Germany, T-shaped leadership, and product innovation. All in one evening

About 40 people attended the Cambridge MBA information session in Munich last week. We were very fortunate that Prof Christoph Loch, Director of the Business School, spared some time from his schedule to speak to prospective candidates and we were grateful that four alums (Betrand, Andreas, Bing and Axel) could join us that evening. Best of all, the German national football team topped their Euro 2012 Group of Death which meant that their quarter-final was scheduled for the next day, and did not clash with our information session.

For several years now, Germany has increased in importance to the Cambridge MBA. It is very likely that Germany will be the largest European nationality in MBA 2012 and Germany was the second largest European careers destination for MBA2010, after the UK. I will offer a few possible reasons for this trend :-

  1. Germany has become a more cosmopolitan country. 10 years ago, when I spent three weeks attending a German language course in Germany, I hardly met any Germans outside the language class. On this trip, Munich was full of foreign tourists and foreigners working in Germany.
  2. This cosmopolitan atmosphere fits in well with the Cambridge MBA’s emphasis on diversity and globalisation. It is not just a matter of the number of nationalities that we have in a class, but also their backgrounds. For example, the German students who will be in MBA2012 come from finance, industry, technology, the Mittelstand and the public sector.
  3. A growing realisation that Germany needs a different breed of managers and leaders to succeed in the global economy.

Christoph spoke at length about this last point which resonated deeply with many in the audience. If I were to use my own words, it is the idea that success in the global economy will come from innovation in different areas, eg products, process, or business models. Germany has traditionally been very strong in product innovation and continues to retain a strong advantage in that area, an advantage that is reinforced by its educational system, societal attitudes towards quality manufacturing, and HR practices where the specialist is prized over the generalist.

However, technology has given would-be competitors the opportunity to outflank product innovators by innovating in the other areas, eg process or business models. To use my own example, giffgaff is a UK-based virtual mobile network, who has no infrastructure of its own. Its virtual network rides on top of O2’s, yet it has gained a loyal subscriber base by offering exemplary customer service, an area which most mobile providers regard as a cost centre and pay scant attention to. What is even more amazing is that giffgaff’s customer service is delivered not by employees but by customers who gain credit for answering other customer’s questions. And just last week, I read a tweet from someone at a conference which suggested that giffgaff was the only mobile network where current subscribers were MORE satisfied the new customers. (This came from a tweet and I don’t know for sure if it is true)

I think Germans are beginning to see the limits of their sole focus on product innovation and are ready to look at how they can innovate in other areas while continuing to exploit and develop their current competitive advantage in product innovation. This branching out will require a slightly different leadership and management model in German enterprises, one where deep technical skills are complemented by a broad appreciation of the other essential building blocks of a business, how to arrange those blocks differently and how to lead across different functional areas.

This type of leadership is most popularly referred to as T-shaped leadership and is a cornerstone of the type of leaders that the Cambridge MBA is grooming. But, compared to other MBA programmes, we have a slight but subtle different take on how to develop a T-shaped leader, . Although important, a general knowledge of business functional areas is not sufficient to create a  breakthrough leader. An innovative T-shaped leader draws inspiration from a wide range of learning and life experiences, many of which come from outside the strict confines of a business school curriculum. For example, Steve Jobs famously stumbled upon the power of typography for the Mac after taking a calligraphy class at a community college. The rich and diverse learning environment in Cambridge maximises these moments of serendipity for our students.

But knowledge alone is not enough to create breakthroughs — a company still has to execute, and for that, T-shaped leaders need to practice what we call on the Cambridge MBA, collaborative leadership. We look for people who are comfortable working with people of different backgrounds, who know when to lead the specialists and when to follow their lead. This learning process becomes most stark when our students have to work in study groups where there are no formal authority structures, each person is an expert in their own field, monetary incentives don’t work and each person comes from a completely different background.

This last point on diversity is an important one. A German asked me during this trip, why a top American student would choose to take the Cambridge MBA instead of an MBA from that other Cambridge across the Atlantic. My answer was that because our American students appreciate that the Cambridge MBA practices true diversity. A top US MBA might have more than 100 nationalities represented but when you drill down the numbers, Americans are still the overwhelming majority. In the Cambridge MBA, no one nationality represents more than 17% of the class. People come to Cambridge to learn about doing business on the world stage, and not just in an American or British context.

I think the German who asked me that question fully understood  the importance of diversity. A quick scan of the German football squad for the Euro 2012 championship showed that a third of the team had roots outside Germany. Hopefully, the German understanding of the Cambridge MBA will increase as the fortunes of its national football team soar.

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