The Friday Forum – A new approach to MBAs

Imagine an MBA programme in which students compose and sing Portuguese fado, practise painting emotions and write a novella. Fridays disrupt and complement the usual academic curriculum through a series of memorable and focused experiences. Welcome to the Lisbon MBA Friday Forum.

The Lisbon MBA was launched in 2009, as a joint venture between Nova SBE and Católica-Lisbon, the two top business schools in Portugal. The one-year international programme, developed in collaboration with MIT Sloan, prepares students to make a positive difference as leaders and managers.

Consistent with the theme of “Exploring New Lands”, Fridays are set aside for MBA participants to embark on a journey of discovery and self-development. The rationale is that in order to be effective, ethical and resilient leaders, MBA students must understand and develop their personal competencies.

The Friday Forum journey continues to bring considerable attention to the Lisbon MBA. The philosophy embodied in the forum has been key to recruiting high quality, open-minded students with a genuine desire for broad self-development.

Our students have emphasised that the Friday Forum was a key, differentiating aspect of the Lisbon MBA. In addition, the series was among the four finalists of the newly created Association of MBAs Innovation Award in 2011.

In today’s tumultuous, fast-changing and increasingly international business environment, organisations look for several key competencies in managers. Based on our experience with the Lisbon MBA, there are steps that schools can follow to identify, develop and link in a coherent programme the key competencies that organisations are looking for.

Select and categorise target competencies

It became clear to us that to truly develop leadership competencies, there was no choice but to break new ground. Four specific competencies in managers and leaders were identified as especially important to organisations and recruiters.

All four lie beyond technical knowledge and classroom learning. Nonetheless, they are teachable, albeit in this case through memorable and hard-hitting events. They are:
  • • Boosting creativity.
  • • Leading and inspiring others.
  • • Communicating in tough situations.
  • • Managing your (true) self.
Create strong and memorable experiences that bring students out of their comfort zone.

"Produce, with your teammates, an original piece of fado – the Portuguese traditional music genre – and perform it on stage at the end of the session."

This is the challenge that Lisbon MBA participants receive from the professor of ethnomusicology (and international fado expert) guiding the session. Supported by professional singers and guitarists, students write lyrics (in English) to a traditional melody “A casa da Mariquinhas”, practise singing techniques and perform.

Confronted by this novel task, outside of their expertise and comfort zone, students have to collectively harness creative resources. Through this task, students learn to improvise, to not be afraid of the unknown, to support one another as a team and to produce high quality from a powerful collective effort where before there were no skills.

Developing skills by doing, reflecting and feedback

In “Expressing Emotions through Painting”, students communicate in a different language – visually, not verbally. First, they explore several well-known paintings in terms of communication objectives (for example, Goya for depression, Picasso for femininity). Then, after practising different drawing techniques, participants are given a task that involves expressing complex ideas and inspiring feelings through visual language.

It is necessary to build strong and clear links between the learning activities and business imperatives. The difficult part is not finding artists, chefs or actors who can teach techniques to eager – and in some cases not-so-eager – business students. A challenge is finding speakers who can bridge competencies from other domains and business challenges.

Daena Giardella, a voice-over talent performer and improvisational actor coaching the improvisation session, has this ability. The first task in her session is to act out the following: “You are all trapped miners. The ground above you is crumbling, water is leaking in, and people are screaming. You are trying to make it up to the surface alive.”

The next 12 hours involve practising skills to get into the moment and to embrace the unexpected with curiosity and imagination. Giardella helps students to develop their ability to think and speak “on their feet” more freely and with confidence, authenticity and passion – key skills in today’s unstable business environment.

Keep changing, keep taking risks

The Friday Forum team is committed each year to taking out or substantially modifying sessions in favour of ‘new blood’. Less impactful sessions are removed, while others are retooled to avoid overlap, to make them more experiential, and to increase their practical relevance.

Not all of our experiments are successful, but it doesn’t suit the spirit of the Friday Forum to ask students to take risks, innovate and push their limits unless we do so ourselves. So the Friday Forum team continues to explore new sessions, to attempt different approaches, and to not settle for ‘good enough’.

In the autumn of 2013, a new “Sardines and Chocolate” session will be added to help students learn about professionalism, persistence and planning from haute cuisine through a day spent cooking and tasting. The tagline of this session seems an appropriate monogram to an aspiring MBA programme: “The best recipes in the world will not make you the best chef”.

* Catherine da Silveira and David Patient are professors and Friday Forum coordinators at the Lisbon MBA.