Shedding the ‘dis’ in disparity
We can teach theories but the best learning comes from immersing yourself in other people’s realities
Income disparity is becoming a critical societal issue. It’s something that business leaders are starting to put on their agenda, if discussions at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos are anything to go by. Business has to be about more than just making money but to teach this lesson, you need to change the perspectives of those who want to become business leaders.
The executive MBA programme at my business school emphasises leadership. When our graduates leave, we hope they’ll think like the senior business leaders they have the potential to become. But they don’t always enter the programme that way.
We can teach different theories but the best learning comes from actually immersing yourself in other people’s realities. Our programme takes students to six continents in six fortnight-long modules over 18 months, culminating in a visit to Johannesburg and then Dubai.
I remember feeling a deep sense of shame after my first trip to Africa. The people I worked with in Nairobi were wonderful and friendly, but if you could scratch the surface, their lives didn’t look anything like mine. They had challenges people like me could barely imagine.
When I returned home, it was at a time when the perennial Quebec secession was being debated and the topics were effectively about the sharing out of wealth. In Kenya the issues were quite different: 30% of newborn babies in Nairobi hospitals were HIV-positive; there were bloody skirmishes on the Ugandan border; and girl children were being denied education. In Toronto, we would be debating about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
I felt ashamed. I have never lost that feeling and I want our students to feel a little ashamed of themselves too. They must if they are going to be effective business leaders and address the growing gulf between those who have plenty and those who have nothing.
We took the current class to a rural school in India where the children were orphaned and very poor. The students had never seen such poverty and couldn’t believe it existed. That was just one of the experiences they won’t forget and it reflects in the project work they’ve already done as part of their degree.
Management can often be defined by what economists call “total factor productivity”. It means you can measure the output of a firm and how much it is increasing every year. But often the change in output is greater than the sum of both worker productivity and the productivity of machinery and capital. That’s because of the often-intangible influence of management co-ordinating the two. Great management is magical — and that’s our job as a business school, to conjure that from our students by the time they leave the programme. It’s a process of challenging them, taking them out of their comfort zone.
I remember, as a student myself at university, that we had to read widely. When they handed out books for us to read I got one on sociology by Ralf Dahrendorf. I was an economics student and wondered why I’d been given this book. It was called “Class and Conflict in Industrial Society” and dealt with societal structures. Its premise was that the societies which operated well were those with a clear distinction between the business class and the ruling class.
Where you get conflict and instability is when those structures overlap and you can’t make a distinction between business and government. This leads to instability and a loss of faith in those institutions. In a lot of places that discussion is as true today as it ever was. In SA, the narrative is called “state capture”, a phenomenon enabled and empowered by corporate collusion and graft. It is happening elsewhere too.
The next generation of business leaders needs to redress this by reducing those overlaps between business and government and rebuilding faith in institutions. The role of business schools, in my opinion, is to inculcate that message in them.
• Doug Hyatt is professor of economic analysis and policy at Rotman Business School, University of Toronto, Canada