Tomorrow's Leaders

In the future, top executives will need a new set of skills to keep their businesses operating. But are business schools teaching them what they need to know?
Tomorrow's Leaders

The next generation of CEOs will have a whole different profile than the current one. Gone are the days when a top executive needed only thorough expertise in his particular field and a basic grasp of marketing, finance, and product development. To be successful in the future, tomorrow’s leaders will need a deep vein of creativity, a sensitivity to cultural context, a commitment to sustainability, and a social conscience. That’s on top of a more familiar set of non-negotiables—flexibility, adaptability, problem-solving skills, a multidisciplinary outlook, and a global mindset.

To turn out graduates with these abilities and attributes, more business schools are setting up executive-in-residence programs. Retired and senior executives can bring the immediacy of the workplace right into the classroom and position students to dive headfirst into the changing corporate environment. Because they have ties to both academia and business, these experienced executives understand what binds the two realms together—and what the business world desires most from the educational world.

We interviewed five executives-in-residence and asked them to share their perspectives and insights on tomorrow’s business landscape. It will look very different from today’s, they told us, because it will be shaped by economic crisis, technological advances, climate change, globalization, and other critical factors. The era of the specialist is over, these executives claim. The leader of the future is an integrative thinker who can meet any challenge. And plenty of challenges await.

The Jazz Singer

Jazz musician Kathy Wade is not just a performer. She’s also a businesswoman who runs a 17-year-old nonprofit organization in Cincinnati, Ohio, called Learning Through Art. Through its “Books Alive for Kids” program, the organization brings music, crafts, and story-telling to schoolchildren between pre-K and third grade. Learning Through Art also sponsors events such as a diversity festival that last year brought 30,000 people to the local zoo. Wade currently sits on three boards for the Williams College of Business at Xavier University in Cincinnati, including those for academic affairs, marketing, and diversity and inclusion. She has spent the past five years acting as an executive mentor at Xavier to a series of female African American business students—showing them by example what it takes to run a small business today.

I earned my master’s degree in arts administration, because music is a business. It’s not enough to perform a concert and take home a paycheck. Artists have to manage their careers, too. And anybody running a nonprofit definitely needs business management skills. I try to show my mentees that, whether they’re hired by a for-profit or a nonprofit, there are certain attributes and skills they will need:

Passion. New graduates must care deeply about everything they do, even if their current job isn’t their dream job. They don’t drop success in a bowl, put some water on it, stick it in a microwave, and have it ready in 15 seconds. They have to apply themselves. If they’re digging ditches, be passionate about it. Because something they learn while digging ditches will point them to the next opportunity.

If they’re digging ditches, be passionate about it. Because something they learn while digging ditches will point them to the next opportunity.

Multiple skill sets. Everyone has a line on his resume saying, “Proficient at Word,” but that’s not enough today. For instance, I just hired an operations manager. What caught my eye about her resume was that she’s also a graphic designer and a Webmaster. She has an expansive set of skills.

Initiative. Let’s say you work for me, and I’m on deadline. I have to be somewhere in an hour, but I can’t leave until a certain report is done. You should say to me, “How can I help?” And that’s true for any job at any level. Whether you’re a CEO, a CFO, a manager, a director, a banker, or a baker, you have to take initiative.

I told my new operations manager that I wanted a spinoff on my Books Alive for Kids program, and she designed a prototype that could be tested at an event the very next day. That’s what I’m looking for. That’s what any executive would be looking for.

Flexibility. One summer, Learning Through Art held an outdoor concert. We were selling beer tickets by the food booth, which was across the street from the beer booth. As soon as someone pointed out that I would sell more beer if the ticket stand moved closer to the beer stand, I immediately made the switch and announced the change—and we sold a lot more beer. I tell this story to all my mentees. I let them know, “Sometimes you move the tickets, and sometimes the tickets move on you. You always have to be evaluating.”

Networking skills. Because my organization is a nonprofit and I need to raise money, it’s all about relationships. And relationships are vitally important in this current market. Students need to understand how to build them, take care of them—and walk away when they’re no longer good.

Attitude. I carry a keyring that holds five keys and a silver charm shaped like a shoe that’s covered in rhinestones. The shoe reminds me to “dress for success”—for the job I want, not the job I have. The five keys stand for the doors to success: reading, writing, math, thinking, listening. Students might say, “I’m in college, I know how to read and write.” But I tell them education is ongoing. As long as they’re inhaling, they need to inhale some knowledge.

Potential to grow. Businesses don’t like turnover—they want to keep their employees for a long time. But like other employers, I look for people who are willing and able to change as the business changes. If they can’t change, they’ll hold the business back. In my world, that means they have to go.

