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Sustainable development: how to prepare tomorrow’s business leaders 

Pilar Acosta
Professor in Management of Innovation at École Polytechnique  
Maria Jose Murcia
Maria Jose Murcia
Professor at IAE Business School and at the School of Business Administration (Universidad Austral)
Thierry Rayna
Thierry Rayna
Researcher at the CNRS i³-CRG* laboratory and Professor at École Polytechnique (IP Paris)
Key takeaways
  • Insofar as they are shaping the world of tomorrow, it is essential to take an interest in the vision that future business leaders have of sustainability issues.
  • MBA students can have differing views on this subject: the pro-economy view, the pro-environment view, or the economic-environmental view.
  • While 85% of managers show a strong interest in environmental issues, they find it difficult to link them clearly to economic issues.
  • As a result, more and more MBAs are transforming their content to integrate environmental issues more directly.
  • To achieve this, tomorrow's business leaders should be trained in sustainability issues and their challenges, with an emphasis on interdisciplinarity.

Even if the cli­mate emer­gency is on every­one’s mind, it is often dif­fi­cult to trans­form the legit­i­mate con­cerns that this emer­gency arous­es into tan­gi­ble action. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly the case for busi­ness­es, which are sub­ject to appar­ent­ly total­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry injunc­tions: growth, prof­it and eco­nom­ic prof­itabil­i­ty on the one hand, tran­si­tion and sus­tain­able devel­op­ment on the oth­er. While many of today’s busi­ness lead­ers are strug­gling to solve this equa­tion, the ques­tion aris­es as to how we can pre­pare tomor­row’s busi­ness lead­ers for the devel­op­ment of sus­tain­able activ­i­ty. This is pre­cise­ly the aim of a study con­duct­ed among MBA stu­dents by Pilar Acos­ta and Maria Jose Murcia. 

The results of this study are of crit­i­cal impor­tance, since they show that while there is a very strong appetite for envi­ron­men­tal issues among the younger gen­er­a­tion – and future busi­ness lead­ers – it is still dif­fi­cult to link these issues to the nec­es­sary eco­nom­ic chal­lenges fac­ing any com­pa­ny. This means that this ‘tran­si­tion of men­tal­i­ty’ among future man­agers is not a fore­gone con­clu­sion, and that it is imper­a­tive to adapt the con­tent of MBA pro­grammes so as not only to place sus­tain­able devel­op­ment issues at the heart of them, but also to empha­sise inter­dis­ci­pli­nar­i­ty, a nec­es­sary approach if we are to over­come the many chal­lenges asso­ci­at­ed with sus­tain­able development. 

Thier­ry Ray­na, Chair Tech4Change

At a time when it is becom­ing increas­ing­ly urgent for com­pa­nies to take on board today’s envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges, this study looks at how future com­pa­ny man­agers view sus­tain­able devel­op­ment issues, and rein­forces the impor­tance of address­ing these issues dur­ing their training.

Con­duct­ed pri­or to the Covid-19 health cri­sis, the study by man­age­ment doc­tor Pilar Acos­ta and pro­fes­sor Maria Jose Mur­cia (Uni­ver­si­dad Aus­tral, IAE busi­ness school, Argenti­na) is set against a back­drop in which the need for gov­ern­ments and busi­ness­es to com­mit to gen­uine sus­tain­abil­i­ty has become even more press­ing since the pandemic. 

Sus­tain­able devel­op­ment, which aims to rec­on­cile eco­nom­ic growth with envi­ron­men­tal con­straints such as lim­it­ed nat­ur­al resources, is emerg­ing as the solu­tion of choice to envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems. But the fea­si­bil­i­ty of such a change in our growth-ori­ent­ed soci­ety is still being debated. 

This study looks at ways of chang­ing the way busi­ness lead­ers view sus­tain­able devel­op­ment. This vision, which is cru­cial to the devel­op­ment of busi­ness strate­gies, shapes the cur­rent eco­nom­ic think­ing. The deci­sions tak­en by com­pa­nies have a real envi­ron­men­tal, eco­nom­ic and social impact. So it’s worth look­ing at how future busi­ness lead­ers per­ceive sus­tain­abil­i­ty issues, and how they see the inter­con­nect­ed rela­tion­ships between three fac­tors: eco­nom­ic growth, social pros­per­i­ty and the environment. 

Mas­ter’s degrees in busi­ness admin­is­tra­tion (MBAs) are the main route into cor­po­rate man­age­ment, train­ing the busi­ness lead­ers of tomor­row. By inter­view­ing stu­dents on this type of course, the study was able to deter­mine their con­cep­tion of sus­tain­able devel­op­ment, and how this, com­bined with the infor­ma­tion and val­ues they con­sid­er, influ­ences their decisions.

