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It’s What You Do After the Sums that Matters…

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By John Peters

Aston Business School in Britain has introduced a new Executive MBA programme that aims to address some of the frequent criticism the MBA has faced in recent years.

The baby boomers’ degree, the MBA, was developed to meet the need to build the cross-functional skills of aspirant executives. However, current expectations have evolved beyond providing knowledge across disciplines to a need for business leaders who can apply that knowledge, engage others and create sustainable solutions.

Henry Mintzberg claimed that an obsession with numbers and overzealous attempts to make management a science were damaging the discipline of management itself. He advocates an emphasis on action learning and insights from managers’ own problems and experiences. The Economist went so far as to characterise MBA graduates as “jargon-spewing economic vandals”. Are we applying a 1960s model in a 21st century world?

Now it is what executives do after the sums that matters: 21st century employers now look for agility in business school graduates to deal with context, complexity and connectedness. The same applies to MBA programmes: new solutions must be explored rather than just tinkering around the edges.

The new Executive MBA programme at Aston Business School has begun with the end in mind. The outcome of the two-year programme is to develop an “agile executive,” adaptive and responsible and who has the ability to perform, engage and lead others through ambiguous, complex and fast-changing situations. In other words, the ability to engage people in dealing with messy problems.

The MBA core fundamentals, such as accounting, marketing and strategic thinking, are what you would expect from a top business school but these have been wrapped within an ethos of Performance, Engagement and Employability to develop a measurable improvement in executive performance.

This performance philosophy is not just a bolt on; it defines the whole programme, from benchmarking performance through understanding, generating, leading, creating and living performance. It aims to challenge participants beyond their boundaries and out of their usual context in order to develop agility. This is achieved through three overlapping, reinforcing modules:

  • The Reflective Executive: To develop an ability to think through situations rather than merely react to them and to develop the necessary critical skills to improve, exceed and transform individuals’ current levels of performance.
  • The Responsive Executive: To develop a performance-focused mindset with coaching skills and techniques necessary to improve the performance of others.
  • The Agile Executive: To develop leaders who are able to transform their insight and knowledge into solutions and performance.

A frequent criticism levelled at MBAs has been that their excellent analytical skills are only applied to tell you where you previously went wrong and that they lack people skills. Businesses want them in the playing arena, getting dirty. MBAs need to get themselves “out of their heads”, to make connections and apply the tools they have acquired.

“At the core of the Aston programme is developing the ability to perform mentally, physically and spiritually under pressure dealing with messy problems.”

At the core of the Aston programme is developing the ability to perform mentally, physically and spiritually under pressure dealing with messy problems. How does the executive learn to keep his or her head above water in the tumultuous rapids that is the modern global business environment?

Traditionally, managers are taught to manage everything but themselves. Chaos pushes consciousness to its roots and it is only from the roots that transformation is possible. Otherwise managers will go on verbalising about changing themselves and there will be no transformation.

To engage executives in a different sort of conversation, Aston has embraced a holistic approach: exploring body, mind and spirit.

Body: nutritional and fitness programme

Mind: challenge thinking (experiential, emphasis on peer feedback)

Spirit: Engage the whole (tai chi, meditation)

It has been designed to be original, different, creative and bold while also being pragmatic, usable and instantly providing real tools that can be transferred back into the workplace.

IQ used to be the benchmark for determining management development. Increasingly, new ways of thinking have emerged to develop abilities to cope with the changing world: emotional intelligence, body-mind inter-connect and the happiness index.

The programme embraces this new thinking. It is not for the faint hearted nor is it for those wanting an easy grade. It is open to those with a serious intention to actively pursue improving their performance and who want to challenge themselves and discover new horizons.


Feedback is a priority within the programme. The difference between a chat and a conversation is that a conversation requires an action at the end. Actions can be measured and performance improved. The programme has an emphasis on peer-to-peer appraisal for reflective insight. Performance appraisal across the diverse functional experiences and cultures of the participants broaden the dialogue, exposing participants to a multiplicity of views.

“It is our view that 80% of the real learning is lost in group work by concentrating on what was achieved rather than how.”

It is our view that 80% of the real learning is lost in group work by concentrating on what was achieved rather than how. Hence, using 360-degree appraisal, each piece of group work is measured formally, both absolutely and relatively, throughout the programme with peer-to-peer feedback providing participants with a reflective insight into how they performed.

Continuing this theme, the disturbing question for every aspect of any MBA is how relevant is it? And is that relevance by default or design? What, precisely, does each facet of each module contribute to the overall effectiveness of the executive? How much of each programme is essential, desirable or just vaguely interesting?

Aligning the Aston Executive MBA to a philosophy of performance will challenge us to constantly evolve the design. Every aspect will be measured by those it is designed to develop – each cohort of executives – down to specific subject areas and their relevance, value and importance.

From the start, the programme itself is designed to be agile to the needs of those it aims to improve.

About the author
John Peters is Director of Performance at Aston Executive MBA.

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