How To Build an MBA Program That Cultivates Leadership

Every business school wants its MBA students to be prepared for the challenges they will face as business leaders and decision makers. Too often, though, graduates are missing skills they need to drive success within their organizations. This isn’t to say that MBAs can’t be valuable in terms of professional development, but it does necessitate asking: What separates a truly meaningful MBA from one that is just another credential?

One of the secrets that we’ve learned in designing and developing our leading Online MBA programs is that successfully cultivating in-demand business skills is often about decisions that extend beyond the curriculum, course design and accomplishments of the faculty.

What’s Missing from Most MBAs?

online MBA

In its report, High Resolution Leadership (2016), Development Dimensions International compared the skill competencies of MBA graduates to undergraduate degree holders. While MBA grads performed better in hard-skill areas like financial acumen, there were three skills that undergraduates performed better than their MBA counterparts:

  • Coaching and developing others
  • Driving for results
  • Selling the vision

Of even greater concern is that coaching and developing others as well as selling the vision were not strongly linked with a business leader’s tenure in their career—meaning that these skills must be developed consciously and purposefully. This is where MBA programs have an opportunity to shine.

To successfully build a program that solves these challenges and continues to produce quality leaders well into the future, universities must be able to create a culture of support and engagement within their programs. This culture must be supportive and conscious of developing soft skills like communication, a sense of ethical responsibility and mentorship.

Why Culture Matters in Our OMBA

As they have long been among the most popular graduate degrees in the U.S., it’s little surprise that MBAs are also among the most popular online master’s degrees. For this reason, we wanted to look at some of the core philosophies and design decisions behind the USC Online MBA, and how these choices have led to the success of our alumni.

Our program is ranked as a top 10 program, according to U.S. News & World Report. According to PayScale, USC MBA alumni earn an average salary of $127,071, considerably higher than the average for all MBA graduates ($84,000). One of the things we’re most proud of, however, is the authentic and close professional bonds online students form within their cohorts.

“Students started telling us that, in many ways, they felt more ‘connected’ to their online classmates than they did to their residential classmates from their undergraduate days,” said Miriam Burgos, Academic Director of the OMBA program.” In fact, five of our recent alumni grew so close during the program that they are now starting a business together.”

Interested in reading our full interview with Miriam? Read the full Q&A by clicking here.

Building One of the Best Online MBA Programs

The main challenge for building a successful MBA program (online or on-campus) is in developing the truly vast number and types of skills that students must have to lead in modern business. For us, this meant creating a program that has strong links to real-world business problems and that combines academic rigor with creativity and teamwork.

1. Creating the Vision for our Online MBA

We created the foundational philosophy for our OMBA long before the program launched, and this has continued to inform decisions regarding supporting socialization in the OMBA and beyond as well as choices regarding collaboration tools and technology.

The team that crafted the OMBA’s core philosophy brought together top faculty and administrators, united with the vision to create the best MBA program for working professionals and prepare them for the next generation of business.

“Our continuing, positive impact on the career trajectory of so many successful professionals keeps everything exciting!”

Miriam Burgos, Academic Director for the USC OMBA

One of the things that has come to fruition as a result of this philosophy is the importance we put on leveraging virtual meeting and collaboration technology both for informal and formal interactions—it is often those conversations that happen by the office water cooler that spark ideas for meaningful innovation, so we wanted to be able to support those kinds of spontaneous interactions in a virtual environment as well.

Our philosophy has not changed since the program was launched, but, because the primary driving force behind it is the value it provides to people, rather than strict, set-in-stone results, it forces us to continuously improve, and always look toward what’s next in the business world.

2. Watching and Supporting the Evolution of our Cohorts’ Culture

Creating a space where strangers can become friends and close professionals is no small task, but it is a necessary one both for the success of business education and businesses themselves. One of the questions many new companies find themselves asking is how they can maintain the culture and values they started with as they grow.

“The members of each cohort form very close bonds with one another, and they become deeply committed to one another’s success. For the faculty, watching this culture evolve is a wonderful experience.”

Miriam Burgos, Academic Director for the USC OMBA

We look at this problem from several major angles. As noted above, we put a strong emphasis on making informal interactions a key element of our OMBA. One of the ways we encourage close connections in a structured way is by designing group projects that offer students the opportunity to solve real-world business problems and choose work that aligns with their passions.

Because students have access to open lines of communication with their peers and faculty, and have multiple ways to engage, they can bring their ideas to life together. Similarly, they can apply the insights and collaboration skills they learn to their careers immediately, so students are engaged in working together because it has real and immediate value to them.

3. The Future of Business Education and the Future of Business

In many cases, businesses look toward the adoption of technology to solve these kinds of challenges. It is true that technology is an element of success in a world where distance and geographical borders are no longer barriers for communication.

At their core, however, the challenges of modern business are not technology problems— they are culture problems. For example, organizations can have the best collaboration platforms in the world, but these platforms offer no value if no one uses them.

“Business education will need to become increasingly focused on soft skills while continuing to build hard skills like data analysis and strategic thinking. Shareholders and other stakeholders expect modern business leaders to successfully leverage the abundance of data available in every industry. They also expect company leaders to behave ethically, communicate successfully with their teams, and lead by example.”

Miriam Burgos, Academic Director for the USC OMBA

At the same time, we’re also seeing a greater importance placed on ethical responsibility in business, even in fields traditionally thought of as objective, like data science and analysis. Therefore, business education must evolve. Universities must be prepared to not only create leaders who can make sound business decisions, but who understand the broader ethical implications of those decisions.

This is where top-tier MBAs shine. Because, at the end of the day, coursework that covers the basic elements of business decision making, finance, marketing and management can be found almost anywhere. But, for business education to be truly meaningful, it must be able to consistently facilitate the thousands of subtle interactions, spontaneous meetings and culture of constant improvement and support that define the most successful businesses in the world.

About the USC Marshall School of Business

USC Marshall

USC Marshall is one of the premier business schools in the U.S. and internationally recognized as a home for path-breaking research that emphasizes entrepreneurship, innovation, leadership and social responsibility. The USC Online MBA from the Marshall School of Business is built to help students succeed in the digitally driven business landscape, providing a curriculum focused on the practical skills expected of today’s global leaders.

Located in the heart of Los Angeles, Marshall brings undergraduate and graduate students a unique perspective on the world, including global opportunities for experiential learning. The vibrant and active Trojan alumni community includes more than 89,000 people in 92 countries.