Ethical clarity. Leaders have to have a sense of honesty and pride in what they’re doing. The quick way is not always the best way.

Openness to opportunity. Procter & Gamble executives were planning a fine arts fund raiser and asked me if I could deliver a corporate program for the event. I didn’t have one at the time, but I adapted my Books Alive for Kids program to create a new product called Discovery in a Box. This experience taught me that there are always new possibilities in existing products, and it taught my students that they should always be looking for new opportunities.

I think it’s important that I show my mentees exactly how my business works. Running a nonprofit ain’t for the faint of heart. You have to be creative and make hard decisions. I have a plaque in my office with a Winston Churchill quote: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” It goes alongside a blow-up doll of the screaming man from the Edvard Munch painting. Tomorrow’s leaders will have to know how to balance these elements well.

The Consultant

Donald C. Waite III spent his career at McKinsey & Company in various positions, including leadership roles in the firm’s Banking and Securities Practice and Global Financial Institutions Practice. In his final six years with the company, he was one of the three people in the Office of the Managing Director, overseeing McKinsey’s overall management. When he retired in 2002, he joined Columbia University’s School of Business in New York City as director of its Executives in Residence Program. Since then, he has doubled the executives on hand, from five to ten, and taught courses on topics such as social enterprise.

The future isn’t going to be like the past. A few years ago, I would have said businesses were looking for graduates with strong skills in a specific field and the ability to execute superbly. It used to be, if you were interested in finance, you could spend three-fourths of your course time studying finance, and you might focus on some very esoteric areas. But no more.

Today’s graduates will need to bring a mix of creativity and critical thinking skills to solving the problems facing business and society in general.

Today, business wants integrative thinkers. Finance students also will need an understanding of market forces, globalization, technology, and all the other areas that affect a business. So will everyone else. Looking back, I don’t think you can say globalization is the one thing that has shaped our current business environment, or that technology has been the biggest driver. Many different drivers have all come together.

What business also wants now are people who can anticipate what issues are going to come up, who can diagnose the problems, and who can suggest innovative solutions. Today’s graduates will need to bring a mix of creativity and critical thinking skills to solving the problems facing business and society in general. But it can’t just be an off-the-wall creativity. It has to fit in the context of practicality. These graduates should understand how to make change happen.

Finally, tomorrow’s leaders will need a high degree of social consciousness. For instance, a graduate who finds employment at an energy company might explore the viability of alternative sources of energy. I think everybody will have to have a social objective as well as a profit objective.

To turn out students with these skills, business schools must supplement the traditional pre-set curriculum with interactive forums that can focus on current hot topics. For instance, schools might examine the financial crisis by putting students together in a room with practitioners and academics, while they all explore what the crisis means and how it will affect the future.

They also will need to introduce students to the concept of interdisciplinary teamwork, which is an idea that academia greatly favors but doesn’t always achieve. Schools will need to take the typical disciplines—finance, marketing, human behavior, accounting—and add integrated thinking and problem solving to create graduates with the right skills.

Schools with executive-in-residence programs can help students achieve that integrated model and gain a much more practical perspective than they might get from their professors. Very few business students are going to stay in academia and become PhDs. Most are going to go out into the world and find their own ways. Business schools provide students with a terrific base of knowledge, but executives can help students think about how to integrate their backgrounds—their skills, their experiences, their inclinations, their desires, and their aspirations—into meaningful roles in the business world.

Leadership is not a position, but a process. It is my job to help students understand their approaches to leadership.”

The Executive Coach

Pratap Nambiar is a truly global citizen: He holds degrees from the University of Bombay and the National University of Singapore and is a Fellow of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Marketing. In jobs with a variety of companies, including Ernst & Young and KPMG, he has worked in Indonesia, Singapore, Nigeria, India, and Russia. Before he founded executive coaching firm Thought Perfect Pte Ltd, he ran KPMG’s Asia Pacific Global Client Program out of Singapore. Currently, he is Executive in Residence at the National University of Singapore Business School, where he teaches classes, presents lectures, meets with students on specific projects, and coaches students on dilemmas they might face in the workplace.

What businesses will want most from graduates is clarity of thought and action. Obviously, clarity is an aspect of leadership that will be invaluable for executives working in a complex, fast-changing, and uncertain world. A leader who thinks clearly can shape the beliefs of the team and bring about changes in behavior. These will lead to appropriate actions, which will bring about the desired outcomes.

Graduates also will need to understand the importance of culture. They will need to understand that the ability to build trusted relationships at all levels can mean the difference between great strategy and great performance. The implementation of strategy and the constant search to deliver greater value to customers and stakeholders will help graduates become successful leaders.

Leadership is not a position, but a process. It is a function of the interaction between a leader, followers, and the context of a situation. I believe it is my job to help students understand their approaches to leadership. I must show them that the way they think and feel will shape their expectations, and their expectations will determine their results.

