Shaping Responsible Leaders: MBA Programs Embrace Sustainability

The new landscape demands a broader understanding of business, one that aligns profitability with purpose and ensures long-term sustainable practices

As the call for more sustainable business practices has become increasingly urgent, MBA programs worldwide are answering it by embracing a paradigm shift that places environmental, social and ethical considerations (ESG) at the forefront of their curriculum.

This emerging trend signifies a pivotal moment in business education, as future leaders are being equipped with the necessary tools and knowledge to navigate an era marked by rapid environmental degradation, social inequality and ethical challenges.

Traditionally, MBA programs have focused on developing skills in finance, strategy, marketing and management. While these areas remain essential, the new landscape demands a broader understanding of business, one that aligns profitability with purpose and ensures long-term sustainable practices.

Tacking the pressing challenges of our time

As the business world undergoes this transformative shift, MBA programs are recognizing the imperative to equip their graduates with the expertise to tackle the pressing challenges of our time, such as climate change, social justice and responsible governance.

“There has always been a need in society for business leaders with a strong sense of responsibility. However, this need for business school content based on ethics, sustainability and clear underlying values is increasingly apparent, demanded and appreciated by program participants, employers and society,” says Angeles Losa, executive director of IESE Business School’s MBA program, in Spain.

“Employers not only increasingly value this content, but also often demand it, which ultimately also translates into a stronger sense of trust in the leadership talent they recruit,” she adds.

IESE’s MBA program strongly emphasizes sustainability and ethics throughout its curriculum. In the first year, students are required to take a core course dedicated to business ethics, which provides a comprehensive foundation in ethical decision-making.

Moving into the second year, the school offers a range of specialized electives that delve deeper into sustainability and ethics. These courses provide students with in-depth knowledge and skills to navigate the complex challenges of responsible leadership and integrate sustainable practices into business strategies. 

Moreover, students can earn a concentration in Sustainability and Responsible Business alongside their MBA by taking all their elective courses on this topic.

However, Losa says that awareness of the impact on people, planet and profits of a given course of action are integrated into all courses, ensuring that students consistently analyze the ethical and sustainability implications of their business decisions.

“IESE’s mission is to develop leaders who can have a deep and lasting positive impact on society, firms and people based on the values of professional excellence, integrity and a spirit of service,” she adds.

A Concentration in Sustainable Enterprise

In the US, the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School was a first mover to offer a comprehensive curriculum in sustainability starting in 1999. About 20 percent of the MBA graduates in the Class of 2023 attained the Concentration in Sustainable Enterprise. 

“We continue to see strong interest from incoming students. We do not see resistance, but we definitely engage in healthy discussions about what sustainability means and how to pursue the triple bottom line in a comprehensive way rather than thinking about it as trade-offs,” says Tracy Triggs-Matthews, associate director of the Ackerman Center for Excellence in Sustainability UNC Kenan-Flagler.

The Alliance Manchester Business School was ranked as the best in the UK for embedding ESG content into the core curriculum by the Financial Times, emphasizing its strong commitment to sustainability. 

“As the climate emergency becomes more pressing, and consumers increasingly scrutinize businesses’ commitment to doing the right thing, sustainability and ethics are intricately linked with each and every one of our core courses and electives. For example, we cover green securities as part of our finance courses, and the transition to net zero as part of a leadership module,” says Marie Dutordoir, the incoming director of the full-time MBA program at Alliance Manchester.

“We also give our MBA students the opportunity to put what they learn into practice – one of our courses offers them the chance to work on a project in which they help not-for-profit organizations in their decision-making processes,” she adds.

How ESG can improve career outcomes 

Demand for a strong foundation of knowledge in sustainability and ethical issues is as prevalent among employers as it is among students, Dutordoir says. “It is relevant to almost every role, even beyond those explicitly linked with sustainability. Accountants may wish to know about the value relevance of modern slavery reporting. Marketing managers may want to know more about the commercial effects of ethical scandals,” she explains.

Over at EDHEC Business School in France, Sandra Richez, Global MBA Program director, agrees that demand is robust from incoming students and from corporate partners. “There has been no resistance, rather a real enthusiasm which is developed during the MBA,” she says.

The school has asked all professors to integrate sustainability into their subject areas and courses – today most courses address sustainability topics for 10-20 percent of the course. That proportion looks set only to grow at business schools around the world, which are embracing sustainability as a core component of their curriculum. 

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