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5 Guidelines for MBA Programmes to Support Impact-MBAs

Before I came to the MBA, I was a service designer and user researcher in public sector innovation labs at the White House, World Bank, and later the City of Austin, working on making public services more user centered and user friendly. I came to the MBA at Oxford to complement my design skills with the business and operations skills I needed to take my prototypes to scale. 

When I got to the Saïd Business School, I joined the small but mighty group of “social impact” MBAs looking to take our work to the next level with business skills. Over my year as a student, and now as an intern at the Skoll Centre working on impact talent development, I’ve learned a few lessons that I think apply to any business programme hoping to support their social impact students: 

1. Understand your “impact-MBA” personas, and design programming accordingly

There are a lot of us that get lumped together as social-impact focused MBAs.

This includes;

  • the impact-curious who are looking to enter the field
  • those who are committed to impact but looking to move into a new sector
  • and those who want to accelerate their careers in their sectors

The same support doesn’t work for everyone. 

A lot of MBA programming around impact assumes that we need to be convinced that social challenges are worth caring about and working on. That is effective for the impact-curious, and converts some who are on the edge, but it doesn’t cater to the impact veterans who are already convinced.

That’s why one of the key, but more difficult choices we’ve had to make at the Skoll Centre this year, is to focus the Impact Lab on those who have deep impact experience. This might feel exclusive, but in fact, it ensures that different impact MBAs with different needs and expectations get what they want and need out of the programming. The more we realize there isn’t a single, one-size fits all “impact-MBA”, and design programming that serves more niche needs, the more meaningful students’ engagement will be. 

2. Look beyond impact investing and impact consulting

Just as there are different impact MBA personas with different levels of interest and experience, there are personas that bring different skills, experiences and interests within impact. There are former policy makers hoping to bring back a business perspective, software engineers looking to lend their skills to a social tech firm, marketers wanting to help rebuild trust in business… the list goes on. Yet, the MBA impact career pathways can tend to mirror those of the broader MBA, and overemphasize finance and consulting. 

It’s important that all MBAs, especially the broadly impact curious who might be convinced to pursue a career in impact, see that they have a place and role in the impact ecosystem. Impact investing and consulting are each fulfilling and prestigious careers, but they certainly aren’t for everyone, and don’t begin to cover the breadth of options and needs in the impact space. 

Keeping this in mind, this year the Skoll Centre is collaborating more closely with the careers team at Oxford Saïd to help MBA students navigate through the many different pathways and careers in impact. We’re particularly focused on engaging our incredible network of impact MBA alumni working in every sector from government to NGOs, tech companies, and marketing agencies to banks and consulting firms to share their learnings and advice with the incoming MBA class of 2019-20. 

3. Don’t let us lose sight of the humans

There’s the danger that when students are taught frameworks and tools for impact, they come out bordering on technocratic. It’s hard not to drink the kool-aid and believe that an impact consulting framework, or a human-centered design sprint could help us fully understand and solve the problem. Or that using rigorous financial and impact analysis will certainly help us identify the social innovations that will scale. And when we’re sitting in our future jobs sending fancy PowerPoints or building elaborate models, it has the risk of reinforcing what’s happening really is this simple! The optimism of the MBA is great, but it’s important to keep us connected to the humans at the core of all the challenges we want to address. 

This is where the Skoll Centre is looking to deepen its ties to our community. Oxford has a tradition of walling itself off, and we’re working on breaking this down and connect with the community. A great example was through Map the System. When my teammate and I analysed the system that caused inequality in early childhood in Oxfordshire, we found through our research with a local community organization, the Oxford Hub, that promising solutions never made it to implementation because impact reporting frameworks didn’t match the phase of solutions. It’s easy in a classroom to be convinced that impact measurement is important (and it is!), but the nuance comes from interactions with the real world. Creating those opportunities leads to understanding (and employability!).

4. Help us be as rigorous about our personal impact as we would be about an organization’s

As a school focused on responsible business, Oxford Saïd’s theory of change is to pump out business leaders who can create change from within even the most “traditional” companies. But these leaders can’t live up to this vision unless they’re critical about their organization’s and their own activities and intentions.

The same theory applies within impact as MBAs join impact organizations like the United Nations, development banks, and corporate sustainability teams. These traditional players are the natural and prestigious next steps befitting an MBA, and it’s certainly possible to make significant change through these positions, but it’s important that we’re as rigorous about our impact and intentions going into these (or any other) organizations, as we are about our actions as a responsible leader working for an investment bank or consulting firm. 

That’s why in Impact Lab over the next year, we’re putting a finer point on developing a critical perspective on different themes within impact. With every activity, our objective is to help leaders to challenge their assumptions and ask themselves and others the critical questions necessary to ensure they are having the impact they promise. Importantly, we’re extending this perspective to being self-critical, so that students examine the biases and privilege they’re bringing into this work, and how they can overcome and utilize them to help create a fairer, more sustainable and prosperous world.  

