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Wanted: Competency in a volatile world

Are the economic and financial models taught in MBA programs to speed with today's market?

It’s always a pleasure when I can speak with a kindred spirit — someone similarly passionate about sustainable business and its application in the workplace.   

I found this in a recent conversation with Simon Pickard, director for international programs at the Academy of Business in Society (ABIS).

ABIS works to integrate sustainability into business education and "enhance the business contribution to society" by offering education frameworks and encouraging collaboration between corporations and academia. 

A growing gap between talent needs and supply

Pickard thinks a lot about how business schools are developing students to create solutions for current and future societal challenges. In his view, they aren’t doing nearly enough.

"Multinationals — and other large organizations — are facing unprecedented volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity in the 21st century business environment. It is becoming harder to plan and lead strategically for long-term success, and graduate management education is really struggling to develop the talent which is capable of doing this," he said.

Students are still being taught models and theories from 20 years ago. ... That is profoundly wrong.

Given the prominence of sustainability issues in this landscape, we might expect that they would now be well integrated into MBA and other management curricula. But Pickard and his team find this isn’t the case.

"This has been an active debate for over 15 years, but progress has been slow," he said. "We haven’t properly addressed systemic drivers and change factors in the business school industry. Accreditation bodies have taken a positive but incremental approach, while rankings and journals still pay little or no attention to the domain.

"And in many mainstream disciplines, such as economics and finance, students are still being taught models and theories from 20 years ago. I think that is profoundly wrong, not least given what the financial crisis, climate science, resource depletion and more tell us about the need for new approaches."

Defining future competencies for leadership and management

While a growing number of business schools are integrating topical material into core courses and sustainability-focused electives into their offerings, they are failing to develop the more holistic knowledge and competencies that their graduates will need to lead organizations in this VUCA world.

ABIS and Unilever’s newly convened Global Talent Forum for Sustainable Business addresses this very issue. In order to enhance talent pipelines, it brings together top HR and talent executives from corporate sustainability champions to define the skills, values and mindsets that businesses will require to build long-term competitiveness and responsible leadership development models. 

Pickard said this involves, but is not limited to, traditional sustainability concerns. Rather, the forum asks leaders to consider the core competencies required to manage in a VUCA world. It’s less the technical knowledge students can acquire on sustainability topics and more the ability to recognize, distinguish and prioritize among them, grounded in a deep understanding of societal shifts and stakeholder concerns.

Do you know your three Cs?

 It’s worth revisiting an oldie but goodie to illustrate some competencies Pickard and ABIS are exploring.

In 2009, ABIS published a report with Ashridge Business School (PDF), "Developing the Global  Leader of Tomorrow." Although a few years old, its insights ring true today.

The report identifies three knowledge areas in which effective senior leaders are well versed: context, complexity and connectedness. These are similar to Coro Strandberg’s work describing competencies of sustainability leadership that I wrote about previously, particularly the ability to be a systems thinker and to foster external collaboration.


According to the ABIS-Ashridge report, the global leader of tomorrow understands context. This means they know how their sector relates to other societal actors and trends. Seventy percent of 194 respondents in the report said leaders should be able to factor in social and environmental trends into strategic decisions.


Second, the leader of tomorrow is comfortable and strategically agile in the face of complexity. This leadership involves comfort with uncertainty, flexibility and resourcefulness to find creative solutions, and the ability to balance priorities on a wide range of time scales. 


Third, the ability to engage and build effective relationships with external partners is an essential competence, argues the report. Business education typically inhibits this competence by emphasizing negotiation at the expense of dialogue, and the pre-eminence of financial performance over the development of other intangible assets and capital. Instead, leaders should understand how their organization impacts stakeholders, and be prepared to engage them as solution partners, not impediments to doing core business. 

Let's discuss

As a sustainability practitioner, I have outlined a few questions to discuss with your chief human resources officer.  

  • What competencies are you looking for in your future leaders?
  • We often hear "sustainability should be written into everyone’s job description." But what does that mean exactly?
  • Does your company emphasize these core competencies ABIS contends is essential for future leaders — such as complexity management, understanding of environmental and social issues, and managing stakeholder concerns?

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