Developing Leaders: Corporations Tap B-Schools To Fill Leadership Pipelines

Multinational groups plug leadership gaps with promising executive talent from top MBA schools.

Some of the biggest global corporations are tapping business schools to fill their leadership development pipelines.

Multinational groups including online retailers Amazon and Alibaba, brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev and Chevron, the energy major, have recruitment tracks that fast-track MBAs into leadership positions.

Developing leaders has become a focus for companies, which face difficulties in managing increasingly mobile and autonomous workforces, and a dearth of talent. By investing in leadership development, businesses are able to plug leadership gaps with promising executive talent from the likes of Stanford, INSEAD and CEIBS.

“Employers are looking for leadership traits, even in entry-level positions,” says Mindy Storrie, director of leadership development at Kenan-Flagler Business School.

While most corporations are enthusiastic about honing leaders, they are held back by confusion over what constitutes “leadership”. “Leadership skills are clearly in high demand but corporations seem to struggle when it comes to developing them,” says Bernard Garrette, associate dean at HEC Paris, the French business school.

Professor Ricard Serlavós, at the Department of People Management and Organization at ESADE Business School, says leaders must possess resilience, integrity, engagement, and be open to new ideas.

“[But] leadership is a complex phenomenon that can be analysed and defined from different perspectives,” he says.

The trend for corporations to take a closer look at their leadership pipelines has spread across industries and geographies. In the US, conglomerate General Electric runs a rotational leadership pathway for MBAs, while Chevron, the US-based oil group, develops MBA leaders in California and Texas.

In Europe, Amazon’s MBA Pathways nurtures promising senior management talent. The e-commerce group has become a top recruiter at London Business School and Oxford Saïd in the UK. Meanwhile, Unilever’s future leaders program has rotations in finance, marketing and the supply chain.

But now companies are looking for leaders to seize opportunities across Asia Pacific.

“Every organization’s perspective is becoming more global,” says David Loree, organizational behaviour professor at Ivey Business School. “New leadership talent within most organizations will increasingly focus on the ability to work across both physical and virtual borders.”

In Asia, pharmaceuticals group AstraZeneca created a global leadership pathway for MBAs to work in Japan. At Japanese carmaker Nissan, a rotational development program puts MBA leaders in China, Indonesia and Australia. And Liberty, the insurer, recruits MBAs for leadership roles across Asia, says John Gurskey, Melbourne Business School careers director.

Meanwhile, while banks have tended to recruit MBAs through summer associate positions, they are warming to formal leadership tracks. Standard Chartered, for example, runs management development programs for specific teams at the emerging markets focused bank.

Steven Young, head of finance at Lancaster University Management School, says leadership ranks highly among financial services employers.

Even outside of formal programs, leadership skills are increasingly desirable among companies.

Dr Bernd Vogel, director of the Centre for Engaging Leadership at Henley Business School, says MBAs must be able to develop other leaders. “They need to accept paradox: they need to be happy to be influenced by other visionaries,” he says.

Ingrid Jensen, associate director for leadership programs at Cornell’s Johnson School, says technical skills will get MBAs in the door, but they are soon judged by employers on how well they can lead and motivate other people.

“Employers are looking for students who can lead, and who will be ready to create and lead high-performing teams right away,” she says. 

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