Searching for the Meaning

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From Day One the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO billed itself as something out of the ordinary in business education. In this interview, the school’s new dean Andrei Sharonov explains what it is all about, and who studies what at this academic institution. He also speaks about Moscow’s strategic goals, having recently left a position in the city administration.

In the eyes of the world the reputation and operations of any school depend in many ways on who founded it. Can any long-term business or education project rely on its stars, and to what extent do those stars feel comfortable fulfilling their many duties at SKOLKOVO?

It is their choice. The founders did not just donate their money to the school and stop taking an interest in the ways it went on to develop. From day one they defined, and continue to define, the school’s profile. The founders take part in granting access to MBA students, they act as their mentors. They also decide on the school’s strategic development, and read lectures. This is truly important because the benchmark is very sensitive and they help to maintain a certain level.

Despite the need to stimulate demand and to increase the school’s revenues and income, one cannot lower the bar with respect to students and teachers. One of the main arguments compelling me to take up the job at SKOLKOVO business school was the proactive involvement of its founders – their substantial support and considerable input into the educational process.

The school’s strategy is to admit successful people – those who could already be called leaders – and make them even more successful. Why is the school so confident that it can offer added value for those who have already made it? Who are your students and alumni in that case?

One should take it literally. We really do admit people who have already achieved something in business, who’ve made enough money to pay their tuition and can afford to study, who are mature enough to scale up their business, discover new dimensions and search for the meaning of life and new ways to operate. We believe we can provide added value for them. Judging from the feedback we have received from our alumni over the seven years since the school was established, it has been a success in most cases.

By and large we are talking about transforming their thinking in a particular way. I am currently taking part in developing the final module of a new program, called ‘Practicum,’ for business proprietors and managers from medium-sized businesses. I talked to them in person, read their final CVs and questionnaires. After four months of training at the school many of them were pondering the stage they were at, and rethinking their occupation. And that applies not only to business, but to how they position themselves in general – their values, and how those values play into what they are working on. This is what Practicum is all about – a successful experience specifically in terms of finding the meaning of things. Something similar could be said about any of the other programs offered at the school.

Do you think that Russia and the world are faced with a deficit of leaders? Do they need the elite or do they need executives at all levels rather than just top executives?

I think it is the former. You know, it is just like Vysotsky said: “Few of us are truly rambunctious enough, hence the lack of leaders.” We need people who are able to generate super ideas, who also believe in those ideas, and who are prepared to spend a considerable part of their resources – time, money, and energy – to see them through. This is what the SKOLKOVO mission is all about.

A number of the school’s founders came up with one stipulation from the very outset: they thought that the school should only deal with entrepreneurs who generate ideas and projects, and who could risk their own money to see them through. Other founders realized that the school should offer education not just to entrepreneurs but also to hired managers and civil servants. After all, even if you work as a manager, you still need to possess the entrepreneurial spirit to be able to implement changes inside your company.

Do you have enough students in the first category?

No we do not. In general, entrepreneurs and people who possess the entrepreneurial spirit are few and far between – even in those countries where such traditions have not been eradicated or burned at the stake for a long time. No matter where you look, there is a lack of businesspeople who are prepared to build things, to undertake risky projects – plus not every one of them is known to us.

Unfortunately, most of them never succeed. We either never hear about them or, when we do, we hear about them as losers. However, if we are talking about business, the main principle that applies here is that failure teaches success. It is always important to talk to people who have experienced failure but stayed in their business, stayed on the market. Those who worked with failed projects are not considered losers. On the contrary: These people are capable of teaching us many more lessons than those who have always had luck on their side.

There is a perception that business schools do not always know what kind of people businesses really need. Allegedly, there are two options: either to train entrepreneurs or managers with a nice set of universal skills, or to train reformers capable of radically modernizing a run-down company. What do you think of this assessment?

There is no single approach to business school typology that can be considered the gospel truth. As a rule, business schools develop in broader frameworks and do not tend to narrow down their horizons to focus on purely professional categories. Obviously, there are people who are clearly project managers by nature: when the project is over their spirits are down. At the other end of the spectrum there are those who deal with irregular processes, operate well under external pressure, and are able to cope with many new emotions.

