"A Formula One race car driver cannot ride bicycle well"

Photo:Robert F. Bruner, the dean of Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia
Robert F. Bruner, the dean of Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia
Yong Tang, People's Daily Online Washington-based correspondent, recently conducted an exclusive interview with Robert F. Bruner, the dean of Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. During the interview in his office, Bruner said Chinese companies need to adapt their recruiting practices so that they can use MBA students well.

Yong Tang: You are going to visit China soon. What are you going to do during your forthcoming China trip?

Bruner: I will visit China in the second week of this December. I will visit Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. I will meet with prospective applicants to our MBA program. I will meet with graduates of our school and alumni, talking to them about the state of the school. I will meet with universities and discuss about possible avenues of collaboration between our schools. I also hope to talk with some Chinese business executives and tell them more about Darden School and also learn something myself about the business conditions in China.

Yong Tang: It is a publicity tour, isn't it?

Bruner: Yeah, some publicity. But we are very interested in attracting Chinese applicants to Darden school. This is a way to meet those applicants in their home country and help them learn more about Darden and let them know how Darden could help them advance their own careers.

Yong Tang: How many Chinese students are coming here every year?

Bruner: The average is about ten to fifteen every year. Some years more and some years less. The total number of Chinese students at Darden in 2005 is 24, among them 8 is First Year students and 16 is Second Year students.

Yong Tang: How do you think of Chinese students here?

Bruner:I think they are excellent. They bring great distinction to our students and to our school. They bring excellent academic preparation to our school. Chinese students stand out in terms of intellectual preparation. They are very critical thinkers. They test assumptions and they think very carefully. They are exceptionally hard workers. They read everything and they underline everything. They ask many questions. They work extra hard to master the concepts of business. They bring a perspective about Asia into our MBA programs. So we really value having students from China.

Yong Tang: Compared with students from other Asian countries including Japan and India, what is unique about Chinese students?

Bruner: The work ethic! Chinese students have stronger work ethic than students from other Asian countries. Chinese students are hardest workers. This is no disrespect to students from Japan and India. Every country has its own strength. Chinese students also take great personal initiative. They try very hard to understand what the issues are and even go further.

Yong Tang: Do you find anything that you think Chinese students still need to improve?

Bruner: The master of English is always a challenge. As I assume for myself, the master of Mandarin will be a big challenge. This is true for students from any foreign country, but for students from Japan, China, Saudi Arabia and any country where their language is too different from English, the master of English will be a big challenge.

The master of American culture is a big challenge too. America is a shock to students from foreign countries because of the way in which we Americans think of success and failure. American culture says it is possible to fail and it is natural to try again and again. This attitude towards failure means you get many chances. So in our culture people take risks and people are more forthright about expressing their opinions. While in other cultures and other countries, business people are more guarded, more cautious in the way they present their ideas. So when students come to the United States from other countries, part of their adjustment is to get used to the very forthright nature of our culture.

Yong Tang: Just now you said Chinese students here have the strongest work ethic. But according to Chinese media report, many mainland companies are complaining today that MBA graduates they have employed lack strong work ethic. Some Chinese business executives even claim that MBA is nothing. They say that MBA students graduated from America are not as good and capable as what they expect. It seems that the once glorious image of MBA has been overshadowed by criticism in China. What is wrong with MBA?

Bruner: Chinese students are among the hardest workers I have ever seen. Chinese MBA students, when employed in multinational companies or high-performing organizations in US or Europe or Japan, meet the expectations of their employers. So if the MBA students criticized by those Chinese companies have graduated from the top 20 business schools in America, I would be surprised.

My understanding is that American corporations hire MBA students to work at a level of their competency while many foreign companies hire American and Chinese MBA students to work at a very low level. That may well explain why some Chinese companies believe American MBA students do not show the strong work ethic.

