A healthy selfishness is important in business

In the past several decades, quite a few schools emerged on the Russian business education market. There are some foreign ones among them. How do the curricula differ and how has the industry been transforming?

Anders Paalzow, the president of the Stockholm School of Economics in Russia (SSE Russia), told "DP".

The St Petersburg branch of the SSE business school will be celebrating its 25th anniversary next year. What has changed in the business education market over this quarter of a century?

A lot has changed, but most importantly, the students themselves. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, everything was perceived as a novelty. Students were excited to read the works of economists such as Michael Porter and Joel Mokyr and studied the laws of the market with enthusiasm. Now people come to us, spoiled by all kinds of lectures, trainings, visits abroad and communication with foreign businesspeople. Most people have a feeling that they already know everything, but they expect from our business school to finally surprise them with something. Therefore, whereas previously we simply offered a high-quality supplementary professional education and tried to teach the proper management, terms, and how to develop and implement this or that strategy, now we are talking about how to do all these more effectively.

The methodology of business education has also changed. For example, 10-15 years ago, case studies held more of an entertainment value. Today, they form the basis of the learning process. With their help, students can look at a problem externally and, even more importantly, find a solution together. We pay a lot of attention to practice. Every year SSE Russia admits two groups to its Executive MBA programs - in English or in English with simultaneous translation into Russian. Groups of 20-30 people are drawn from all over Russia and the CIS: Kazakhstan, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and even Western Europe. We teach them to agree on an acceptable common solution in any given situation, to reach consensus and their pre-set goals, even Executive Master Theses are written in pairs.

How do the Russian and foreign business education differ?

More than 100 years ago, the Stockholm School of Economics was founded as a business school for adults with managerial experience. And only 20-30 years later, a bachelor's programme was launched in Sweden. In other words, we went from business education to general higher education. In Russia, on the contrary, business schools, except for Skolkovo, began to emerge on the basis of leading economic universities, which affected the educational structure and the ratio of the theoretical and practical parts.

SSE Russia, which established itself in St Petersburg in 1997, is based on the idea of participating in the development of sustainable business in Russia by spreading healthy, long-term, fair and socially responsible business practices. This is what we have always emphasized. Yes, today we do not have as many projects as, say, Skolkovo. But we deliberately don't chase quantity so as not to lose quality. Our faculty members are constantly improving and devoting themselves to self-development. They constantly incorporate new cases and materials into their lectures because the market is changing and these changes cannot be ignored. For example, Executive MBA programs for managers are expanding, while other areas that we were originally been developing, such as publishing and research, have had to be reduced. On the other hand, we are continuing to develop significant Corporate or Customized Programs.

Moreover, we try to focus on people who share the Swedish business culture: both in selecting the faculty and in forming the student groups. Our culture is based on respect for others, on the ability to share their point of view and to listen to their position. We even have American teachers who have lived in Sweden for a long time and are now part of this culture, which aims to achieve harmony within the community. When communicating with students, professors do not try to impose their point of view, but make sure that students come to this or that conclusion on their own, realizing that this or that is a much more convenient and effective outcome. It is important to think positively, to see people around us as facilitators, not opponents, and to achieve our goals so that others also benefit in some way. This kind of healthy selfishness is also important in business.

Are Russian case studies being used in your educational programs, or are courses based only on foreign experience?

Today, most international educational institutions use the case studies of one school, the Harvard Business School. There are all sorts of situations to study and the base is being constantly replenished, so there is simply no point in inventing a bicycle. We use the example of some abstract cases to show students how the basic laws of economics work, and then we offer them the opportunity to apply this knowledge to their own companies during the practical classes.

We always keep our materials up to date: every year our specialists get together and look at what's going on in the world and how we can update the lessons. We hold webinars open for everyone, where we invite experts, mostly Swedish, to talk about what's going on now. By the way, the problem of remote working in Sweden had been studied long before the pandemic, so we have specifically invited competent professors and top managers from Swedish companies to our webinars, so that they can share their experience with representatives of the Russian business community.

How was the work in your school done last year and what is happening now? What useful experiences did 2020 bring?

In March 2020, we were just about to launch the English speaking group, but for objective reasons we had to postpone it until September. We lost half the group immediately: there were companies that prohibited their employees to travel and those that cut their budgets.

On the whole, people met the move to online sessions negatively, because the school's main selling point is interaction and practice. We had to do some additional psychological work, explaining how important it was not to disrupt the structure of the program and to continue studying. As a result, we moved some of the theoretical modules online and, during the lockdown period, we still continued the education process. As the restrictions were being lifted, we switched to a so-called blended learning format. When the borders began to open up, we started looking for neutral territories where we could go with the students ourselves and where our foreign faculty members could travel to. This is why we held international modules in Serbia, Turkey and Georgia. Our graduates, who work in these countries, helped us in this too.

We ourselves still work remotely and meet about once a week to discuss what has been done and to make further important decisions. However, we are not planning to keep the blended education format in place. We are launching the next EMBA English group in September, and the English group with simultaneous translation into Russian in November. Although, of course, the year 2020 has shown that people should be more careful with forecasts. That is why we potentially have some alternative scenarios in stock.

As for the useful experiences of last year, I would say this: if the team has good, friendly relationships aimed at creation, creativity and joint work, then even with the remote format, it pays off. People do not lose motivation and continue to do their best. And at SSE Russia, productivity has not fallen because of this.

If you were asked to give the 5 things that make a successful manager, which characteristics would you say are important?

I would repeat myself a little bit. Firstly, it is a person who treats others with respect. Secondly, it is a person who tries to achieve results not to the disadvantage of others. Thirdly, a successful leader should always be open to new things, and fourthly, they should be ready to use these new things in practice. Finally, it is necessary to share information constantly. If a person hides information, trying to preserve uniqueness, they are driving themself into a dead end. In our high tech age this will not last. Therefore, the more a manager shares what they know, the more motivation they have for self-development.

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Anders Paalzow
Anders Paalzow