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A Liberal Arts Perspective on Engaged Executive Education

Businesses can profit from relationships with colleges.
By Vicki L. Baker and Peter Boumgarden

The relationship between the academy and business is marked by an odd mixture of tension and potential. Historically, the first attempt to integrate the two occurred at the University of Pennsylvania in 1881, when prominent steelmaker Joseph Wharton donated $100,000 to fund the Wharton School of Finance and the Economy. Tensions surfaced from the start. Many professors thought the needs of business were disconnected from the typical liberal arts curriculum that undergirds the arts and sciences.

Today, the tension remains. It is something that we, as management professors at liberal arts colleges, attempt to reconcile on a daily basis through our research and our work with students. This problem, though, is not specific to the liberal arts. Within many business schools, the focus on scientific advancement, while important to the field as a whole, has left us with a body of knowledge less directly relevant to managers; professors in these schools have limited experience dealing with real-world complexity. Other professional schools have moved away from an academic model altogether, relying, instead, on the war stories of seasoned executives living out a second career. Many liberal arts institutions have avoided this tension by focusing on classic liberal arts disciplines like economics rather than on business programs.

With the tension between business and practice comes great opportunity. This potential lies in the space where “real” problems with “real” outcomes are shaped by refined theories and rigorous methods and are communicated by professional educators. But where is the potential best realized across the academy? We suggest that it might be important to look beyond the beaten path.

The Shape Corporation Story

In 1974, five people in the Midwest founded a business housed in a rented building behind a trucking company. The first part they made was for a toolbox; their first big order was for shelving. This business, the Shape Corporation, is now a corporation with four sister companies and more than 2,100 employees globally. In 2013, its global sales exceeded $500 million, with projections that sales would reach $1 billion by 2020.

Many business founders dream of achieving this kind of growth while still maintaining core company values and a “family business” feel. So, what’s the problem? This firm is realizing that many of its executives will retire at a time when the company is projected to hit that $1 billion sales mark. A new crop of “high-potential” leaders is set to take over. The current leaders have begun to recognize that the qualities and skills that got them to where they are today—the midwestern feel, working with the “Big Three” automotive giants—may not be the ones that will take the next generation of leaders effectively into the globalizing market. They have realized that they need help preparing the next generation of leaders, people who can continue to support this new pace of growth.

The company has begun to wrestle with next steps. Who is best poised to move the company to the next level, and who might help it facilitate this transition through the necessary global leadership development program? The more that executive team members thought about this problem, the more they realized that their answer might not come from traditional human resources or strategy consultants, or even an executive education program from one of the country’s top business schools. They decided to look to a group of liberal arts college faculty from the Upper Midwest for their answer, choosing to work with the executive education arm of the Michigan Colleges Alliance (MCA), a collective of fourteen independent colleges and universities in that state.

The authors of this article, along with three other liberal arts college faculty members, were nominated by our respective institutions to participate in the creation of the Global Leadership Development Program for the Shape Corporation. The participating faculty members brought to the table experience running entrepreneurial ventures, consulting and working at Fortune 500 companies, working in higher education program development and assessment both within the United States and abroad, and teaching overseas. We all shared a passion for solving problems and drawing on what we do best—instilling the core values of the liberal arts in our students, believing those values to be relevant to the complexity of the modern business world. This passion led to the partnership between the Shape Corporation and the MCA.

The Shape Corporation employs bright, talented individuals poised to move into the executive boardroom. Given the company’s growth, one might wonder why the company does not simply send these “high potentials” to a top-rated executive education program or partner with one of the prominent research institutions in Michigan. A major factor driving Shape’s decision to partner with MCA is innovation. Liberal arts colleges are known for their unique pedagogical approaches and tools and their ability to connect learning goals, curricular innovations, and outcomes. The Shape Corporation recognizes the need to instill core liberal arts values in their next generation of executive leaders.

Business Education in a Liberal Arts Context

While business schools have certain advantages over liberal arts institutions, they are not without their own limitations. Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2005, leadership scholars Warren Bennis and James O’Toole argued that business schools focus too narrowly on scientific research. Professors in such institutions, they found, were trained researchers lacking real-world experience to match their academic theorizing. Business, they suggest, is in large part a practice and cannot be distilled down to science alone.