Therefore this question is not only predicated on one’s conscious choice of school, but also on the student’s personality and readiness to engage in a certain type of activity. In principle, both personality types are equally important; both should possess managerial competencies and be able to think, assess the situation, and select the right staff.

If we take SKOLKOVO, we tend to operate on the premise that our students are agents of change. Any change requires a great deal of training, the ability to deal with the unexpected, to adapt and strike a balance. We teach our students to generate and implement changes. A key point for us is that one should be able to generate ideas and not just see them through. There are people who are capable of dealing with changes and implementing them, but who would never do it on their own initiative, of their own volition. Accepting change is always risky; it always means that you have to give up stability. It takes courage and resolve. There are two philosophies that the whole world revolves around one way or another: ‘If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ and ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good.’ I think the second philosophy is a driving engine.

What do the students themselves strive for? What do they internalize better – pure knowledge, skills, a way of thinking, or business ethics?

Our students are very different. Some prefer pure knowledge and skills – after all, many people come to business without a basic education in economics or finance. Having gone through various programs they say, ‘This is what we really needed; we always wanted to learn that.’ But there is another point: all of them respond well to proactive forms of teaching. We practice a so-called ‘project-based’ approach, which means that students are either tasked by ‘proprietors’ to accomplish something, or generate ideas on their own and try to see them through in the course of their training. This is the element the students find most entertaining.

Do you keep track of your international alumni in any special way?

Yes, and we now have quite a few international alumni. Some are pursuing careers in Russia or in international companies that focus on the C.I.S. and emerging markets. We try to help them in that respect. International students come to the SKOLKOVO business school on purpose; they do it not just to improve their managerial competencies but also to gain a better knowledge of Russia. A program designed for this group in particular, called ‘BRICS Prospects,’ will be launched in December.

There are many international students at our school, but one should bear in mind that not all of them come from outside of the former Soviet Union. Generally, for every 100 students from Russia, there are 19 students from other countries. It is also worth noting that 95% of our faculty are international professors.

Many people still expect to hear about a possible merger between SKOLKOVO, The New Economic School, and Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech). What model could be used for that merger? One of the options mentioned was an American-style university.

One should bear in mind that an American-style university is based on a single legal entity, but our point of departure is different. Today SKOLKOVO, the New Economic School and Skoltech are different legal entities. Therefore, we can only talk about a certain convergence-based model. It would not be a physical merger but rather a co-existence with common goals. The benefit of this model is that no one would be acquiring anyone. That is very important because, for a long time, any rapprochement was impeded by fears that someone could ‘swallow up’ someone else. There is an additional benefit. The curricula of these schools do not overlap at all: the NES trains economists and mathematicians, SKOLKOVO trains managers, and Skoltech trains engineers and physicists. All three schools complement one another nicely.

You continue to consult for the government of Moscow on a freelance basis. What are the city’s strategic goals now? What sort of specialization does the capital want to have to be able to compete successfully with other global cities?

In principle these goals have been made public. Moscow wants to become a global metropolis specializing in state-of-the-art technologies and innovation, with a comfortable living environment. The city still hopes to improve its ranking among international financial centers. This is the objective and it is not only rooted in political fantasies. Objectively speaking, Moscow has been a fixture in these rankings for a long time and remains a regional financial center. The question is how the city is going to develop from now on, and what kind of resources will be needed to achieve these goals.

Are these objectives of Moscow’s in any way integrated into the Russian national government’s agenda? If Moscow fails in its quest, will Russia stand to lose?

Of course. If we look at the key sources of progress, it is not countries – not even regions – but specific cities. After all, people tend to pick specific cities where they want to live and create, not so much the country or the region. Moscow is considered perhaps the most competitive metropolis in Russia. That is why it strives to compete with Beijing, Shanghai and Mumbai – and possibly with London, Berlin or New York – but not so much with Kazan or Kaluga.

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