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A new B in B Schools

André Sobczak urges businesses schools to embrace sustainability.

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In January 2019, Audencia Business School in Nantes, France, hosted a new years event of the association of responsible business leaders in Western France. More than 200 CEOS from local SMEs focused on the forthcoming French legal status for “companies with a mission” that is largely inspired by the country’s B Corp Certification.

B–or Benefit–Corporations are businesses that meet high standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability, and balancing profit and purpose.

In line with this, the proposed legal status will allow French companies, whose current corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities are voluntary, to make their commitment to CSR mandatory for current and future shareholders and managers.

At the end of the evening, 80% of the participants declared their interest in further exploring their legal status, highlighting their willingness to redefine success in business and their commitment to build a more inclusive and sustainable economy.

It is doubtful many business schools truly recognise the strategic importance an increasing number of business leaders give to social and environmental challenges by incorporating them into their business model, strategy and management practices by submitting themselves to external screening via audits or partnerships with NGOs and, in some cases, by changing their legal status.

Over the last decade, courses, programmes, articles and conferences on CSR have multiplied in business schools, in particular thanks to the UN Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME) that Audencia Business School strongly supports as one of the PRME “Champions”.

However, in many business schools, even those in the PRME community, these initiatives continue to be considered as “nice” add-ons, without questioning the fundamentals of business education and research. My frequent discussions with business leaders, in particular those who support Audencia’s CSR Chair, show me that in this field, business is far ahead of business schools.

This impression was confirmed last February at a meeting of PRME’s France-Benelux Chapter in Amsterdam at which I led a panel discussion and a workshop with top managers and deans. The managers, including those from major multinationals, called on business schools to revise the content and form of business education in order to train leaders for a more inclusive and sustainable economy.

They expect business schools to stop teaching business models and management practices that are not sustainable and instead to put teaching the development of knowledge and skills that allow managers to become leaders. This presupposes an increased development of cross-disciplinary approaches and the involvement of various stakeholders in teaching and potentially more diverse student recruitment.

However, most deans attending the meeting expressed reluctance to undertake such a shift. For them, encouraging students to work for NGOs or B Corporations and potentially to accept lower earnings would create a negative impact on their school’s rankings (which are partly based on alumni earnings). While they were not opposed to the principle of more responsible business schools, they insisted on the short-term difficulties of leading such a transition.

But if some business leaders have the courage to lose short-term oriented shareholders and choose instead to attract socially responsible investors looking for long-term performance, we as business schools cannot not lag behind.

Let us choose to partner with those companies that have made the shift. Let us choose to attract those students who want to be actors for an inclusive and sustainable economy. Let us help them to make sense of their career rather than only search for the highest wage. Let us move from business schools to “Benefit Schools”.

What are the main features of a Benefit School? In line with what is expected from B-Corps, Benefit Schools need first to integrate their commitment to sustainability into their legal status rather than into a mission that may be changed over time according to the priorities of deans, management teams, board members or even accreditations.

This decision gives a clear signal to the various stakeholders and a clear mandate to the dean and the management team. It seems even more important in a context where higher education increasingly attracts investors that expect a certain financial performance at least in the long run and might thus be hostile towards strategies that focus primarily on sustainability.

Second, Benefit Schools must measure their social and environmental impact and their governance and compare themselves to the best sustainability strategies in the business sector rather than just those of other schools. This benchmark may stimulate a continuous raised bar within Benefit Schools to contribute ever more to sustainability. Indeed, higher education has a lot to learn from ambitious Benefit Corporations that have shifted their whole business model to protect the environment and to improve society.

In principle, the link between the UN Global Compact and PRME could have allowed such an exchange of sustainability practices between businesses and schools but unfortunately over the last 10 years too little progress has been made in this field. Indeed, most discussions in this framework have considered businesses as case studies for research and teaching rather than as examples that could inspire schools’ strategies and management practices.

Accreditations based on evaluation by peers have created a further barrier to regular comparisons of business schools and business. The principles of the Benefit Certification will contribute to break these barriers in the field of sustainability and thus foster progress for all stakeholders.

Becoming a Benefit School supposes a profound transformation for business schools and thus a lot of energy to manage the change. Beyond the moral dimension of contributing to a more sustainable (business) world, it is important to highlight the main outcomes for those schools that take the lead in becoming Benefit Schools.

First, Benefit Schools will be able to attract the best talents, both among faculty and students. An increasing number of faculty question the sense of their jobs and are looking for opportunities to make a positive impact on academia and students but also business and society. Rather than feel isolated in schools that do not pay full attention to sustainability, they are likely to join those schools that give a clear signal to put these values at the very core of their strategy and activities.

In a similar vein, more and more students aim at making sense of their career and want to become leaders for a better future. If they trust a school to really put the development of these skills at the top of their priorities, they are very likely to choose this school, even if it is lower ranked.

Attracting students who make a positive choice to join a school contributes to the long-term performance of Benefit Schools. They will develop the skills expected by Benefit Corporations better than others and thus become leaders within those companies or transform others. On the other hand, they will establish particularly strong links with their school and other alumni, since those links are rooted in common values.

Consequently, Benefit Schools will be able to build closer and stronger relationships with those businesses that share their commitment towards sustainability. Maybe for a time, those companies will be a minority but their number is increasing rapidly.

More importantly, it is not the quantity of partnerships with companies that matters but their quality. Since they share values and targets, it will be much easier for a Benefit School to develop long-term common research or pedagogical projects with Benefit Corporations than for other schools.

Finally, as Benefit Corporations, Benefit Schools join a network of different kinds of organisations that will stimulate continuous improvement and allow them to stay ahead of the curve and to have the best possible impact on sustainability. The journey will not be easy but I hope these reasons will convince some pioneering deans and/or boards to take the risk and to create the first Benefit Schools.

André Sobczak

Associate Dean for Research, Audencia Group, Nantes, France

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