Business Education for Future Middle Managers (Part 1)

Middle management must be viewed in the curriculum as a profession, not a step on the ladder. Today’s curriculum must go far beyond employment skills.

Business students must be educated for a meaningful life, not just a career. A business curriculum should serve the student’s lifelong journey. The curriculum should reflect the codependence and symbiotic nature of a meaningful life and success in business. It is likely a student during his or her career will be involved in one or more bankruptcies, one or more mergers, several downsizings and endless reorganizations, job loss, demotions, and a potential career change, as well as a retirement career. 

Furthermore, after four years of doing undergrad case studies from the executive viewpoint, few students will ever progress past middle management. Middle management must be viewed in the curriculum as a profession, not a step on the ladder. Today’s curriculum must go far beyond employment skills. 

In response, I’ve developed a new model based on my unique journey in business and education. While mostly antidotal, this experiential journey is based on extensive experience at all levels and roles in business education. My experience included years as a business student in traditional and non-traditional programs, a total of five degrees in various formats, and a mid-life full-time Ph.D. working as a teaching assistant. I also had a business career including front-line, middle management, and executive levels, while teaching at night school. Then I had a career as a full professor teaching business students in all formats and levels (including 20 years teaching business courses in Internet format). 

My Personal Journey

My journey started with an initial engineering degree from the University of Michigan, and one from Ohio State, followed by 15 years in night school earning two degrees in business while working in operations management in the steel industry. For a total of 23 years, I worked in business, from foreman to melt shop superintendent to multi-plant Divisional Quality Control manager and eight years in a Japanese joint venture using new workforce practices. In that period, I managed through what was the U.S.’ biggest merger at the time and one of the biggest bankruptcies. There were promotions and demolitions. I also experienced three plant closings, de-industrialization of a nation, 11 major reorganizations, and the greenfield start-up of an international joint venture. I saw close friends lose their jobs, forced into early retirement, and even suicides. I was put in a position of laying off hundreds of managers, as well as union employees. 

This was followed by a mid-life career change and full-time four years earning a Ph.D. in Business and working with fellow students in their 20s doing mundane clerical tasks as a research assistant. Simultaneously, I worked as a consultant and a research/teaching assistant. Finally, I spent another 20 years teaching business at the undergrad and graduate level, which led to tenure and full professorship. 

That journey and experiences have brought me to some important insights. In general, the focus must be on a meaningful life versus specific career skills. There must be a personal focus on career and life challenges such as demotions, mergers, failure, ethics, downsizing, career changes, and personal balance. 

Some key conclusions for such a curriculum:

  1. New life challenge courses or business experienced professors to deal with demotions, downsizing, mergers, workplace ethics, failure, midlife career changes, etc., from a personal perspective
  2. A diverse minor for quality of life and potential career changes
  3. More in-seat education by business experienced educators
  4. Case studies should better reflect a probable career in middle management as a profession versus the CEO viewpoint 
  5. Increased liberal arts and social science courses and focused on great literary books with application in business
  6. Increased ethics and related (philosophy and religion) courses
  7. Increased science such as chemistry that is needed in many diverse businesses

The Problems in Traditional Business Curriculum

My experience in global business gave me many highs and lows; an unequaled array of experiences at the lower, middle, and executive levels; and experiences to rebrand myself in management and career. 

What do today’s students need in education to survive in this globalized world and what is wrong with business curriculum today? Even though students need to be educated in employment skills to function at a high level in corporate operations, this is far short of what is needed. Students will face a lifetime of personal challenges. It is likely students at some point in their career will be involved in one or more bankruptcies, one or more mergers, several downsizings and endless reorganizations, job loss, demotions, and a potential career change. Furthermore, after four years of doing case studies from the executive viewpoint, I believe few students will ever progress past middle management. 

I know of few, if any, colleges that educate business students in these eventualities. A business curriculum should serve the student’s lifelong journey, as well as his or her business career. It also should serve the good of a capitalistic society that can have inherent personal and business challenges. Here are some recommendations for business education today: 

  • Middle management, the likely future of most students, must be viewed as a career versus a stopover in today’s global business environment. Middle management needs to be seen as a fulfilling career in itself, and the curriculum needs to reflect this. 
  • Business curricula, courses, and study are based on the executive view. Textbook case studies deal from an executive view versus a middle or lower management view. The student does strategic analysis “controlling” and makes decisions as a CEO might. Most students will not enter at the executive level or even finish at the executive level. Case studies should be the view from the lower and middle management perspective. 
  • Initial business education must focus on flexibility in management and career. A business career today is short in today’s globalized environment. Students should plan and be educated for a second or ancillary career. Curriculum should support a lifelong personal strategy and the flexibility to deal with major career challenges along the way (job to tomb). Curricula need to address career challenges of demotion, downsizing, takeovers, bankruptcies, mergers, and reorganization on a personal level.
  • Contrary to popular belief these days, I believe initial in-seat education is more critical than “experiential learning.” In-seat education can offer a broad skill set for the dealing with changing global setting and career changes while having a meaningful life. Diverse minors and double majors should be supported in the overall curriculum. 
  • It’s better to have experienced professors than field trips. Experiential learning can give you some work skills, but it will not give you a taste of mergers, reorganizations, bankruptcies, demotions, and the preparation for the ending of a career.
  •  Students need to understand capitalism—they often come from high school unable to even define it. They must understand its application and its problems. They need to be passionate managers and capitalists.
  • Ethics is a lost skill and has been the downfall of both companies and managers. Ethics courses, social sciences, and humanities are needed as much as core business courses. 

Part 2 of this series will look at the experiential learning versus in-seat classroom learning debate and will post April 2.

Dr. Quentin R. Skrabec’s experience includes years as a business student in traditional and non-traditional programs, a total of five degrees in various formats, and a mid-life full-time Ph.D. working as a teaching assistant. His business career includes front-line, middle management, and executive levels, while teaching at night school. He also had a career as a full professor teaching business students in all formats and levels (including 20 years teaching business courses in Internet format). Dr. Skrabec spent a total of 23 years working in business, from foreman to melt shop superintendent to multi-plant Divisional Quality Control manager and eight years in a Japanese joint venture using new workforce practices. His business blog can be found at: anexceptionaldream.blogspot.com

 

 

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