Can Business Schools Be Incubators of Beautiful Business?

A conversation with Daniel Traça, dean of the Nova School of Business and Economics in Lisbon

The single biggest lesson of the pandemic, according to Nova SBE dean Daniel Traça, is the rediscovery of togetherness. Working from home, with an endless stream of media and gadgets to entertain and sustain us, we’ve discovered that having things is not what makes us happy. Other human beings are what we truly need. In a conversation over email this week, Daniel and I spoke about the excitement surrounding Lisbon, the city he now calls home, as well as what makes a good leader, and what traits of leadership during the pandemic stood out.

In addition to teaching economics at Nova SBE, Daniel is a visiting professor at INSEAD, and previously directed the MBA program at the Solvay Business School. Business schools, as he explains below, may be in a unique position to create the change that is needed to make business more beautiful, and more effective, in light of the need for togetherness that the pandemic has shown us. Business schools “need to focus on developing the humanity of the young talent on their campuses,” he writes, giving students an education that stresses not just tactics for success but an awareness of impact—on communities and on society, not only on the bottom line.

Would you agree that Lisbon is the capital of beautiful business? And if so, why?

After a challenging period in the first half of the last decade, Lisbon has become Europe’s cosmopolitan lighthouse. Entrepreneurs, business leaders, artists, and academics from all over the world are relocating to Lisbon, attracted by the extraordinary beauty and hospitality of the city and the quality of life. The diversity and energy of the global community that is converging on Lisbon makes it a prime candidate to inspire a new attitude toward our planet and our species. We must build on this inspiration to build an agenda for change in our world. As we overcome this pandemic and look forward to more of that joy and inspiration, Lisbon’s centrality for beautiful business around the world will only increase.

What does beautiful business mean to you?

The most important realization of the pandemic is that human beings only thrive in physical togetherness. Having been told to stay home, with access to high-quality streaming, online shopping, restaurant deliveries, and remote-work software—what more could we want? And yet, we were counting the seconds to go out and spend time with our family, friends, or even strangers passing by. The great discovery of the pandemic is how much we need to be with other people: to be together, to grow together, to overcome together, to build together. This is true for the choices we make as individuals, but it is also critical for the organizations we build.

For me, beautiful business is about creating organizations where people grow, overcome, and build together, with a shared sense of purpose that, ultimately, builds on, and contributes to, the individual purpose of each of us.

What are the most important qualities future leaders need to have in order to thrive?

Leadership, for me, is the ability to earn the individual trust of the members of a group in ways that allow them to achieve much more than they could have reached alone. The pandemic has been a true test of leadership, as company staff was sent home, placed under tremendous personal and family stress, and asked to continue performing in a remote-work context heretofore unknown. The feedback I got from people in different organizations was that the best leaders were the ones who cared and made people feel cared for, the ones who were present and made people feel there was someone in charge, and the ones who kept people optimistic and focused on the mission. These qualities seem to be the very qualities of future leaders.

How has the pandemic changed business school education? What missed opportunities do you see, if any?

The digital acceleration that the pandemic has brought about will certainly change many pedagogical aspects at business schools. At the same time, the existential fear of business schools that they would be displaced by online competitors has withered away. The shared physical presence on campus is irreplaceable, and concerns about integrity in evaluation are unsurmountable with current technology.

However, as I mentioned before, the rediscovery of togetherness is the true opportunity of this pandemic—the realization that our human nature and greatest source of joy is in sharing space, dreams, and bonds with other human beings. The anxiety and sadness we felt when we were ordered to go home should serve as a reminder of our nature. A new way of doing business may emerge, and business schools may leverage this to transform the way we manage. This opens new avenues in research and in teaching. But it requires that business schools take bold steps, try new experiences, and remain unafraid to challenge the status quo.

You once said that "tomorrow's business school must be more than a business school." Can you elaborate?

Traditionally, people go to business schools to learn a few technical skills to make business decisions. When to buy. When to sell. At what price. This helps keep costs low and profits high. Where this has taken us as a society is not a good place. Most people do not feel joy at work, and the societal reputation of business is in the doldrums. Today, business is not beautiful.

To create beautiful business, business schools need to adjust. I have mentioned this before. They need to focus on developing the humanity of the young talent on their campuses. This requires helping students think hard about their purpose, their impact, and their responsibility. It means an education that brings together business skills, science, and the humanities; that stresses the importance of communities and collective action in the achievements of human societies; and that highlights the role of context, teams, and luck in success, while stressing that we have the responsibility to push for impact. The transformation begins when each of us finds the right balance between our purpose and responsibility to our community and our own progress and success. Tweaking this balance is one element of the change to come in business schools. It is critical to pave the road to beautiful business and, ultimately, to a better world.

The interview was conducted via email and edited for length and clarity.


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