A maverick in management theoryNestled peacefully in the picturesque Laurentian Mountains an hour’s drive north of Montreal, Canada, Lac Castor seems an unlikely birthplace for a global revolution in management education. Then again, Henry Mintzberg, the bald, boyish-faced university professor who lives here year-round in one of the half-dozen cottages that border the kilometre-long lake, hardly looks the part of revolutionary leader. In both cases, however, looks are deceiving.
For the past 15 years, the lake has provided the 60-year-old Mintzberg with both a refuge and the tranquillity he needs to rethink the fundamentals of management and organisation. From his basement office overlooking the lake’s placid waters (he prefers the term “controlled disorder” to describe his U-shaped desk), he has churned out dozens of provocative articles and best-selling books, shoring up his reputation as Canada’s best-known business professor and someone unafraid of challenging the status quo.
One of Mintzberg’s favourite subjects has long been the quality of management education – or rather, what he perceives as the lack of it. He is an acerbic critic of MBA programmes which, as he once said, “train the wrong people in the wrong ways for the wrong reasons. The wrong people because they’re too young and too inexperienced. The wrong ways because if you have no experience to base the teaching on, it all becomes based on analysis and technique. The wrong reasons, because we parachute people who have no devotion to a company and no experience in its operations into positions of leadership they don’t deserve to have after taking an MBA programme. There is no legitimacy to their leadership.”
Stung by critics who accused him of doing nothing to improve the situation he decried, Mintzberg decided to put his money where his mouth was. Drawing together prominent business schools in five countries on four continents, he spearheaded the creation of the International Masters Program in Practicing Management (IMPM), a groundbreaking programme with the immodest aim of being the “next generation” in management education.
Today, as the programme enters its fourth year of operation with a full slate of some 35 senior-level manager-students from an impressive array of multinationals, Mintzberg’s gamble appears to be paying off in spades. “Many people consider the IMPM to be the best degree programme for developing managers anywhere,” says Mintzberg as he basks under the warm summer sun on his deck overlooking Lac Castor. “I’m very proud of that. And it’s been fun, too. Instead of sitting in my basement writing articles all the time, I’ve helped bring something to life.”
For Mintzberg, the IMPM’s success is, in many ways, the culmination of a life’s work. Born and raised in Montreal, where his Polish-born, immigrant father owned a small manufacturing company, he studied mechanical engineering at the city’s McGill University before going to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received his master’s and doctorate degrees from the Sloan School of Management.
It was there, while writing his doctoral thesis, that Mintzberg first challenged conventional academic wisdom about how business managers should spend their time. He did this by going into the field, much like an anthropologist would, to see and study what they really did. He found that managers worked at such a hectic, action-oriented pace that they had little time to closet themselves in offices to discuss strategy, as theorists urged. This prompted Mintzberg to label “strategic planning” a contradiction in terms. His findings were eventually published in 1973 in The Nature of Managerial Work, a critically acclaimed book that has sold some 200,000 copies worldwide and launched Mintzberg into prominence.
Since then, Mintzberg’s stature as one of the world’s leading organisation theorists and most influential management experts has continued to grow. An eminent professor at both McGill and INSEAD, the European Institute of Business Administration located south of Paris, Mintzberg is a gifted, prolific writer. His nine books (soon to be 10) and more than 100 articles (including two award-winning pieces in the Harvard Business Review) have made him famous as a management guru. His work has also earned him numerous academic and civilian distinctions, including honorary degrees from nine universities, and the Order of Canada, his country’s highest award for outstanding achievement.
Two things that have remained unchanged over the years, however, are Mintzberg’s idealism and his knack for shaking up people’s sensibilities. Tagged by Profit Magazine as one of the “hottest” business speakers around, he has refused to cash in on his fame, turning down almost all of the many lucrative speaking offers he receives (he estimates an average of two a day), while accepting some non-paying speaking engagements for non-governmental organisations, or what he refers to as “non-owned organisations.”
According to Mintzberg, strategy should be generated by people who have an intimate understanding of their organisation, while good managers share one essential quality – natural leadership abilities. Neither, he argues, can be learned in traditional MBA programmes, which are now producing graduates at the rate of 1 million per decade in the United States alone.
Instead, he is a stalwart champion of the “learning school” concept, where management development and education are combined. “People have to learn, but they also have to get on with doing the regular work efficiently,” Mintzberg wrote recently. “There can be a time to learn and a time to exploit previous learning.”
Launched in March 1996, the IMPM programme breaks all the moulds of traditional management education. Gone are core-course “silos” such as marketing, finance and strategy. Gone, too, are the case-study method, traditional seating arrangements and even the traditional school year and campus. Instead, the programme is structured around five managerial “mind-sets”‘– reflective, analytic, worldly, collaborative and action-oriented – that are taught in two-week modules over 18 months at business schools in Canada, England, France, India and Japan. Students – all mid-career managers who are considered likely candidates for senior management positions – must be sponsored by their organisation and continue to work at their regular jobs while shuttling between modules.
Each school designs its own module with an emphasis on providing students with cultural insights beyond the classroom. In Japan, for example, students studied rebuilding efforts after the devastating Kobe earthquake in 1996. Mintzberg, however, is omnipresent. He coordinates the programme, teaches several classes and regularly attends sessions in all modules. “It’s a fascinating, dynamic experience for myself and for my colleagues,” he says. “We want to revolutionise management education.” Despite fees of roughly US$60,000 for the course and related expenses, multinational companies and organisations continue to send Mintzberg their brightest and most promising managers.
“In an international context, you see how important it is not to be fixated on what you think is right, and to listen to others,” says Vince Isber, a Royal Bank executive and graduate of the inaugural IMPM course. “I learned that I don’t always know what’s best.”
Such comments are music to Mintzberg’s ears. “You have to see how people react to this programme. It changes them as individuals. Even if they pick up only part of what we’re doing, the philosophy is that we’re doing it for people who are dedicated to their organisations, people who appreciate leadership and management.”
a business writer based in Montreal
photo Allen McInnis