What business schools can learn from team sports

Ahmed Abdel-Meguid, Ulrich Hommel and Benjamin Stévenin reason that, like successful sports teams, faculty should be based on synergic skills

Business schools have accepted the challenge of striving for more business relevance and societal impact. In the process, many of them are also rethinking the traditional faculty model that often sees junior research talent eventually mature into other roles, for instance as their research productivity is fading. One alternative that is often talked about is the portfolio approach whereby a business school recruits a diversity of talent who have not all jumped through the same hoops to qualify for a faculty post (a reality that may suggest that even the term ‘faculty’ is no longer a fitting label to describe academic work).

In this article, we want to suggest an even more radical departure from the status quo that also leaves behind the somewhat static portfolio concept. Using analogies from team sports, we argue that a business school should build its team of players (i.e. faculty) based on synergic skills which support well-defined strategic objectives.

In today’s ever-changing management education ecosystem, agility coupled with a heightened sense of teamwork are essential. Like successful sports teams, winning schools have the right ‘mix’ of faculty skills, and they know how and when to deploy which players, ensure faculty buy-in, and maintain collective positive team spirit.

Using analogies from team sports, we argue that a business school should build its team of players (i.e. faculty) based on synergic skills which support well-defined strategic objectives.

Leading business schools is like playing football – the modern way

We will start our argument with a sports analogy. Team sports bring together athletes with specialist skills (and potentially distinctive physical attributes). The European version of football (simply ‘football’ thereafter) has evolved tremendously over the past 150 years. The current faculty model of research-focused business schools has the touch-and-feel of the 1-1-8 system that was popular in the nineteenth century. Along with the goalkeeper, it involved one defensive player, one midfielder and eight others chasing the ball. No surprise, then, that this tactical system did not make it beyond the century mark.

The subsequent evolution of the game saw the emergence of more elaborate positional systems, the emergence of players with versatile roles (sweepers, centre-backs, centre-forwards) and a shift of focus away from covering opponent players in defense to instead controlling physical space (and the ball) on the pitch. Fast-forward to the present. Positional play has become much more fluid with the entire team expected to play offense as well as defense, with the movements of each player causally linked to how other team members are positioned on the pitch. Meanwhile scoring is more determined by the team’s ability to switch between defensive and offensive modes and press opponents into their half of the pitch.

The centuries-old model that underpins academia is currently being uprooted at its very core. Technologies are reshaping how state-of-the-art education is provided and how performance is measured as well as communicated.

In our view, business schools need to approach the management of faculty as a strategic resource in the same way modern football is played. To paraphrase one of the doyens of the management education community, Peter Lorange, business schools need to integrate faculty into ‘The Team, The Team, The Team’ rather than accepting the status quo (often simply ‘The I’) or the portfolio approach (all too often ‘The I, The I, The I’). This team approach will enable business schools to respond to disruptions in the sector with greater agility and ultimately move ahead in terms of reputation enhancement and financial performance.

Designing the championship team: What are the strategic dials?

The centuries-old model that underpins academia is currently being uprooted at its very core. Technologies are reshaping how state-of-the-art education is provided and how performance is measured as well as communicated. Stakeholders nowadays are asking more forcefully than ever what the ultimate ‘purpose’ and ‘impact’ of ‘academia’ is. And all this in an environment where non-academic players are coming to the fore and technology-induced unbundling of educational provision is increasingly blurring the boundaries to the commercial sphere.

Business schools represent academia’s frontline for meeting these challenges. And we believe schools should meet them head-on rather than succumbing to the Fear of Missing Out (or FOMO). FOMO will tempt schools to replicate every successful initiative or model they become aware of (described by Wilson/McKiernan as “Global Mimicry”, in the British Journal of Management, 2011). It encourages schools to strive for the highest status levels in the traditional domains of research and teaching, while also chasing goals that are becoming mainstream such as positive societal impact, sustainability, responsible management, and others. However, we live in a world of finite resources. Thus, it is important to foster institutional self-awareness through inclusive conversations with various stakeholders regarding strengths and weaknesses in order to develop realistic ambitions. Accordingly, the following four recommendations can help schools chart an alternative pathway:

Aim for ‘strategic focus’, not to be a ‘Jack of all Trades’

‘Focus’ requires ‘choice’, and the ability to say ‘no‘ is one of the most important leadership traits. Business schools are a well of ideas and every institution has its future embedded in it – somewhere.

Develop organisational ambidexterity as a core cultural value

By combining operational effectiveness today with thinking systematically about the future, business schools can acquire sensors to identify the inflection points where sector trends shift to become drivers of performance (see also Rita McGrath, Seeing around Corners, 2019).

