Michigan: Excellence in Positive Business - IEDP
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Michigan Ross: Excellence in Positive Business

A conversation with Alison Davis-Blake, Edward J. Frey Dean of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan


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In 2013 the University of Michigan’s International Center celebrated its 75th anniversary and last fall the University boasted an enrollment 5,963 overseas students from 115 countries. This testament to the famous University’s long term commitment to global relevance is particularly apposite when looking at its Ross School of Business.  The school today serves a truly global constituency from its bases in the prosperous high-tech city of Ann Arbor, and in Los Angeles and Hong Kong, as well as through its partnerships with many institutions around the world.

However part of the business school’s current specific relevance to the global leadership challenges of 2014 come from near to home ― from its relative proximity to Detroit.

There can be nowhere better than the city of Detroit to capture the spirit of 2014. Devastated by the 2008 crash Detroit is rebuilding, revitalized by a new generation of entrepreneurs. This is epitomized in the mission statement of Dan Gilbert’s Detroit-based Venture Capital firm “Our purpose is to help rebuild the Detroit area through entrepreneurial fire. We view business building as a palette for creative expression and an opportunity to make a difference and change the world. If not, why bother?”

Alison Davis-Blake, Dean of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, would echo these sentiments. Not only are the School’s MBA students deeply engaged, through their own initiative, ‘Revitalization and Business’, in the renaissance of the Motor City, but the whole school is dedicated to creating a new breed of entrepreneurial leader who can make a real constructive difference in the world.

Central to this vision is the concept of ‘positive business’ and Davis-Blake’s belief that business can be a vehicle for positive change and a provider of solutions to many of the world’s economic and social problems. She sees the Ross School of Business as a centre for excellence in ‘positive business’, which she defines as being business that delivers holistic value to the wider community, business that not only provides economic value but also makes a real contribution to building a thriving environment and society, and has a positive global impact.

The Ross School of Business, based 43 miles/69 km from Detroit, is well placed both in its entrepreneurial outlook and in its geography. Davis-Blake believes that being so close to the epicenter of the crash and seeing the ‘bottom’ the School is able more than most to understand the problems that went before and to realize the enormous opportunities presented by this current period of urban and economic renewal. With this viewpoint, from the ground-floor, the school has been well placed to understand some of the negative forces and leadership failings that caused the recession, and on the up-side it is now witnessing and is very much a part of the forces of recovery.

For business to take on the multitude of challenges faced by the world it needs to instill this new positive business culture into its leaders and to do this it needs to develop new models of business education. At Ross the aim is to develop leaders able energize and transform both organizations and society by leveraging the strengths of people, inspiring a sense of purpose in others, and creating a thriving work culture.

Some business leaders get it and some don’t. Our conversation took place the day Universal Pictures released the film The Wolf of Wall Street in London. The Dean thought that there would always be wolves but she was heartened by the influence of a younger generation of leaders who were pursuing a better more virtuous way, leading their organizations to experiment with more sustainable socially conscious business models, and leading them away from the old-style myopic focus on short-term financial results.

The role of business schools in developing these models is crucial. Business schools are able to provide an environment that encourages ‘mindful’ engagement and allows students time to think deeply about what they are doing and want to do. In a way the crash and its aftermath has presented a unique if perhaps unwelcome opportunity to rethink old approaches to leadership and instill new and better ones.

On the Executive Education side Ross Business School has seen a strong take-up of both its open and custom programs since the crash. Open is not quite back to pre-recession levels, but custom is and looks likely to exceed the school’s best year ever this year. The custom growth has come primarily from the US and Asia (particularly India) and interestingly from some new opportunities in the Middle East and Africa. While it is very positive to see much interest and growth coming from emerging economies, a significant increase in custom revenues from Fortune 100 companies is particularly good news looking ahead. As far as business sectors go, perhaps unsurprisingly, the percentage of custom revenues coming from banking and financial services has increased significantly, with as much of this coming from US-based as from non-US based financial institutions.

In past decades executive education focused largely on ‘strategy’, today a pronounced shift has brought recognition that ‘people’ and their ability to innovate and execute strategy is the critical factor. Consequently to develop the people who will deliver the strategy, coaching is playing an increasingly important role in executive development. At Ross many custom programs incorporate coaching, for individuals and/or teams. Some open enrollment programs also provide coaching and this is predicted to increase in the coming years, with more ‘virtual’ coaching being offered via distance technology as the engagements lengthen and companies try to make the process more efficient.

Considering the future role of online learning in leadership and senior executives development, Dean Davis-Blake emphasized one clearly positive aspect; at a time when people’s attention span is narrowing, online technologies will allow faculty to spend more ‘classroom’ time focusing on application; whereas the delivery of ‘codifiable’ knowledge, the conceptual models and theory, can come from outside the classroom, possibly online.

Although online experiences will never completely replace the kind of integrated, engaging, application-oriented, relationship-based learning experiences companies are now co-creating with business schools like Ross. The School acknowledges that online learning will become more prevalent, and like other leading schools is now in a period of experimentation as they figure out what really works (and what doesn't!). 

MOOCs are a good example of an experiment in ‘distance learning’ from which much will been learned.  They are not so much of a threat to business schools, as some would have had us all believe even a few months ago, as a concept which will help the eventual evolution of viable and valuable online programs.

Moving from the virtual literally to the concrete, Davis-Blake was pleased to mention the future building plans at the Ross School of Business. Benefitting from a $100 donation from Stephen M. Ross (part of a $200 million a gift which makes Ross the third largest donor to a business school in the United States), the School plans to create new spaces for students to study, collaborate and connect with each other, faculty, alumni and potential employers; a state-of-the-art career services space; a space to bring together faculty, students and corporate partners to carry out practice-oriented research on topics of key importance to local and global firms; and classrooms infused with advanced technology and innovative design to support in-person and virtual collaboration and connectivity on a global scale.

In 2004, Stephen M. Ross gave $100 million toward an architectural award winning new building and endowed operations for the business school, which was renamed in recognition of his gift. The building was completed in 2009. This recent gift will allow the School to follow up on the success of that building and create a true business campus featuring innovative design and technology.  The new and existing facilities will be seamlessly integrated both inside and out to create one campus.

As well as these ‘concrete’ advances, the recent donation from Stephen M. Ross will also support new scholarships for Ross students. So the future for the Ross School of Business looks bright and secure, and this positive story allied to the turn-around of Detroit is good news both for the region and for the global economy as a whole.

This article was first published in Developing Leaders Issue 15

Corporate cliches are for yesterday’s business. Today's business calls for a new kind of leadership, one that sees beyond yesterday’s cliches and creates meaningful change, the kind of change that yields long-term, sustainable results.

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