5. Mainstream impact

Finally, the most important thing that a business school can do to create a fairer, more sustainable and prosperous world, is not only to support students that are interested in impact, but also to mainstream impact within the broader business curriculum. Oxford Saïd did a great job of this within the core accounting course this year. Each week, our professor had a group of students research, critically reflect and present on different themes within extra-financial accounting and reporting. The school also organized a mandatory union debate that examined the merits and limitations of mandated sustainability reporting. It was exciting that ESG factors and sustainability were thoroughly mainstreamed within our curriculum, and eye-opening (at least to me) to see how most corporates are thinking about sustainability and impact. Students were able to leave the accounting course, not only understanding the basics of accounting, but understanding the current state of extra-financial reporting, and how we might build on this progress in our careers. 

It would be great to see similar mainstreaming in other core courses like analytics, corporate finance, and technology and operations. The school already offers elective courses and co-curricular activities like the Skoll Centre’s Impact Lab for those who are interested in impact, but it’s all too possible for students who don’t come in with this interest, to avoid any content and reflection around impact at all during their MBA degree.

If we want to support every student to become responsible leaders and to pursue purposeful careers, a critical, human-focused, impact education is key for every MBA student.

Head shot image of Puja Balachander
Puja Balachander, Oxford MBA 2018-19 student.

Puja Balachander is an Oxford MBA 2018-19 student. She is also the co-founder of Devie, a trusted digital service platform that guides parents on their journey from pregnancy to parenthood, equipping them to become their child’s best first teacher.

How to manage difficult conversations

Florentina-Daniela Gheorghe, Skoll Scholar 2018-19, has spent the last year in Oxford studying her MBA. To end the year, she reflects on her own personal learnings and passes them onto you to take forward on your own journey.

I love to ask questions to deepen my understanding. I believe asking great questions is an awesome skill to have. This year, however, I discovered that I am an activist: I raise my voice in matters that contradict my values. And it happened a few times. I also had the wrong impression that many people think like me and I assumed that my MBA colleagues and I think alike. Instead, I learned there are endless perspectives that I need to acknowledge and that the ‘18-19 MBA cohort at Oxford Saïd are not as vocal as I expected.

Here are some stats: this year we were 315 people from 62 countries, average age 28, with 24% of us coming from finance, 17% coming from consulting and the rest 59% coming from 16+ other fields, with an average of 5 years of experience. Wouldn’t you expect these young people to make their voices heard?

In some sections, many were silent during lectures and didn’t ask clarifying questions. Some possible reasons: they didn’t want to disturb the lecturer’s flow, or they thought that their question might be “stupid” and might not bring value to the rest. Culture, personality and English proficiency also play a role. And then there were people who might have been experts in their field.

I experienced many times the impostor syndrome. However, it didn’t stop me from asking brief questions in class: it shows the lecturer where I am in my learning, it helps me clarify my thoughts and other people can benefit too. Even more, given my years of groundwork, I could potentially bring a new perspective on interpreting industry practices and academic research. I kept my computer open many times in class to make sure I get a gist of a concept like debt/equity ratio and use it correctly in my question, but that didn’t stop me from taking my understanding to the next level with a question. The worst thing that could happen was to leave the classroom without understanding the foundation of what was taught.

Question the default – Courage to ask Why

In a world in which “business as usual” – with profit as the single end goal – doesn’t seem to make sense anymore, we need courageous leadership who dares to question the default practices. I actively decided to practice this courage. Don’t be afraid to ask in impact investing class why we assume that tools of traditional finance can be transferred as they are into impact investing. Don’t be afraid to ask in economics and finance, why the perpetual growth assumption is not questioned.

Speak your mind

How many of us question the things we hear from lecturers and speakers? Being at Oxford, we had access to amazing speakers: in class, at the Oxford Union or at events around the campus. Amazingly reputed people come to Oxford, and that’s a great privilege. But Oxford also teaches you to speak your mind, not to get intimidated by the reputation of the speaker. We might have valuable insights. Politely acknowledge someone’s effort to share their story in front of a class of students and then speak up. Just remember to speak with humility!

Always remind people that every management decision affects people

It’s not about the merger post acquisition, it’s about two teams of dedicated people learning how to work together. Thinking about people can help you better understand the expected and unexpected consequences.

Speak with your heart but wrap your position in data: every time

I learned this the hard way. My friend, an editor with The Economic Times, showed me how to keep my emotions under control and use data instead to make the point. It does require a bit more (home) work. I tend to let myself taken away by emotions. When I hear something that contradicts my core believes, such as anti-refugee statements or opinions about “the poor’s ignorance”, my blood pressure goes up. Some perspectives out there really clash with my genuine belief that humanity is equality distributed in every one of us.

Be assertive  

When things go rough, remember to be assertive. One of the best take-aways I have from my year is the Even Fish Need Confidence (EFNC) framework that I learned during peer-support training: explanation, feelings, needs, consequences. Use this framework to communicate openly to someone who might use words that trigger negative emotional reactions in you: explain what happened (facts), express your feelings about what happened (vulnerably), state what you need (to make this relationship work), state the positive (and negative) consequences if your needs are (not) met. Communicating with this framework builds respect between people and reduces the risk that someone gets hurt. Difficult conversations are healthy and important. Constructive conflict, if orchestrated, can help everyone learn how to be a team player. It’s not an easy task to orchestrate conflict but it might be worth it. We are all on a discovery journey to become a better version of ourselves. Enjoy yours!

Daniela Gheorghe, 2018-19 Skoll Scholar.