I am trying to think of a good figure of speech. If you are being trained to drive a Formula One Race car, but finally somebody gives you a bicycle to ride, It is natural that you cannot ride the bicycle well. one may well expect that you would feel some kind of disappointment because you have not been given the tools or the positions that would let you demonstrate what you know. So you may not feel like working quite hard.

I think the value of MBA is unquestionable. Multinational corporations understand that. Major co-operations in developed countries understand that. It is not unusual for co-operations in rapidly growing emerging countries to understand that too. So Chinese companies need to adapt their recruiting practices so that they can use MBA students well.

Yong Tang: Can you tell Chinese companies how to do that?

Bruner: First, give MBA graduates challenge and good assignment. Second, give them rewards consistent with the challenges they face. Third, empower them to take actions. Fourth, Create a sense of urgency throughout the entire organization to get results. MBA students from our school understand well the sense of urgency under a business setting.

Fifth, train MBA students so that they could adjust their expectations. MBA graduates often feel a sense of importance or pride over what they have learnt. When they graduate, they want to do important things. This is a common problem for business executives because they could not have MBA students promoted to a senior level at the very beginning.

The best performing companies have a training period for MBA students for about two or three months in which they bring MBA students into the co-operations and help them socialize with the values and culture of the company. This helps set expectations so that the MBA student may understand if he or she could make best impact here. This helps adjust the expectations of the student to a kind of contribution he or she needs to make in order that he or he will be able to get promoted over time.

Yong Tang: What can Darden do to encourage a stronger sense of work ethic among its students?

Bruner: Many things. Our program is really a leadership development program combined with MBA education. We use examples. We use admissions policy to bring in other high-performance students. We use very demanding educational programs to shape our students into high performing individuals.

If you are a very talented student from China, you will learn very quickly. The way to survive and prosper at our school is to work very hard. You should rely on teamwork with other students. You should speak up in classroom settings. You should show personal initiative in solving problems and offering ideas. All of these are examples of leadership and good work ethic. So our programs create strengths students work at things in a positive way. We hear this from our recruiters who come to our school. They tell us that they love the ability of our students to make serious contributions to hard work.

Yong Tang: Darden is good at cultivating strong teamwork spirit among its students. Can you tell me how to do that?

Bruner: First, The way we do it is by creating goals that can only be met by a team. If the team succeeds, everybody in the team share the successful outcome. If the team fails, everybody fails.

Second, we choose the teams very carefully. Every time when you create a team, recruiting is very important. So we create teams where members of the team bring in complimentary skills. Some persons are strong in marketing while some strong in finance and others understand manufacturing very well.

Third, Let the team organizes themselves and let them create something and take risks. Let the team understand the range of outcomes over which they could have control.

Fourth, give the team a good audience. For instance, Darden will organize teams to prepare recommendations to a company. We make sure we could bring very senior level executives to hear the proposals of the team. This is highly motivationally. If the teams think their proposals are heard by someone who matters, they will feel very rewarded.

Yong Tang: How can Darden force its students to take full advantage of their potentials?

Bruner: First of all, we help them understand where their strength is and where their weakness is. You need to have a high self-awareness in order to begin taking full advantage of your potentials. We do this through a process of active engagement with students. We ask students to come to classrooms to talk so we have an instruction method based on discussion. The teachers ask questions and students offer ideas and answers and they debate with one another.

Through this process students get a good idea of where their strength is. Once they know where their strength is, we will allow students to begin tailoring, to begin choosing courses consistent with their strengths and with those students? aspirations. The course begins to deal with those strengths and aspirations. We offer many opportunities for highly focused projects where students can drill deep into the subject of that field, thus strengthening even more those good attributes.

Finally through the steady process of engagement, students get more and more clarity about where their next level of development can be. Students engage actively with the faculty. It is a process of clarifications, reflections and studying that help students strengthen their strong points.

Yong Tang: I have a question about the background of students. Darden accepts students from all kinds of background. Here if there are two Chinese applicants, one is an employee in a bank while another is a reporter, which applicant do you prefer given that all other qualifications are equal?