Link strategic pathways to resource needs (ambidexterity again)

Culture is shaped by people. Faculty need to have a positive disposition towards change; they need to embrace it as an opportunity to help the school excel when dealing with developmental challenges. Two aspects are key: Faculty’s association with the school should be a source of pride and faculty roles are not primarily perceived as a source of individual privilege.

Be persistent!

The football history books are full of examples of clubs declining because high management turnover was linked to frequent switching of tactical systems which then triggered costly team restructuring. The system needs to fit the club and the (entire) personnel needs to fit the system.

Moneyball: Picking the players

When the German business daily Handelsblatt started publishing a national ranking of business and economics professors based on research performance alone, it immediately prompted friendly banter among deans as to who had more Top 10/20/50 faculty under contract.

The more serious consequences were that hiring outcomes became positively linked to the Handelsblatt ranking and candidate vetting placed greater weight on an ‘objective’ criterion, namely an applicant’s Handelsblatt ranking.

The example of Moneyball (a book by Michael Lewis and also a blockbuster starring Brad Pitt), however, teaches us that while hiring ‘star faculty’ may generate public attention (like a star player helps fill stadiums and sell merchandise), it often does not bring in the championships. Just like the Oakland Athletics baseball team in Moneyball, one can win with smaller budgets and by using overlooked (and therefore undervalued) players. Our recommendation is therefore:

Identify the performance metrics that really matter and act on them

Academic appointment and promotion processes are often designed with a focus on external accountability of decision-making which favour traditional metrics (e.g., research quality, student teaching evaluations, research fundraising). Business schools could instead focus more on professional attitude, creativity, ability to lead others, or empathy. Psychometric testing of candidates can potentially help recruiters better understand “what type of person are we hiring?”

Keep in mind, the Moneyball approach enabled the Boston Red Sox to end their title drought after 86 years and helped the Chicago Cubs to end their wait of 108 years. And it enabled Liverpool F.C.’s long-awaited return to European fame and glory.

Making faculty players stay and excel

The future strategic viability and operational continuity of business schools will depend heavily on the faculty’s ability to switch gear whenever needed and to lead academic value chains within continuously evolving performance parameters. Business schools have increased in complexity, and thus require a larger number of administrative leaders with enhanced leadership skills and continuous training. A faculty’s proficiency in teaching and research is not necessarily indicative of leadership potential. The recent COVID-19 pandemic is a stark example of the criticality of instilling a culture of adaptability, continuous improvement, and preparedness. Leaders of schools should set the tone for this attitude and support it through funds and opportunities for faculty development. Progress in terms of skills development should also be acknowledged and showcased.

The example of Moneyball, however, teaches us that while hiring ‘star faculty’ may generate public attention (like a star player helps fill stadiums and sell merchandise), it often does not bring in the championships. Just like the Oakland Athletics baseball team in Moneyball, one can win with smaller budgets and by using overlooked (and therefore undervalued) players.

When it comes to faculty performance and engagement, the elephant in the room is typically the tenure system. Many institutions use tenure for the good cause of protecting ‘academic freedom’, however in many instances it comes with various downsides. Possible unintended side effects include faculty complacency, reduced willingness for self-development, and fixation on traditional methods. The inability to counterbalance the side effects of this setup could make it more challenging for business schools to match their degree and speed of adaptability with external factors. Schools could better capitalise on a skillful, agile, and motivated faculty team through:

Maintaining a strategic reserve of well-trained academic leaders

With the exceptions of very few positions, most academic leaders are appointed from incumbent faculty. Schools should ensure that they continuously cultivate and replenish a pool of potential academic leaders to ensure effective and smooth administrative succession.

Investing in faculty depth on the ‘bench’

Just like in football, business schools must deal with occasional placer substitutions to accommodate sabbaticals, temporary leaves, and (in)voluntary departures. A strong and technically inclusive substitution bench is one of the key drivers of tactical agility for business schools and ensures that the absence of one or more key players will not drastically affect the performance of the faculty team.

Emphasising and reiterating what tenure is NOT

Job security is an undeniable facet of tenure. Reduced engagement might be the empty half of the glass but risk tolerance and willingness to try new things could be the pay-off. Schools should enforce the notion that tenured faculty do not have to ‘play it safe’ and that rather they have the exciting privilege to adopt new methods and test the ground beyond their own comfort zone. However, a general culture of faculty buy-in, a feeling of institutional appreciation, and a sense of purpose is needed for this approach to work.

Closing the loop: Turning your stakeholders into believers

Just like coaching a professional football team, being a business school leader can be a hazardous occupation. Charting a course different from other schools can easily become the endpoint of a dean’s career. The ultimate test of good business school leadership is the ability to align differing stakeholder agendas (of alumni, students, corporate partners, university parents…) around a common vision for how the school can successfully compete
for silverware.

A closing quote should serve as guidance:

“The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”
Theodore Hesburgh, President of the University of Notre Dame 1952-1987

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