Should those joining MBA programs strive for more adaptability or authenticity in a world facing great uncertainty both politically and economically, asks a study co-authored by INSEAD professors Gianpiero Petriglieri and Jennifer Petriglieri.
Yet another question is should they place more emphasis on maximising financial performance or hold on to integrity no matter the cost?
B-schools design MBA programs to equip graduates for the challenges they would face as managers and leaders. The curricula give roughly equal importance on honing professional skills and assisting personal development.
However, the Study found that the students tend to focus on either acquiring leadership or in maintaining ethics at any cost. The Petriglieris along with their co-author, Jack Denfield Wood of CEIBS, followed 55 students before, throughout and soon after a one-year MBA program.
The school, designated as “Blue” for the purposes of the study, is highly reputed and traditionally places graduates in top global companies.
Before their program began, most of the participants had envisioned future career achievements on the strength of the MBA from a famous school. They also expressed the hope that the school would help them with self-discovery.
However, once the program started, the high-intensity, high-visibility environment of the school revealed their insecurities. Each student had to wrestle with his or her individual self-doubt. While some worried that they couldn’t live up to the high performance standards, others felt they were not clear enough about their true selves.
“A lot of the people that I am close to all have a similar motivation for spending a year doing this. That is probably the biggest thing [that brings us together].”
By the midpoint of the program, the students had split into two informal but quite distinct camps. Those who measured themselves by performance became what the Petriglieris and Wood call “hunters”. Hunters placed
Hunters placed a high value on acquiring skills that would make it easier to claim titles like “leader”, “manager” and “international.” They sought to transform themselves into the sort of professional who could successfully lead no matter where they ended up. For them, soul-searching had become a distraction. They were intent on persuading those around them of their leadership qualities.
Participants who felt most challenged by the self-discovery side of Blue’s mission became “explorers”, primarily focused on finding and expressing who they really were. Where the hunters sought fulfilment through external achievements, the explorers looked within, engaging in “internal struggle, questioning, and self-doubt”, as one put it.
They resented the pressure to rack up accomplishments within the school’s microcosm of the business world. The prizes and praise available at Blue represented what they were expected to want, a pale substitute for the treasure of self-knowledge.
The split between hunters and explorers was reflected in the students’ socialising. As one said, “A lot of the people that I am close to all have a similar motivation for spending a year doing this. That is probably the biggest thing [that brings us together].”
Despite the two tribes being more at ease among their own kind, the somewhat cliquish atmosphere never developed into overt conflict or out-and-out exclusion, the Study said.
One student described the dynamic as “competitive friendliness”. Hunters and explorers seemed to respect each other’s differences even while not completely understanding the other group’s motivations.
The researchers stated that by remaining close enough with one another to perform social comparisons, both camps sustained clarity and confidence about their own choices despite the stresses of their academic environment. Each group member’s focus was strengthened by contact with peers from the other group and both groups were grateful to the school for it.
According to Petriglieris, despite having split into sub-groups served key psychological needs, both hunters and explorers were doing the same thing.
They were forging “portable selves” that could help them chart a course through the oceans of uncertainty their future career might hold in store.
For hunters, the portable self was anchored to their ability to adapt their leadership portfolio across various contexts. Explorers pegged their portable self to a refusal to compromise core values.
In both cases, the outcome was a sense of self-determination that would not have been possible had they tried to balance both sets of demands. If the School could not give them certainty about the future, it could at least give them clarity as to where they were going, how, and with whom.
The participants also talked positively about the School as a community, despite all the challenges. One participant said, “I was able to connect with people throughout the world, and that will give me a sensation that I can always count on somebody.”
In short, regardless of brochures and stereotypes, not every MBA wants to become a CEO or entrepreneur or dig deep into their soul to find out who they want to be. That is OK, but only schools that make equal room for those pursuits will help both hunters and explorers thrive, the Study says.
As they gear up for the rigours of their programme, then, the main question for MBA candidates should be not, “Where will I be in five years?” but “Who will I be in five months?”
Gianpiero Petriglieri is an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD. He directs the Management Acceleration Programme, the school’s flagship Executive Education programme for emerging leaders. He is an Academic Director of the INSEAD Initiative for Learning Innovation and Teaching Excellence.
Jennifer Petriglieri is an Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD. She directs the Executive Education Management Acceleration Program.(Image Source: Pexels.com)