Last October, in the throes of the Washington Redskins' worst football season since 1994, I wrote a lengthy critique of team owner Dan Snyder's highly questionable managerial skills. In essence, I likened Snyder's appalling track record to those of leaders at businesses such as AIG (NYSE: AIG ) , Bank of America's (NYSE: BAC ) Countrywide mortgage division, and General Motors.
Oddly enough, one major institution saw the parallel as well. According to a recent post on czabe.com, the website of sports-radio personality Steve Czaban, an MBA class at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business has taken up the "Snyder Case" as a means to illustrate how to not run a business.
This development is great news in some sense (the validation is nice, for one thing), but definitely not in others. In fact, I'm significantly more dissatisfied now than I was before.
The pot calling the kettle black
Snyder's various NFL-related failures justify extensive public examination, but I can't help stewing over the larger irony at hand. The giant business-school machine is precisely what has spawned -- or at least helped spawn -- so many of the money-can-solve-all, greed-is-good types that brought down my favorite football team and our economy to begin with.
The McDonough case study only scratches the surface of a much larger issue. If business schools are studying the Redskins to learn how to not run a business, shouldn't the Redskins organization study business schools and learn how to not create leaders?
How about that?
Without a doubt, Dan Snyder has performed poorly as an owner, and his various tactics are precisely the things that help undermine a business. He's a perfect example from which to learn. But I wonder whether anyone at Georgetown will benefit from it.
From an academic point of view, I see the intent: Here's a failed business leader, so let's examine more closely. Snyder also dropped out of college, so the fact that he never went to business school is further fodder for the professors who are holding him up as an example. They think they can use the lessons of rogues like Snyder to effectively "educate" away behavioral problems before students have the opportunity to wield any real power. The theory seems plausible, and I certainly don't fault anyone for taking this approach, but I'm not sure it's going to do any good.
Here's the problem
For one, examining the failures of business leaders and deriving conclusions based on them is no brilliant advancement in academic theory. It's been done. Second, even though Dan Snyder never walked the halls of Harvard or Columbia Business School, the leaders of many of today's failed businesses have. Despite their advanced degrees, far too many of them still seem to embrace similarly questionable values. Something much larger needs to be addressed.
The elephant in the room
I'm interested in knowing the precise steps that business schools are taking these days to prevent the Dan Snyders of the world from being drawn into their MBA programs, jumping up the corporate ladder, making greedy and short-sighted decisions, and operating under a sense of undeserved entitlement, like Robert Nardelli at Home Depot (NYSE: HD ) ; or, worse, acting illegally, like Joe Nacchio, Qwest's (NYSE: Q ) former CEO, who was convicted of insider trading.
It would be impossible to filter out every bad seed coming into an entire academic field, but clearly, there's something in the way these schools market and recruit, or perhaps in the way they emphasize certain values, that has created so much problematic leadership. You can blame politicians, lawyers, and accountants for our recent problems as much as you wish, but ultimately, the buck stops with the leaders of our Fortune 500 companies, a huge percentage of which are proud graduates of big-time business schools.
As of 2006, a full 39% of all Fortune 500 CEOs held an MBA, with 62% holding some kind of advanced degree. That large number may not be particularly surprising, especially considering what the MBA is designed to do. But you may be shocked to learn that, based on a 2006 study from BusinessWeek, shareholder returns of companies led by CEOs with MBAs were significantly worse than of those led by non-MBA CEOs. Even though the study considers only a very brief time frame, and there are other, conflicting studies that offer different results, we should probably acknowledge that there is a larger, cultural problem at work here, in the wake of the economic collapse of the past three years.
Will the real leaders please stand up?
When you study business leaders such as Jeff Bezos at Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) , Fred Smith at FedEx (NYSE: FDX ) , and Jim Sinegal at Costco (Nasdaq: COST ) , you quickly realize that being an excellent CEO has almost nothing to do with having an advanced degree from a top business school. To my knowledge, there is no definitive correlation to be found anywhere between how and where you were educated and how well your company performs over the long term. But considering the amount of students currently enrolled in MBA programs, combined with the recent economic performance we've all witnessed from many companies led by business-school graduates, it makes a whole lot of sense to start by making changes within these very institutions.
In the absence of any substantive change, it seems reasonable to believe that we'll just continue to see plenty more Dan Snyders taking the reins at a time when we really can't afford it.
What are your thoughts about the state of American business education? Can we do better? Are business schools trying to do better? Head to the comments box below, and chime in.