What do leaders need to operate in a world of disruption?



By Sir Martin Sorrell, founder and chief executive, WPP


I am a firm believer in the value of business education, and owe a great deal to it personally.

Although I always had it in mind to go into business, Harvard Business School crystallised those ambitions and was the launch pad for my career. I loved my time there: two years in a pressure cooker, doing three case studies a day, asking “what should the CEO do?”

I never really let go of the experience, which developed into a lifelong interest in the advancement of business schools. I keep my hand in as an advisor to Harvard, along with Iese in Barcelona, London Business School, the Indian School of Business, the China Europe International Business School and Fundação Dom Cabral Business School in Brazil.

Successfully developing future generations of commercial leaders is vital for the health of economies and societies, and business schools continue to lead that most essential of projects.

The perspective, case histories, frameworks and leadership training that an MBA provides remain invaluable. MBAs also put enormous emphasis on building networks and connections, which has never been more important, and alumni associations are often the route to good jobs.

MBA graduates have contributed hugely to WPP’s companies, and hold key positions across the group. We run our own programme for MBA graduates as well as a “mini MBA” for rising talent within WPP.

A lot has changed, of course, since I arrived in Boston in 1966. Generational, geographical, technological and societal shifts have redefined what good leadership looks like.

In today’s world of ubiquitous digital disruption and changing attitudes towards life and work, have business schools kept up? Do MBAs meet the requirements of our future leaders? Do they properly equip them to operate in a modern, global business context?

The statistics offer a clue. As Bill Ridgers, business education editor of The Economist, noted recently, the number of people sitting MBA entrance exams in the US has fallen by a quarter since 2012. Millennials appear to be voting with their feet.

MBA courses are often male-dominated (in 2016 only 36.8 per cent of full-time MBA students in the US were women) and they can be prohibitively expensive unless you are sponsored by a company or independently wealthy. This is not a recipe for diversity or social mobility. And yet diversity is precisely what all companies are seeking in order to reflect their customer base, not to mention the norms and expectations of contemporary society.

In terms of their careers, Millennials tend to be impatient and ambitious, and may not be prepared to invest two years in completing an MBA. As well as the actual cost, there is the opportunity cost of 24 months that could be used to gain experience in the workplace. Although I personally disapprove of it, there is no longer the same stigma attached to moving from company to company, which can swiftly build broad experience. Against that backdrop, the Masters in Management or short course option may seem preferable (and more affordable).

The leaders that Millennials admire are not so much the chief executives of big corporations (probably with an MBA), but the tech founders and entrepreneurs (often without an MBA). Business schools do offer courses in entrepreneurship, but is there sufficient focus on technology, agility, responsiveness, innovation and creativity?

As virtually every business on the planet tries to exploit or deal with digital transformation, case studies need to present hyper-relevant, real-time scenarios, rather than lessons in how to tackle the business problems of the past.

As well as looking forward, the best business education also looks outward. Today’s pre-eminent leaders have a global perspective. The assumption used to be that businesses in the fast-growth economies of Asia, Africa, Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe would learn from whatever businesses did in the US and Europe. I believe we can learn more by looking to China, India and others for inspiration – not least when it comes to technology.

Our own educational initiatives and partnerships reflect that philosophy. The WPP Fellowship graduate programme includes rotations through companies across our 112 countries of operation, and we have established schools and academies in Shanghai, Mumbai and Johannesburg to help develop local talent.

Finally, MBA programmes need to devote enough time to considering what makes for a sustainable, “healthy” company. All companies are looking at corporate wellbeing, not just in terms of physical health but in relation to working environments, local community support, employee engagement and development opportunities. For Millennials, the mantra of “making a difference” is more attractive than the traditional “winning is everything” or “masters of the universe” approach to management.

When I studied at Harvard there was a seminar about balancing career with family and society. No-one paid much attention to it and I cannot say it is something I have been particularly good at. Now, though, work-life balance is not a nice-to-have, but something people demand and leaders themselves are expected, as role models, to demonstrate.

Champions of business education need not despair. The schools, with a greater emphasis on entrepreneurship and purpose (in a 2015 Bain study, two thirds of MBA students said social impact was more important than a high salary) are moving in the right direction.

Moreover, the MBA remains a symbol of its owner’s commitment to their professional expertise and development. It is a badge of excellence and seriousness of intent, one that continues to open doors to the very best organisations, whether in Silicon Valley, management consultancies or, dare I say it, the far more enticing world of marketing communications.


This article is from ‘Rethinking Business Education’, a collection of thought pieces produced to celebrate 25 years of the Chartered Association of Business Schools