Leaders of the future will need to be socially aware, and entrepreneurial: Seán Meehan

IMD Business School's Martin Hilti Professor of Marketing and Change Management and Dean of MBA Program, talks about the challenges plaguing the Indian society and the need to revisit the lessons of Industrial Revolution

Published: Aug 10, 2018

g_108185_bg_24646601057_bfbd238797_o_280x210.jpgProfessor Seán Meehan
The Martin Hilti Professor of Marketing and Change Management
Dean of MBA Program

Professor Seán Meehan, The Martin Hilti Professor of Marketing and Change Management, Dean of MBA Program, IMD Business School, was in India in May to meet potential candidates for its executive education course in Lausanne. Under its MBA Accessibility Program, IMD has decided to move away from the traditional recruitment process of students coming to the main campus for interviews and activities, and instead travel to select countries to meet a pool of candidates. It would ensure students who cannot fly to Switzerland or be away from work for a week, don’t miss out on the opportunity to learn with us, Meehan told Forbes India. The accessibility days have earlier been carried out in Singapore, Sao Paulo, and in Latin America.

In a chat over a cup of coffee, Meehan caught up with Forbes India and discussed the importance for businesses to focus on social impact, what the leaders of the future will need to succeed, the challenges plaguing the world, and possible ways of addressing them, and more. Edited Excerpts:

Q: What does IMD aim to add to an executive’s skillset?
We are not looking at a 25-year horizon in an executive’s career because we don't know how the world is going to change by then. Instead we look at a ten-year career horizon. Our thought process is, ‘what can we do in one year that could enhance an executive’s career trajectory, with the objective of getting them into the running to drive the direction of the company they are working at’. Our students are 30 years old and by the time they are 38-39, they would have already been singled out as the next leadership.

Senior executives’ problems don't concern the industry issues but instead they concern complexity, people and change in the company. At that level, things are similar. So there is a lot of learning for everyone, thanks to participation of people from diverse backgrounds in our program. A lot of challenges in business aren't functional or industry specific challenges, they are more human challenges.

Q: IMD’s executive education focuses on social impact. How do you go about this?
The world is going to be very socially oriented in the future, so our plan is to prepare our students for that. When you think MBA, you think market-driven, factual, financial, rational, and very corporate. But corporates are only successful when they do something meaningful. Every single successful business today is fulfilling an important gap in the society. Hopefully, most of them are doing it without causing a hell of a lot of damage to it.

Society now embraces a version of capitalism that is much more cognizant and aware of the full score card, the triple bottomline. In the future, companies will have to justify to employees, consumers and shareholders that they have thought through these issues; they won’t be damaging the environment and are sustainable.

Right through IMD, there is an awareness and understanding in the connection between business and society. We have a course called ‘Business in Society’ run by former senior partner at BCG, Knut Haanes. At BCG, he was in-charge of creating their strategy and sustainability practice and advising firms on sustainability. The business and society trend is very significant.

Q: The 2 percent corporate social responsibility (CSR) spends mandate for companies in India has increased the pool of funds spent on social causes but it’s restricted to the extent of the mandate. How can companies be encouraged to do more?
I meet so many entrepreneurs in India who spend a lot of time and real money funding hospitals and schools in ways that I don't see in other parts in the world. But there are tens of thousands of companies that don't do that; maybe they can't afford to at this moment in time.

Social progress can be led by giving people meaningful jobs with fair pay, treat them fairly, and giving them opportunities to grow. Excited, motivated and valued employees are a huge benefit for the company. Benefits come to companies that can provide great pricing, very attractive products with a social message. Hindustan Unilever is a good example of this.

None of that [listed above] is about donating two percent to hospitals or schools under CSR. I’m not in the business of saying what the right percentage is. I'm much more concerned about the overall global impact. To persuade companies to do this is the smart thing to do.

Take gender inequality, for example. It's the smart move to pick up talent from the entire available qualified population and not half of it. The company will be better-served by having a more diverse group making the key decisions. The way to drive this home is to make an economic case for it, so that companies will adopt.

Two percent is just one bucket out of four buckets. The companies that get with the program quicker, will be the beneficiaries and honestly, companies that don't do it [aforementioned points] won’t be around for a long time.

Q: What would the leaders of tomorrow need to succeed?
The world is going to be much more socially oriented in the future than it is today. It is also going to be much more global, in spite of the trend of nationalism and protectionism. Trade will not get tied down and will march on. It will need leaders with a more global perspective than they do today. They will have to be more entrepreneurial minded and agile even if they work in the largest organisations of the world.

Lastly, the horse has bolted completely on digital; we’re never going back. We’re only going to become more digital. It's an MBA program, so we have to deliver accounting, finance, marketing, operations, economics, as well. But our three main themes are, global, digital and entrepreneurial. We need to create leaders, the pillars of success, to be socially minded. That's the zeitgeist.

Q: What are some of the challenges, you think, plaguing the Indian society and the world at large?
Protectionism and nationalism are some of the biggest issues in the world today, geopolitically. The attitude of inward looking-ness is a colossal issue. Large global institutions, like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the European Union (EU) have a lot to answer for.

The internet and social media have enabled a kind of freedom of exchange of information which wasn’t seen earlier. It has transformed the political discourse, debate and dialogue in every country. A lot of what you see in the Middle East wouldn't have happened so quickly [in the pre-Internet era], and if the leaders would have acknowledged that the genie was out of the bottle. The standards of what people expect from these organisations have changed a lot. The other issues include, natural resource allocation and sustainability of the planet, and income disparity.

Q: How can you go about solving these issues?
It’s important to go back to the lessons of industrial revolution. Steam, power and electricity changed our lives and the future of societies back then. Now, the information revolution and the confluence of trends around it, are enabling different parts of society. We're in a period of a lot of bad information. It's a temporal issue of having a new type of society. We're at the beginning of a completely new era in world development. So any linear connections that we make about how we go about fixing things, will be just wrong. There's going to be a step change. You will see people who have never had the opportunity, getting great opportunities. It has never been easier to dislocate an industry. The key issue now is ownership of resources, so that's where a lot of political tension comes from. A lot of countries realise the scarcity of their resources, and are trying to find their future play. We will have better information systems and people will be better educated. We are at the beginning of transformation to a wonderful world. I often envy the students that are starting now, they are going to live through such an exciting time.

Q. What do you think about the quality of management education in India?
It is impressive. Based on our experiences of working with companies around the world, I can say, the Indian workforce may or may not an MBA but the people are rationally and objectively really smart, gracious, humble, curious, and hungry and capable to learn. They can work long hours in complex environments and are good at analyzing where they key issues lie. They are people's people. India’s love for education is higher than in many countries. The outcome of executive education in India is very good. There's an Indian love for education that's higher than in many countries. It makes for fantastic participants in any learning environment.

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