBA to which we pay particular attention at different stages. Developing a career plan, 360-degree feedback, networking, negotiations, leadership, public speaking and many other courses are a vital part of the MBA. 

We would be remiss if graduates were not going away with these skills. In fact, companies reiterate again and again how indispensable they are for MBA graduates to become leaders in their companies. 

International students

One notable trait of European MBA programmes is the international student population. ESMT consists of 95% international students, and most European MBA programmes fluctuate between the 90-95% international mark. Students graduate after an intense experience working with international teams comprising five-to-eight nationalities and the cultural perceptions that come with diversity. 

Every class discussion, lunch discussion, case study, project and so on, is reviewed and discussed from multiple international, professional, and personal perspectives. 

Companies often tell us that the best graduates are those with the skills to navigate an international work environment while helping the company grow and remain relevant on a larger scale. In turn, graduates with these skills are equipped to navigate their careers and manage or effect change for themselves years after graduation. We see this year after year with students coming from backgrounds that typically would not lend themselves to moving into the specific career to which they aspire. 

For example, one ESMT graduate recently moved from a military background into an international career in a major logistics company. Another graduate went from digital marketing to consulting for an international consulting company and yet another previously worked for an non-governmental organisation (NGO) in sustainable development, but is now also working for a major international consulting firm. These are but a few examples with corporate ties, but every year, graduates also put their skills to work for SMEs and start-ups. One of the most recent cases of this is two alumni who founded Space Shack in Berlin, a co-working space and incubator. ESMT students and alumni can use the space and work with
their own or other start-ups during and after the programme. 

We maintain very close relationships with the 25 founding companies of ESMT. They, along with many other companies, are ever-present during the MBA. The level of corporate engagement varies from year to year and ranges from guest lecturing in class, leading master classes, company visits, internships and projects – and of course hiring graduates after the programme. Often, the representatives from the companies are ESMT alumni themselves. 

We spend a lot of time building long-standing relationships with these organisations. It is important that they know MBA graduates have a lot to offer and are equipped with the skills the company needs. Relationship building is the best way to ensure that there is a strong level of knowledge transfer between the companies and ESMT. Company visits in Germany, interview days, individual interviews, and class participation are just a few ways in which we maintain these connections. 

We also involve company representatives in workshops and learning exercises for students. A good example is the workshop about salary negotiations, hosted by an HR director of one of ESMT’s largest recruiters. 

Another example is the annual mock interview day, which is supported by several recruiters from real companies. They practise interviews with MBAs based on a real application, and give constructive feedback. We bring diversity into this workshop by working with interviewers from different industries: from large corporates to Berlin based start-ups. For the case interview practice workshop, we work with real consultants from our partner companies. 

Consulting projects are of utmost importance for the companies, the School and, of course, the graduates. Historically, hiring MBA graduates was not a popular option for businesses in Germany: the PhD was king in business culture. Now 70-75% of ESMT MBA graduates work in Germany each year. 

Integrating consulting projects into the MBA curriculum is a way to demonstrate the benefits on both sides of the spectrum. 

Companies can see, first-hand, the value of bringing in an international group of professionals to solve issues they may not otherwise have the capacity to evaluate. 

One of the cornerstones of ESMT is to promote responsible leadership and especially connecting that with management of innovation and technology, sustainability, and entrepreneurship. These areas ensure that companies and the MBA programme remain relevant as the business world changes. MBA elective courses such as ‘bringing technology to market’, ‘innovation and new product development’, and ‘sustainable supply chain management’ are all courses that touch on helping companies develop their long-term and environmental sustainability. 

These courses lend themselves to preparing graduates to think creatively and strategically while doing their jobs. 

Preparing better managers

It is with these concepts in mind that our career services office creates the consulting projects with our corporate and business partners. This year alone, there is an impressive list of consulting projects that help companies incorporate future-proof business concepts into their short-term plans, such as:

determining the viability of investment in an early phase 3D printing technology start-up by a leading global company to enhance its business channels and help in the development of future technology

conducting market research and a feasibility study for a leading global company to determine how camera-learning technology can be implemented and adapted to introduce the company’s new products into the mainstream market evaluating how current products for a global company can be best developed to incorporate augmented reality technology for the mass market determining an implementation strategy for a global company to enhance and create business channels and products for robotics and cloud-based technologies consulting with a Germany-based real-estate company to establish the social, environmental, and economic impact of the real estate industry. 

Not only are the consulting projects for companies a very effective way to get useful answers to the questions and topics they raise, but they are also an excellent opportunity to identify potential talent and start an interviewing and selection process. For the students, the projects are a great learning exercise and networking opportunity. 

The learning outcomes mentioned previously remain at the forefront from our first meeting with candidates, the application interview process, and during their job search. 

ESMT Berlin’s MBA classes are quite small, comprising about 65 students per year. To maintain a core group of students who complement one another and work together to achieve their career goals following the programme, we have to select those who are best suited to work in small, international groups and who thrive in a close-knit, cooperative environment. The application process is designed so that we work individually with candidates even before they submit their application. 

We encourage them to connect with students and alumni before applying and use the application interview as a key component to assess a candidate’s fit and motivation for the ESMT programme. This way, the candidates and the School are sure to make a decision that is right for both parties. We have to consider the strengths of the ESMT MBA curriculum as well as the needs of the market for MBA graduates at all stages of the programme lifecycle. 

We design our programmes to meet the needs of the market so that there is a direct correlation for everyone involved; for example, electives such as design thinking and digital marketing. In so doing, the MBA remains relevant for the future of business. 

Taking feedback from students and corporate partners into consideration, we have added a full range of leadership seminars and workshops to hone the management and self-awareness of participants. All MBA students have the option to enroll in classes on data analytics and organisational behaviour courses focusing on status in management. The goal is to prepare MBA students to be better managers. 

Pre-experience Masters programmes are more popular than ever and offer excellent opportunities for students to work with businesses and develop them for the future and embrace new technologies. However, this group of students has not yet developed the on-the-ground experience and leadership skills that MBA students bring with them into the classroom, following six or more years of work experience. It is difficult then to compare the learning and development that students are able to achieve as a result. 

Thus, despite the growth in pre-experience programmes, the MBA remains relevant by developing leaders with experience in general management as a key component for future corporate growth. At ESMT, we take specific steps to remain relevant. We continuously invest in faculty research and industry experience, development of forward-looking centres focusing on the latest trends in business, top-notch facilities, and a student population willing to take risks that will likely pay off or help them to land on their feet in new areas of business they have not yet thought of. 

Business Schools have to stay agile and on top of the changing business environment. This is especially true for MBA programmes. Only those programmes that adapt quickly to new challenges will succeed in the long-run. Despite, or perhaps because of this, I remain optimistic about the future of the MBA. 

By tapping into the creative resources they have at their disposal – faculty, staff, students, and companies – Business Schools have the potential to educate responsible leaders who are prepared for the fast pace of change. 

Rick Doyle is Head of Marketing for Degree Programmes at ESMT Berlin Business School.

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