The human touch

When you consider challenges such as the global pandemic and widespread economic uncertainty, alongside the rise of remote workforce models, it is no surprise that human capabilities are now at the forefront of the business agenda, contends Federico Frattini from POLIMI Graduate School of Management

Many organisations and business leaders now realise the importance of balancing profit, equity, sustainability and inclusion at the same time. In fact, there is a new awareness about the responsibility that universities and business schools have in training future leaders to understand the role that the pursuit of higher purposes plays in the success of any organisation.

This goes in tandem with the importance of building strong connections with others and the necessity of developing their deeper human capabilities, such as empathy, resilience and authenticity. This is because leaders need to know how to generate engagement and motivation with people remotely, respond to instability and be flexible in times of crisis.

Therefore, when considering what is required in response to these challenges, managers must not only rely on hard skills and technical knowledge, but also their ability to engage people and understand motivation. In addition, the need to have the capacity to connect to their emotions — especially in highly charged situations.

As the world has taught us over the past few years, you have to know how to be flexible as a leader, and those who were able to be flexible and adapt during those crucial lockdown stages of the pandemic came out on top in the long run. A leader who understands how to adjust their management style to meet the needs of their business and team will always succeed in today’s hybrid work environment.

In addition to flexibility, another skill that is often overlooked is empathy. In previous years, leaders traditionally had to take on the role of being ‘strong’ by not showing too much emotion, and often thought that by keeping their vulnerable side hidden, this was the best management method. In recent years, this has been proven otherwise.

Today, being vulnerable with your team can actually break down barriers, build trust and create a culture of understanding and cooperation. Empathetic leadership means having the ability to understand the needs of others and being aware of their feelings and thoughts. Nowadays, organisations seek leaders who can harness these skills, especially during a time when mental health is much more openly discussed in a business context.

But how do you facilitate the development of human capabilities in a business school environment? At POLIMI Graduate School of Management we strongly believe that organisations and leaders who prioritise the development of these skills help create environments where people can thrive, where they are more inclusive and ultimately have a greater impact on society.

By developing their own deeper capabilities, modelling them to others and providing opportunities for their team members to develop, leaders are not only able to build more effective teams, they’re also better able to retain, engage and motivate employees.

Of course, skill sets should predominantly feature an analytical approach, but they must also focus on real-world elements such as sustainability and responsible business. In fact, innovation can transform educational methods, meaning that schools can help future business leaders, managers and entrepreneurs pursue a higher purpose and ultimately harness these human skills.

With this in mind, over the past few years in particular, my colleagues and I at POLIMI GSoM have been asking ourselves about how we can enforce real change in order to make an impact in a world undergoing great transformation. This includes important challenges such as the fight against poverty, combatting the ever-pressing issue of climate change, and of course the on-going impact of the pandemic and the rippling effect this will continue to have across the globe.

Together with our partners at The Mind at Work, we decided to redesign our full-time MBA programme to prepare a new generation of managers, entrepreneurs and professionals to meet the challenges that are arising. The New Generation MBA teaches the essential hard skills that would be expected of an MBA graduate, but also puts more pronounced emphasis on soft skills. In particular, the course covers meaningfulness, motivation and effectiveness, with the aim of improving students’ ability to engage with people on an emotional level and work with others effectively during high-stress situations.

We believe that all business schools should re-think their programmes considering the greater prevalence and demand for human, inner capabilities amongst leaders. We hope that through our MBA relaunch, students will gain a deeper understanding of themselves and the people they work with, as well as being given the tools needed to understand business’ purpose in society and how to make an impact in a positive and sustainable way.

In an ever-changing society that faces numerous challenges, we are guided by the overarching belief that we have an important role to play in shaping a better world for all. The world is constantly changing – politically, economically and environmentally and leaders need to harness their full skill-set in order to be able to not only adapt to these changes, but to also thrive and create successful working environments for themselves and those around them.

Federico Frattini is the dean of POLIMI Graduate School of Management, Milan, Italy

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