I ran across a BusinessWeek article this morning that I found particularly interesting. While the title of the article, Why Do MBAs Make Better CEOs?, obviously piqued my interest—I can confidently say that many (if not most) of my fellow Darden students strive to run an enterprise as CEO in the [near] future—what I found really interesting was not the quantitative analysis (i.e. CEOs with an MBA grew shareholder returns over their tenure by a statistically significant 15% more than those without an MBA) that supported the article’s thesis. The article goes on to list out a few points of observation as to why CEOs with MBAs are more successful, namely:
- An MBA provides a good base of skills and helps to teach the right- and left-brain to work together.
- The selectivity of B-schools gives MBAs an “elite” status that companies look for in selecting their leaders.
- The B-school experience help students create and access a powerful network.
- Choosing to pursue an MBA means that a person is dedicated to self-improvement and willingness to learn—attitudes that are valuable throughout one’s career.
What I really found interesting though is the following quote found towards the end of the article (which reflects actual research instead of just conjecture):
[INSEAD] Professor Will Maddux, has carried out experiments demonstrating conclusively that the simple fact of having lived abroad makes people more creative.
While I am confident that most multinational corporations have long ago discovered value in providing cross-cultural experiences for their talent pipeline—likely because the experience can provide them with a better understanding of international operations and corporate practices outside of the home country—I don’t believe that an “increase in creativity” is quite the goal they have in mind. In one sense, I think that B-schools get this. Though B-school motivations might also be of the former variety, I think they are a bit more skewed towards the latter.
The Maddux research mentioned in this article, Multicultural Experience Enhances Creativity: The When and How, found that “extensiveness of multicultural experiences was positively related to both creative performance (insight learning, remote association, and idea generation) and creativity-supporting cognitive processes (retrieval of unconventional knowledge, recruitment of ideas from unfamiliar cultures for creative idea expansion).”
To be honest, even though I lived in South America for a few years and have visited different regions of the world, I never really thought about my international experiences in the context of how my personal levels of creativity have changed. I think it has definitely made me even more cognizant of the huge benefit that diversity bring to an organization in terms of additional opinions and differing ways to approach and solve problems, but I never really saw myself as one of those cogs that could add diversity to an organization. Even as a member of the Consortium I always felt more in the role of a very strong advocate and believer in their mission, but until now I hadn’t really seen myself as someone who contributes to a diverse environment solely on the basis of my presence and my cultural attitudes/perceptions—though I am a small part Hispanic, I was never exposed to Hispanic culture, traditions or the Spanish language in my home growing up. My big drive for living and working abroad post-MBA (I hope to spend a few years working in China) has always been, first, to more thoroughly experience the rich Chinese culture and language that I enjoy, second, to provide a unique and diverse living experience for my family, and third, to participate in a fast-growing emerging market with a constantly changing environment. Looking back though, I definitely see my time in South America as something that has given me the confidence and desire to broaden my horizons even more. Had I not already gone through learning to live in a different culture and gaining local language fluency the first time, I doubt that making the jump to China would really seem that feasible.
I believe that my personal experience is definitely in agreement with the conclusions of BusinessWeek and Maddux, et al. I think that in the same way cross-cultural experience breaks down cultural barriers and biases, exposure to different ways of thinking must break down the single-minded thinking (a.k.a. “tunnel-vision”) underlying the basis of poor decision-making. Of course, I am confident that neither of these broadening effects of cross-cultural experience actually take place without a positive and open disposition toward it—much like the value-added to organizations who approach ethnic and racial diversification as a real contribution rather than merely a numbers game. Maddux, et al. also found evidence for this in their reseach:
studies showed that the serendipitous creative benefits resulting from multicultural experiences may depend on the extent to which individuals open themselves to foreign cultures, and that creativity is facilitated in contexts that deemphasize [sic] the need for firm answers or existential concerns.
So, if the benefits of an MBA and international experience can provide such a benefit to corporate leadership, why aren’t more companies pushing their talent to go to B-school or facilitating international opportunities?