Bruner: Reporters are very interesting because reporters bring attitudes and ideas from outside business world. They will strengthen our quality class discussions. Because reporters come from a different profession, I would say the reporter applicant is a risk taker. Reporters demonstrate personal attitudes consistent with what it takes to succeed in the business. Reporters are very good at asking questions and thinking critically about the world around themselves. Reporters are good communicators. That is a very important quality for leadership. Given all these attributes, reporter applicants are very appealing.

Of course, it is also important for our students to have a passion to study MBA and get close to business. So I want to make sure that this reporter applicant has a real desire to make money.

People who have been bankers demonstrate a capacity to work with numbers. They demonstrate capacity to get close to business. They have solid work experience. They have good appreciations for the dilemma of managers. Probably that bank person will go back to business and be a big success.

Yong Tang: If you were a student here with a banker's background or manufacturing background, you would more likely be employed than students with liberal background. Is that true?

Bruner: In fact we have a fellowship program called Batten Fellowship Program that gives two years of total financing to people who come from media industry. We want to enable media to understand business. We know that people who come from that profession actually have personal characteristics that make true leaders.

Yong Tang: In America, Only Harvard and Darden are totally based on case method of instruction. Why?

Bruner: I love this question. The benefit of the case method is huge. The alternative is to sit down there and take notes passively. Many students have this experience. I believe that is a process in China. The case method is uniquely American. I believe that is consistent with American culture and the nature of global capitalism. It is a very very good way to study business.

Yong Tang: But only two schools are totally based on case method.

Bruner: Virtually all of the leading business schools in America have case method courses with them. The case method helps you teach yourself and makes you learn more about taking actions, making decisions, being leaders. It is much more interesting, more fun and more engaging and stimulating. It is vastly better.

Yong Tang: Darden had been ranked among the top five business schools in America. But in recent years the ranking has fallen down dramatically to about 12th or even 14th. What caused the ranking of your school to go down?

Bruner: You should look at the rankings through the time. All schools go up and go down. What is more important is that we are in the very top echelon. All of the magazines and newspapers here simply publish the average ratings, they don't publish the standard deviations. So we can't tell if the ranking of 10th is significantly different from the ranking of 11th.

My view is that there is no significant difference between schools in the top 15th or 20th. Within the echelon of very top schools, the difference is not that great. What matters most for the students who are applying for MBA programs? You should think about how you like to learn and how you learn best. Do you learn best by sitting in a classroom taking notes by lecture method? Do you like to learn by case method of instruction? You should think carefully. Our program creates leaders. This is a distinctive feature of Darden.

Yong Tang: What Can Darden learn from Harvard or Wharton?

Bruner:I would rather think about what we can teach them. I am a graduate of Harvard. I studied in MIT and University of Chicago. I know these schools very well. They are all very good. I have deep respect for them. What we have to teach them is the value of leadership development as the extension of the standard MBA program.

We do leadership development very very well. Our program is an example for the entire rest of the field of business education on the basis of our ability to shape leaders.

Robert F. Bruner

Robert F. Bruner, the dean of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, is an internationally recognized mergers and acquisitions expert. Bruner was named as one of BusinessWeek magazines Masters of the MBA Classroom. A member of the University faculty since 1982, Bruner served as executive director of The Batten Institute, an endowed foundation within the Darden School that focuses on entrepreneurship, innovation, and corporate growth, from 2000 to 2004.

His areas of teaching, research, and writing include corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions, investing in emerging markets, innovation and technology transfer.

Bruner is the author of 16 books, most recently, Deals from Hell: M&A Lessons That Rise Above the Ashes. Since its publication this past spring, Bruner has been responding to numerous media queries regarding the M&A activity that has been taking place over the past year.

Bruner, 56, earned a B.A. from Yale University in 1971. He earned an MBA from Harvard University in 1974 and a Doctorate in Business Administration from Harvard in 1982. He is married and has two children.

By Yong Tang, People's Daily Online Washington-based correspondent

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