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How Griffith University’s MBA program is leading the world on sustainability

When MBA Director, Associate Professor Stephanie Schleimer, learned that Griffith University’s MBA program had just been ranked number one in the world there was only one reasonable response.

As she recalls: “I fell out of bed!”

Griffith University’s full-time MBA program topped the Corporate Knights 2020 Better World MBA Ranking, which recognises global business schools with planet-friendly values. Up from fifth place in 2019, Griffith University’s MBA program ranked ahead of a field of 150 MBA programs worldwide for the way it enshrines sustainability and responsibility.

But before Associate Professor Schleimer could recover from the win – and that fall – Griffith University’s Business School took out the coveted ‘Learning, Teaching and Skills’ category in the 2020 Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability (ACTS) Green Gown Awards. These awards are the most prestigious recognition of sustainability best practice within tertiary education and Griffith University’s win cements its place as a true leader in sustainable development goals (SDG).

“Until now, business education has been quite traditional and, to be honest, a little bit backward when it comes to thinking and acting in sustainable and responsible ways,” says Associate Professor Schleimer.

“I hope these awards show other universities that you can have a business education focused on sustainability and responsibility and do really well.”

Or, as Griffith University put it in their Green Gown Awards submission: “…we want to show that it is possible to turn the world’s most corporate degree into a transformational journey that centres on student empowerment to create a better future for us all.”

Why business education can lead the way

Speaking with Associate Professor Schleimer and you’re left in no doubt that the education sector – and business educators, in particular – should lead the way on sustainability.

“Education can change everything,” she says. “As educators we’re able to directly influence how business thinks and what it does with the privileges it has – and all via our students.”

And when you consider that the university’s MBA program contains business students from more than 70 industry sectors, then it’s not hard to see the extent of business education’s reach.

“It’s a real ripple effect,” she says. “By the time our students come out the other side of their degree they know that they’re going to change their industry sectors.

“What a powerful gift we give them. The leaders of tomorrow are empowered with a skillset to make that much-needed change.”

The evolution of corporate sustainability

Corporate sustainability has come a long way in the past few years, so it makes sense that the way sustainability is taught is rapidly evolving, too.

Within Griffith Uni’s MBA program, for instance, students don’t just learn the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of corporate sustainability; they also consider how to be proactive about sustainability matters into the future.

“The way I see it, education is a key part of the puzzle for our next generations,” says Associate Professor Schleimer. “Yes, students need to understand why sustainability matters and why sustainability issues are interlinked. But they’ll also have to determine: How are we going to prevent the next ‘black swan’ event? How are we going to address catastrophic climate change?”

Associate Professor Schleimer says her faculty is teaching MBA candidates to see opportunities in sustainability, and not just challenges. And to seek genuine change, rather than the green-washing, box-ticking sustainability favoured by some corporations.

“I tell my students that we’ve moved from TSR [ total shareholder return] to CSR [corporate social responsibility] and now we’ve arrived at TSI or total societal impact,” she says. “We teach them that an organisation’s responsibilities and financial returns are closely entwined with the environment.

“And those organisations who focus on their total societal impact are usually valued at a premium.”

It’s a message all business leaders can learn.

Walking the talk: how Griffith University embeds sustainability

Of course, Griffith University could hardly teach sustainability without embodying the principles themselves. When Associate Professor Schleimer took over the MBA program in 2019, she undertook a major refresh of the program, auditing every core course in terms of: What do we teach? What do we assess? And, importantly, what do we practice ourselves?

The result is a multi-stakeholder, multidisciplinary approach to MBA delivery in 2021. It’s also an MBA program that’s guided by Tri Hita Karana, a Balinese philosophy denoting three ways to happiness via harmony with people, nature and the spiritual.

“I like to call our MBA ‘a wholesome degree’,” says Associate Professor Schleimer. “We structure the program around these three different levels of the happiness pyramid, and we transform students on these three levels, too.

“We have a strategic, meaningful approach to values-based education.”

For instance, the MBA program applies the Tri Hita Karana philosophy to the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals for 2030, focusing on three core values: responsible leadership, sustainable business practices, and an Asia-Pacific perspective.

In practice, this means introducing initiatives such as collaborating with other universities.

“Traditionally, in tertiary education there is limited collaboration,” explains Associate Professor Schleimer. “We’re planning initiatives to get our students working with MBA students from other institutions, through competitions and other activities, so that they’re not learning in isolation.

“It makes sense that we should all be working together because our driving purpose is a common one. That is: that our students become better leaders.”

And the results of Griffith University’s ‘wholesome’ MBA speak for themselves.

“We’ve just completed an alumni survey and our students are happier and more confident [than before entering the program], plus they report having a more fulfilling professional life,” says Associate Professor Schleimer.

Three top tips for managers and leaders

How, then, does Associate Professor Schleimer recommend managers and leaders embed TSI in their own organisations? As she tells her MBA students, it all comes down to these three things:

How, then, does Associate Professor Schleimer recommend managers and leaders embed TSI in their own organisations? As she tells her MBA students, it all comes down to these three things:

  1. Define your ‘why’

What drives you? Why do you do what you do? Why does your organisation exist? As part of your core strategy, Associate Professor Schleimer suggests revisiting what motivated you at the outset of your career, and then trying to recapture that purpose in a way that it positively influences the planet. It’s all about considering your impact, your reason, and your personal fulfilment as interconnected, interdependent considerations.

  1. Start small

No change is too tiny according to Associate Professor Schleimer, who reminds her students that the tallest trees grow from the smallest seeds. Change won’t always start in a seismic way. Griffith University’s MBA program, for instance, began as a very small program and has now expanded to include two programs (one fully flexible, one accelerated online).  

  1. Constantly refine and improve

The pathway to TSI is one of constant refinement and continuous improvement. It’s an evolving process of renewal. Leaders should always be on the lookout for opportunities to reflect and refresh and, as any MBA student will tell you, to learn.

Associate Professor Schleimer recognises that this can be a challenge and organisations may feel they’ll never reach an endpoint, but milestones and achievements such as Griffith University’s number one Corporate Knights 2020 Better World MBA Ranking, offer organisations a chance to pause and celebrate.

Which brings us back to Associate Professor Schleimer’s legacy, and her celebration.

“I’ll forever feel privileged that I was able to lead the Griffith University’s MBA program at that magical point in time, when we were recognised by the world, and when we’re leading, for the first time, on responsible, sustainability-based education,” she says.

“I’ll forever look back fondly on that time, and on falling out of my bed! But to be honest, what I am most excited about is to see what our graduates have done in twenty years’ time, and to see what impact they’ve had as leaders as they are the true legacy on this journey.”

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