Love at first sight
School culture may not be a priority for you when choosing your MBA programme, but it should be.
The campus environment can make or break your MBA experience. A culture in which you thrive will power your success in business school and beyond. Conversely, a poor fit can lead to more stress and diminished performance. While most students decide where to apply based on location and rankings, culture fit is essential in making the best decision for you.
Here is what you need to keep in mind to be sure you are making the right investment.
Culture drives success in business and education
Does culture matter? Not just in business schools, but in the corporate world generally, the answer is a resounding yes. If you have any doubts, just ask executives at Boeing. A string of journalistic investigations in 2019 linked two plane crashes to issues with Boeing’s work environment, starting at the highest levels in the company.
“The aerospace giant needs a cultural transformation to restore confidence,” The Wall Street Journal warned.
This is just one example of how ignoring culture can have unintended consequences.
The interpersonal relationships and behaviours within an organisation affect performance and innovation, according to Jeremie Brecheisen, Senior Managing Consultant at Gallup. People simply do not achieve their best results in environments that are a bad fit. On the other hand, a culture that brings out your strengths can lead to greater accomplishments than you thought possible. Naturally, top business schools see culture as an important part of their mission.
Each business school’s community is different, and some would suit you better than others. How exactly would culture affect your MBA experience? And how can you make a rational decision about which programme would be the best for you?
What campus culture means for you
By design, the MBA is a challenging experience. In an increasingly uncertain world, the task of business schools is to teach you to adapt to change and be resilient. That requires you to step out of your comfort zone and embrace some level of discomfort. Schools do this though various class formats, including experiential learning and real-world projects which place you in unexpected situations.
The MBA is also a holistic degree: today, it involves hard and soft skills, as well as more creative disciplines like design thinking. Depending on your background, some of these areas will be relatively new to you and you may struggle with some aspects of your studies. Discovering your weaknesses and working on them will require an open mind and a measure of humility.
Finally, your life will change even on a personal level. As an MBA student, you will move to a new city and probably a new country, where everyday activities such as navigating public transport may be unfamiliar or confusing. A significant proportion of students will also be immersed in a language different from the one they speak at home. Learning and socialising in a foreign language adds another layer of stress.
So, your MBA programme will be stretching your capacities to the limit in a number of ways. A culture that suits you will allow for a meaningful experience: personal growth and transformation are more likely to happen in a supportive environment. If you struggle to fit in among your classmates or to work with the faculty, you may not get the most out of a programme in which you have invested a lot. The better the culture fit, the more effective your learning.
There is one other option: deliberately diving into a different culture from the ones you have been part of before. Rather than looking for a culture fit, in that case you can seek out a new type of community. If you are used to informal relationships with your colleagues, for example, you can pick a campus with a more formal culture. You should be aware, though, that in this case the MBA journey will be exceptionally hard for you. Ask yourself if this is the right time to try out a different kind of organisation. If so, you can adopt this strategy.
In any case, your approach to culture should not be to “wait and see”. Do your research ahead of time so you can make an intentional choice that advances your personal goals.
The different kinds of campus culture
Large-scale research has demonstrated that an organisation’s culture is measurable and stable over time. It is now easy to obtain data about it. For example, the Culture 500 project by the MIT Sloan School of Management (US) and Glassdoor compares hundreds of companies on nine metrics including collaboration, diversity, and innovation. Similar data now exists about business schools as well. By using surveys of the campus population, researchers have been able to define culture with certainty and precision.
The platform Unimy.com has compiled data on over 850 top-ranked and accredited business schools around the world. You can compare them on the basis of six metrics, including structured versus flexible organisation, liberal versus classical style, explicit versus intuitive communication, personal versus collective accomplishment, long-term versus ad-hoc orientation, and formal versus informal relationships. Do you prefer that people at your business school understand each other intuitively, or rather, that expectations are laid out in written rules and handbooks? Would you rather have a formal or a friendly relationship with the faculty? You can consider which of these measures matter to you, and factor them into your decision-making process.
Conveniently, Unimy also allows you to take a personality test and see which schools most closely fit your own style. With that data in hand, you would know whether you are heading for a campus where you would fit in and feel easily understood, or rather, where you will need to adapt to an entirely new environment.
How can you research the campus culture?
Hard data is a powerful resource to have when evaluating campus culture. It is even more helpful if you combine it with personal narratives and first-hand impressions. What does a formal culture mean in practice, for example? People who have been there can tell you.
When talking to school representatives at fairs or in one-on-one meetings, do not hesitate to ask questions about culture. Most business schools pride themselves on their community and would be happy to tell you more. You can also ask to speak with alumni to get their perspective. The platform Unimy holds alumni webinars as well.
If possible, a campus visit can give you a realistic idea of what to expect. But online tours can work too. When travel became difficult in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, schools found creative ways to showcase their culture online via live campus tours or virtual classes with professors. Tune in and observe carefully: What are schools highlighting to potential students? What is the professor’s style – do they invite participation and different viewpoints? What are current students sharing?
Remember, business schools want their students to thrive, and they are especially interested in applicants who value their culture. They invest a lot in creating vibrant campus communities and strong alumni networks, and they want you to be part of that. If you take culture into account when making your MBA selection, you are likely to set yourself up for success.