As I have worked with business students, I have been impressed by their positive energy and their hunger for success. They are full of enthusiasm and good cheer in spite of all the problems around us. They also have a balanced and hopeful view of the world. They believe in global responses to global problems. They are open and transparent, and they take a long view that focuses on the betterment of the world as a whole.

The Investment Banker

Ellen Miller’s 25-year career in investment banking included a long stint with the European office of Lehman Brothers, where she held a variety of high-profile positions. One of her responsibilities included building relationships between Lehman and elite European business schools. She developed particularly close ties with London Business School after the firm provided initial funding for the school’s Lehman Brothers Centre for Women in Business. In 2008, she took a sabbatical from Lehman to become executive-in-residence at the Centre, where she markets its research to other practitioners, does broad community outreach, mentors female students, promotes gender diversity in business, and advises the Women in Business Club.

One of the lessons we’ve learned from the recent economic crisis is that it’s a mistake for business schools to turn out graduates who are too one-dimensional. For example, I’m not sure the workers in the financial sector ever had a 360-degree understanding of what was happening last year.

To some extent, the fault lies with businesses that deliberately recruited students with exclusively quantitative strengths. I’ve always believed that what is done in the financial world is not rocket science, and smart people should be able to learn how to do it. But much of the time, graduates who have read the classics or studied English are not as valued in the financial world as people who have primarily studied economics and math. I think that perspective is wrong—and I think it’s changing.

The reality now is that tomorrow’s leaders will need to be well-rounded individuals with equally strong quantitative and qualitative skills.

The reality now is that tomorrow’s leaders will need to be well-rounded individuals with equally strong quantitative and qualitative skills. Businesses will be looking for graduates with an array of key abilities: great communication skills, leadership potential, humility, a sense of ethics, and a desire to contribute.

Top business schools are already finding ways to turn out such graduates. They’re doing extensive coaching. They’re hiring people like me who have real-world experience and who can give case studies and deliver lectures. I share with students my real-world experience, my management experience, and my personal experience. I show them how I managed the transitions in my career to prepare them for their own transitions.

I think it’s very important that students don’t attend business school just so they can get the right jobs. They should see it as an investment in the future. I never got an MBA because I didn’t want to invest the time and incur the cost, but five or seven years later, I wished I had. The degree would have given me a much broader framework for dealing with the larger business world. I think that’s the attitude today’s students should take as they pursue their MBAs. They should see it as part of their journey.

The Sustainability Advocate

Tony Kingsbury has worked for the Dow Chemical Company for 25 years. He specializes in global sustainability, environmentally preferred purchasing, plastics and chemical environmental issues, and sustainability along the supply chain. He joined the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2007 as the Executive-in-Residence in the Sustainable Products & Solutions Program. In this role, he teaches an MBA class on sustainability and mentors student teams working on sustainability-related projects and business ideas.

If there’s one area tomorrow’s leaders will need to understand, it’s sustainability. As they develop business models, create products of the future, and make key decisions, they will need to consider all three legs of sustainability—environment, society, and economics—and they must consider all three of them simultaneously. It won’t be enough to look at them one by one.

If today’s business students are going to be successful in the long run, they must be able to dig deeper and consider all aspects of an enterprise.

If today’s business students are going to be successful in the long run, they must be able to dig deeper and consider all aspects of an enterprise. Only then will they be able to develop truly sustainable products and business models, no matter what business they’re in.

For example, if a company is making bamboo flooring, its executives can’t be content just making a profit and knowing that bamboo is a rapidly renewable resource. They have to look deeper. They have to understand where the bamboo is harvested. They have to ask how workers are being treated and whether rainforests are being depleted to grow more bamboo. They have to look at these issues in the context of competitive offerings and the world’s ability to supply the needed resources.

Although students can learn a great deal by reading books and discussing case studies, the educational process moves to a whole new level if students can follow business situations in real time. As an executive-in-residence, that’s what I bring to the classroom—practical experience and an understanding of how real-world business operates. I also share the mistakes I’ve made along the way so that students can avoid making the same ones.

My experience is far different from that of a typical business school professor, who might have spent a lifetime gaining knowledge in a specific discipline. In my career, I’ve done everything from producing goods to developing new products to coordinating supply chains. This kind of wide-ranging experience has been particularly useful in the field of sustainability, which by its very nature is broad and a bit unwieldy.

As I share my experience with business students, I’ve been impressed by how bright and motivated they are. They’re not just out to make a buck. They have a desire to make the world a better place, whether they’re working in the San Francisco Bay area or in the poorest reaches of Africa. Their creativity and desire to solve the world’s challenges give me hope for the future.