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Tepper MBAs discuss a sculpture

Tepper School of Business Works to Enhance MBAs’ Leadership Skills through Exposure to the Arts

When it comes to being a leader, competencies like self-awareness, empathy and critical thinking are essential. Yet, these are skills that business schools have traditionally failed to cultivate. 

A new initiative at Consortium member school Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) Tepper School of Business, however, is attempting to bridge this skills gap in an effort to transform MBA students into well-rounded business leaders. The Accelerate Leadership Center’s SHIFT program goes beyond analytical training to provide students pathways to leadership development through exposure to the arts.

“I think an MBA program really only taps into one part of a person, and I know that a lot of our classes and a lot of the programming is analytically driven,” says Matthew Stewart, operations manager of Tepper’s Accelerate Leadership Center and SHIFT program manager. “[SHIFT] kind of opens up the other half of your brain so that you can give your analytical side a break and let your more creative, artistic side come out.”

SHIFT’s goals are threefold: to enhance students’ empathy, critical thinking and self-awareness — which the programming strives to achieve via three components. The first, Emergence, is an art installation in the MBA Commons area of the Tepper building. 

Tepper MBAs participate in a Tepper Reads event
MBA students attend the 2019 Tepper Reads kick-off party.

Stewart and his colleague and SHIFT program co-manager Michelle Stoner, with whom he co-founded the program, work with the Miller Institute for Contemporary Art at CMU to select artists whose work to feature. The installation’s purpose is to engage students to get them to think more deeply. 

“Surrounding yourself with art forces you to think about it. [Students] don’t have to go to a museum; the art is right there,” says Stewart, noting that the program also hosts trips to local art museums. “Art also forces you to ask questions, and it’s through questions that you learn things about other people, so it’s been a great empathy builder in that way.”

With pamphlets created to accompany the artwork — which includes questions about the piece on display — he says that Emergence has promoted “low-stakes” debate among students as well. “A piece of art doesn’t care if you like it or not,” Stewart says, “so it’s been a good getting-to-know-you mechanism.”

The second component of SHIFT is an initiative called Tepper Reads, a community reading project. Participating MBAs read the same novel together and discuss the book and its themes throughout the semester.

Last year, approximately 150 people signed up to read Zinzi Clemmons’ book What We Lose, “a novel about a young woman who’s working through the death of her mother to cancer,” Stewart says. “Her mother was from South Africa, and her father was an African American man from Queens. So it was also about what it’s like to live between two cultures. Around 35 percent of Tepper MBAs are not from the U.S., and so this book … really spoke to them.

Following the initial kick-off party, where students get a copy of the book, Tepper Reads consists of a combination of online touchpoints and various meet-ups and themed activities, where students have a chance to get to know each other on a different level. 

“For one of our meet-ups [last year], we had an ‘African Diaspora Dinner’ hosted by Leanne Meyer, the executive director of the Accelerate Leadership Center, who also hails from South Africa. We had a local restaurant cater the event with South African food,” says Stewart. “Some of our African students got a chance to talk about their lives prior to coming to the U.S. and how this related to the novel.”

“It was a great [way] for students to get to know each other,” he adds, “to learn things about each other that they wouldn’t have had the chance to learn [otherwise] — which is really what empathy is all about.”

The program culminates with a visit from the author. Last year, this included a Q-and-A session and a panel discussion about leadership, literature and empathy with Zinzi Clemmons. 

Tepper MBAs engage during an improv activity
MBAs in the SHIFT program participate in an improv activity.

“It was a truly unique experience,” Stewart notes. “Having denizens of the literary world and business world in the same place, talking and sharing ideas together, is something that almost never happens.”

This year, students are reading about emigration and the immigrant experience in Pakistani author Moshin Hamid’s fourth novel Exit West — a recommendation from one of last year’s Tepper Reads participants.

SHIFT’s third and final component is the Citrone Leadership Touchpoint Series, a series of what Stewart calls “outside-of-the-box workshops,” so named for the SHIFT program’s funders. The series is designed to help students learn more about empathy, critical thinking and self-awareness, and topics have included poetry and mindfulness as well as the use and importance of metaphors. But by far, Stewart says, the most popular of all the workshops has been the improv one facilitated by local group Steel City Improv.

“Reading a book together, doing improv together, working on design stuff together, it’s all a way for them to understand their fellow student in a way that they hadn’t before,” he says. “That’s what all good art does. It forces you to see the world through someone else’s eyes — and that builds empathy, that builds your own self-awareness, and it will help you think critically.”

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