While business education in a liberal arts context does not always escape these tensions, the liberal arts have the potential to pull together professional and liberal arts perspectives in a way that recognizes that problems are often larger than disciplines. The combined academic training and real-world experience of some of these professors allow them to recognize the importance of best practice or quantification while also understanding that not everything can be reduced to models and numbers.

Business organizations engage in training and development to improve their employees’ existing skills. One of the authors of this article, Vicki Baker, often teaches her students about the training and development process, especially in her human resources management course. The basic steps of the training and development process include (1) needs analysis, (2) instructional design, (3) validation, (4) implementation, and (5) evaluation. Baker requires students to develop a training and development process for a variety of scenarios and employee populations to understand better the need to identify potential organizational breakdowns and to create training programs that help address those problems.

The Shape Corporation has a strong manager who helps develop training programs for employees. During his tenure, the company has won several awards for training and development. When we first heard about the possible partnership between the Shape Corporation and MCA, we asked, Why do they need us? Why not stick to the traditional training and development process, especially given Shape’s success? Traditional training and development processes would help Shape executives spot future leaders, identify their strengths and weaknesses, assign them coaches and send them to executive education programs, and determine whether they were ready to move into leadership roles. Simple, right?

But once Shape’s needs were communicated—the larger strategic context and challenges and the desire to prepare for the pending retirements and loss of organizational memory—it became apparent that traditional training and development processes were inadequate.

We have found that students learn about business practice most effectively when moving back and forth between theory and real-world problems. Such work is necessary not only for our students but also for us as professors. Being forced away from academic models and cookie-cutter executive education programs enables us to refine our theories, capture richer data on the challenges of today’s global organizations, and influence organizations more directly than we could through teaching or research alone.

In many ways, this approach gets us closer to the “new professional model” for business schools that Bennis and O’Toole call for. Many liberal arts institutions are limited by their distance from the professional context of MBA programs. But when students come to the table with significant experience or are working at or leading the business organizations, a liberal arts institution can provide learning opportunities for faculty, students, and companies alike. Such institutions are places for what Bennis and O’Toole call a “new balance between scientific rigor and practical relevance,” one fit for “complex, unquantifiable issues—in other words, the stuff of management.” Whether applied to training and development, organizational strategy, marketing, or finance, the liberal arts approach to executive education provides this opportunity.

What does a liberal arts approach to executive education look like in practice? One model that is helpful as a jumping off point comes from management professor Andrew van de Ven’s research on engaged scholarship. While Van de Ven makes an argument for more engaged academic scholarship, the implications of his model extend beyond research alone. He suggests that research should be developed in a manner that connects theory and practice more effectively. Business practice is influenced by academic theories, he argues, when researchers move from problem formulation to theory building, research design, and problem solving—often in a shared process with the organizations they study. This codevelopment model, in which researchers collaborate with business leaders, results in research that immediately affects organizations and a kind of scholarship more relevant to the problems faced by today’s managers.

Within the MCA approach to executive education, we offer a slightly modified version of Van de Ven’s engaged scholarship approach, as illustrated in this figure.

In this model, the central goal of shaping business practice through partnership with businesses remains the same. Here, however, this mechanism happens primarily through the development of customized executive education. Academics begin by formulating problems (working in conjunction with practitioners) and proceed to building theories based on what is occurring in the company and the larger industry, to developing pilot content with a limited set of leaders of the organization, and finally to implementing the learning by developing and delivering teaching modules to a select set of emerging leaders in the organization.

This work can drive academic research and student development. The richness of the company context provides a way to bring these examples back into the classroom. The program is also structured in a way that allows each of us as faculty members to bring along individual students or student teams to help in the problem solving. Numerous opportunities exist for the development of academic research—especially for those who come from strategy, organizational theory, organizational behavior, or human resource backgrounds.

