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Although they might know something about business, MBA graduates - the supposed masters of business administration - have achieved neither mastery nor the right to manage. That this contentious viewpoint would be held by none other than McGill's Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies could seem surprising - until one gets a glimpse of Henry Mintzberg and what he is about.
In Managers, Not MBAs, due for release within the month, Mintzberg (hailed by some as one of the most influential thinkers in the business world and decried by others as a heretic) argues against what he deems the overvalued MBA degree. He targets the cloistered arrogance of such institutions as Harvard's revered case study paradigm and the damage to society caused by undeserving, would-be leaders catapulted into executive positions on the basis of hallowed credentials.
He's gone so far as to say that MBAs should be tattooed with a skull and crossbones and the disclaimer "Warning: Not Prepared to Manage." Mintzberg insists the "dangerous people are those whose confidence exceeds their competence. MBA programs not only attract significant numbers of such people, but also encourage their tendencies."
His contributions to the business world have garnered him substantial recognition. Mintzberg is an officer of both the Order of Canada and the L'Ordre National du Québec, an elected fellow to the Royal Society of Canada (the first from a management faculty), and he holds honorary degrees from no fewer than 13 academic institutions worldwide.
Mintzberg, though, seems to be seeking neither glory nor infamy. He acknowledges his is just one opinion in a management faculty of 50 or so. And "McGill has nothing to apologize for," he insists. "As for the things I'm calling for in my book, McGill has done more toward these than many, many other schools, taking all kinds of initiatives."
What Mintzberg ambitiously wants to accomplish is not to reorder management education, "but to establish it, and thereby change the practice of management itself."
Currently, in his view, business education is for the wrong people at the wrong time, and it teaches the wrong stuff.
Management education should be restricted, he believes, to people who are actually in managerial careers, and who have accumulated some managerial experience, instead of to graduate students.
"Trying to teach management to someone who has never managed," he writes, "is like trying to teach psychology to someone who has never met another human being."
Further, Mintzberg notes that standard business education compartmentalizes the whole of business into discrete silos: marketing versus finance versus economics versus accounting. "MBA education divides business into a whole set of functions. But management is an integrating device, and MBA students don't learn how to manage or to integrate.
"Management, like medicine, like engineering, is a practice," he continues, distinguishing "practice" from both science, which can be accomplished by analysis, and art, which is fed by intuition. In a practice, one achieves mastery in the doing and has to pull together disparate knowledge to apply to situations at hand.
In this regard, he knows of what he speaks, having completed his undergraduate studies in engineering. "My ideas are influenced by fact that I'm a mechanical engineer. I have lots of respect for the hands-on, dirt-under-the-fingernails view of the world, and that's my view of management."
Mintzberg's philosophies have been realized in the International Masters in Practicing Management (IMPM) program, of which he was a founding director. Despite some radical implementations (see sidebar), the program's tenets seem quite commonsensical: Get together managers who know something about leadership and people (from companies so willing to strengthen their management staff that they sponsor employees for the program); let these managers learn from each other and give them a global playing field so they achieve broadened, multinational viewpoints; then provide them with enough mental space so they absorb the lessons to apply them in the workplace.
His teaching measures, if widely adopted, could overhaul the entirety of management pedagogy, but Mintzberg shies away from being labelled a revolutionary. "It's easy enough to write. Although I think writing can change the world, it's easier than having to lead the brigades."
Leading the brigades, however, is what he seems to be doing. He is working with colleagues at McGill developing programs for management beyond the business sector, including an International Masters in Health Leadership and a McGill-McConnell Masters of Management for National Voluntary Sector Leaders.
Despite his mission to redefine how management is taught, it would be a mistake to assume Mintzberg is just about business. His c.v. highlights interests in bike trips, canoeing, off-trail skiing, writing short stories and collecting "beaver sculptures," of which he's even posted a gallery on his website, www.henrymintzberg.com.
"This may be the only collection of its kind," Mintzberg posts. "I take what these busy, wet Canadian artists (or is it craftworkers?) leave behind, in the water or on land." True to form, he has high hopes for his hobby, though he is aware its value may be overlooked. Of the beaver artworks, he writes, "I hope they can be displayed one day - presumably in a rather broad-minded museum."