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Andrea Migliorini
Why MBAs don’t work anymore – and how we can fix them
Apr 21, 2023
5 Minutes

We have all heard of MBA programs thinking we might enroll in one of them at some point. But are business schools still relevant? Is it still worth it to pause your career for 1 or 2 years? In this interview, we’re going to explore what future-proof leaders will look like – and how to train them, according to Polimi GSoM Dean Federico Frattini. 

Q: Back in 2015, Sheryl Sandberg argued that an MBA was not essential to work in the tech industry. In fact, the number of applications for these programs has dropped. So, are MBAs still relevant?

Today, MBA as a business school model is not completely aligned with the needs, requirements and expectations of the business world. In recent years, most MBAs have continued to educate new managers in a mechanical and rational way, but they have dried them up as human beings


Two problems need to be taken into consideration here:

1) the domain MBAs have been focusing on – which was likely to be the wrong one;

2) the change of the business model – that most schools haven’t been able to understand. 

Q: So, what domains do we need to take into consideration when talking about managers? What have MBAs been focusing on lately?

First of all, we need to understand that acting as a manager in an organization happens in three domains:


From marketing to finance: with this term, we refer to all the hard skills and competencies that a business leader must possess;


This is where soft skills come in: negotiation, conflict resolution, teams working;


It refers to the human capabilities that deal with awareness, purpose, and empathy (in other words, the set of values one believes in and the deeper dimension of a human being).

Some exceptions aside, most business schools are losing relevance due to their extreme focus on the first two dimensions, Content (hard skills) and Others (soft skills), leaving aside the Self. However, today’s top CEOs value human potential, which is achieved by immersing oneself in non-classical disciplinary subjects: from psychology to spirituality, to humanities. Future-proof managers will be focused on the importance of their purpose, in whatever they do.

Q: And what about the second level? How is the organizational model changing and why business schools are not (yet) ready to face it?

Business schools are still mostly based on the shareholder primacy view made popular by Milton Friedman, which states that companies basically exist to generate profits for their shareholders. This has been the dominant principle for decades, but is now being challenged by a more human-centered view, which some call stakeholder capitalism or purpose-driven enterprise. MBA has been adjusting to this model from a content perspective, not from a model perspective – that is, how we teach, not just what we teach. 


Many voices think it is now time for a change: for example, Blackrock CEO Lerry Fink believes that in the medium-long term companies that create shareholder value will put impact on all before profit-seeking. This is a path some schools are following, but many are not yet.

Q: Okay, but how do someone train the dimension of the Self, how do you help people focusing on the purpose?

I’ll tell you an example from our experience at Polimi GSoM. Last year, we launched our New generation MBA. Our aim was to create a learning journey that could enable learners to:

1) Raise awareness that there are new business models out there;

2) Train soft values on which such an organizational model is grafted.

MBA usually opens with frontal lessons on shareholder theory, economic value, and how to measure it. On the other hand, the New Generation MBA opens with two days of debate between students, faculty and lecturers, on the purpose and inner meaning of a business. After that, the classical courses started, but the faculty introduced critical debates on every topic. 

At the end of the course, coaching sessions started by bringing psychologists back into the classroom to discuss with students what it means to apply in an organizational context everything they have been learning. Contrary to what many suggest, it is possible to train and sharpen also these interpersonal and human capabilities. This is where the value of continuous 1-1 accompaniment, critical reflection, action inquiry comes in: we need to rediscover tools like coaching and mentoring.

Q: There is another element that prevents students from enrolling in these courses. Sometimes, two years is too long for a professional to take a break. Is the 2-year MBA format still relevant in today's working environment, with new education models such as intensive bootcamps?

Today, we’re moving from a stop-and-go model to a on-the-go model: education content is now atomized and accessible on demand. So, many schools reduce the duration of their MBA, trying to compress it to one year. However, business schools are still very much hinged on the stop-and-go model instead of imagining fluid, on-demand models of training.

But this crisis can lead to new opportunities: students enrolled in online MBAs have surpassed those enrolled in physical MBAs. At PoliMi GSOM we trained more than 800 people in our Flex Executive MBA programs (taught mostly online) who otherwise would not have had that opportunity.

Q: Ok, so, let’s role play here. Let’s pretend you’re the C-level of an important tech company tasked with hiring a business manager. What would you look for in their CVs?

Looking for excellence is a proxy for the Context dimension; not the Others’ one, not the Self’s one. As an analyst, you need that at first, but as you mature, you need more. I always give the following advice to students who inquire how to improve their resume: Build a resume and experience that is as diverse as possible. Learn new languages, study a music instrument, be passionate about a sport. 

I would look at the diversity of experiences, not how much you peaked in one of those. One of the most dangerous pitfalls is hyperfocusing on the talent in which you believe you excel: talents must be balanced.
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