Developing Leaders

At our group’s second meeting, we began to discuss the nuts and bolts of Shape’s Global Leadership Development Program. The participants, twenty-four high-potential individuals identified by the current executive team, would need to undergo a series of assessments. These assessments could then serve as the foundation for evaluating progress toward identifying and further developing the future Shape executive team. We posed numerous questions about Shape’s mission and strategic vision. We asked what constitutes a “fit” with both customers and employees and which specific characteristics make for an effective executive leadership team. We inquired about the competencies a successful Shape leader needed to possess (and display), and we asked about the disciplinary areas deemed most important for such experience. We asked the human resources director what a successful individual “looks like.” And we asked about the larger emerging strategic context and how the skills needed to navigate this world might be different from those required for their current leadership team to thrive. These questions led to more questions, which, as we learned in graduate school, is a healthy outcome. It is also, as we teach our students, a hallmark of a liberal arts education.

 As a result of the back-and-forth between the faculty team and Shape leadership, we defined the executive leadership fit to entail (1) strong financial, political, and economic acumen; (2) skill at leading, following, and engaging as a team member with strong cross-cultural competencies; (3) innovation in both product and people management; (4) strategic thinking; and (5) ethical and moral awareness. To achieve these fit factors, we identified the following content and disciplinary areas with which to develop the module content: economics and finance, leadership, teams, management, supply chain, operations management, business ethics, strategy and innovation, and marketing and sales. To bring these ideas together, and to highlight the most important factors as communicated by Shape leadership, our faculty team felt it most critical to rely on innovation and ethics as the “glue” with which to bind these content areas and subsequent competencies together.

We began identifying the key content areas and organizing them strategically, in a specified order, anticipating the development that would (or should) occur and what was needed to master the previous content areas successfully. For example, the ability to work in, manage, lead, and be a follower in a team are attributes that Shape executives have identified as important for successful Shape leaders. Knowing the importance of team functioning, one of our colleagues suggested that the “teams” content and activities should be first in the modules. It was then time to move on to the assessment framework that would serve as the foundation for the Global Leadership Development Program.

It is hard to know whether executive education programs actually develop the leaders that a company needs or serve merely to make an organization “feel” like it is making progress toward achieving complex and overwhelming goals. What does progress look like, and how might we as a team and Shape as an organization know whether this program, in particular, works?

Emerging leaders must do more than learn business relevant content, develop their financial acumen, or know what has been said about leadership in the academic literature of the last thirty years. And while Shape’s assessments were comprehensive, they were not necessarily tailored to the goals of this program. So, what are the most important outcomes?

We decided to assess leaders in terms of their progress toward reaching four different goals. Upon completion of the program, leaders should be able to know the relevant Content areas, Apply this knowledge across cases and real-world situations, Lead others along in this process and understanding, and continue to Learn in this space after they leave the program. This educational goal, which we refer to as CALL, provides a holistic understanding of growth and leadership development. Assessing this growth requires looking at the goal from multiple angles.

The program should be bookended by a set of content tests; case assessments of problems both outside of Shape and within the company; and a modified 360-degree assessment with a specific focus on an individual’s content mastery, application and leadership ability, and willingness to continue to learn. Rather than assess these abilities across one single dimension, we went back to the content areas, and to the modules, to ensure the CALL approach was built into each learning experience.


In one of his last Apple keynote speeches, the late Steve Jobs spoke of the potential of Apple as a company at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. A business education that maintains proximity to a traditional liberal arts curricular structure provides space for innovation and disciplinary freedom that are hard to come by in the typical business school model. Triangulation across disciplines in the liberal arts can enliven problems that extend outside typical content areas of business education.

The collaboration between MCA and Shape illustrates how such real-world projects can enhance business education within the liberal arts. Our customized executive education project provided curricular innovation not typically seen in executive education, academic rigor not often found in consulting, and formal modeling often missing from typical training and development processes.

The tension at the intersection of academia and business, we learned, can be surprisingly productive.

Vicki L. Baker is associate professor of economics and management at Albion College, where she teaches management, organizational behavior, and leadership courses. Her e-mail address is [email protected]. Peter Boumgarden is assistant professor of management at Hope College. He teaches marketing strategy, management theory, and organizational research. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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