Environment or economic growth? 

The study, con­duct­ed strate­gi­cal­ly in Latin Amer­i­ca, a region con­tain­ing the world’s great­est bio­di­ver­si­ty and numer­ous nat­ur­al resources, high­light­ed three major con­cep­tions held by stu­dents regard­ing the rela­tion­ship between eco­nom­ic growth, social well-being and the environment: 

  • The pro-econ­o­my vision: These future man­agers give pri­or­i­ty to eco­nom­ic growth, tak­ing an inter­est in social and envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems only when they are aligned with eco­nom­ic objectives. 
  • The pro-envi­ron­ment vision: For almost a third of those ques­tioned, envi­ron­men­tal issues are cen­tral. Although this group favours reduc­ing the con­sump­tion of nat­ur­al resources, they are unable to com­plete­ly link the increase in con­sump­tion with the envi­ron­men­tal impact of eco­nom­ic growth. 
  • The eco­nom­ic-envi­ron­men­tal vision: More than half of the future busi­ness lead­ers ques­tioned show an inter­est in envi­ron­men­tal issues while favour­ing eco­nom­ic growth. This group finds itself torn, par­tic­u­lar­ly as regards the ben­e­fi­cial effects of eco­nom­ic growth on social issues, or the role of new tech­nolo­gies in com­bat­ing envi­ron­men­tal problems. 

As a result, a large major­i­ty (85%) of tomor­row’s busi­ness lead­ers show a strong inter­est in both envi­ron­men­tal and social issues, while recog­nis­ing the impor­tance of eco­nom­ic growth. When it comes to sus­tain­able devel­op­ment, our future busi­ness man­agers are not look­ing exclu­sive­ly for prof­it, nor are they seek­ing to rec­on­cile con­tra­dic­to­ry objec­tives per­fect­ly. But this study also shows that future man­agers have a mixed under­stand­ing of the con­nec­tions between the eco­nom­ic, social and envi­ron­men­tal aspects of sus­tain­able devel­op­ment. In prac­tice, this gap can lead to dif­fi­cul­ties in mak­ing deci­sions that require the inte­gra­tion of infor­ma­tion from these inter­con­nect­ed themes.

Adapting the training of future business leaders 

The con­cept of sus­tain­able devel­op­ment rep­re­sents an immense chal­lenge, since it involves tak­ing into account the inter­ac­tion of a num­ber of issues (the econ­o­my, qual­i­ty of life, respect for the envi­ron­ment, etc.) on dif­fer­ent time scales (short‑, medi­um- and long-term solu­tions). So it’s not sur­pris­ing to find that respon­dents, like the rest of the pop­u­la­tion, find it hard to make sense of cer­tain information. 

As future busi­ness lead­ers rep­re­sent a cru­cial link in the estab­lish­ment of a sus­tain­able econ­o­my, it seems essen­tial to pre­pare them as well as pos­si­ble to man­age sus­tain­able devel­op­ment issues. So it’s not sur­pris­ing that more and more MBAs are trans­form­ing their con­tent to incor­po­rate envi­ron­men­tal issues more directly. 

85% of tomor­row’s busi­ness lead­ers show a strong inter­est in envi­ron­men­tal issues.

The study car­ried out pro­pos­es not only to intro­duce these sus­tain­abil­i­ty issues into the edu­ca­tion­al cur­ricu­lum of tomor­row’s busi­ness lead­ers, but above all to make them face up to the mul­ti­ple chal­lenges that this implies by empha­sis­ing inter­dis­ci­pli­nar­i­ty. Stu­dents will be con­front­ed with com­plex and some­times para­dox­i­cal sit­u­a­tions, chal­leng­ing their own per­cep­tion of these issues. Work­ing on these issues in groups, through sim­u­la­tions and case stud­ies, and inter­act­ing with aca­d­e­m­ic, indus­tri­al and gov­ern­ment play­ers, would help to devel­op crit­i­cal think­ing and con­struc­tive debates, dri­ving a change of per­spec­tive on sus­tain­able development. 

Whether for future busi­ness lead­ers or for the gen­er­al pub­lic, aware­ness of the con­tra­dic­tions and para­dox­es in our per­cep­tion of sus­tain­able devel­op­ment, although desta­bil­is­ing, could moti­vate changes in behav­iour with a major impact on our econ­o­my, our soci­ety and our planet.

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