People and Strategy

Alex Triantis on the New Business of Graduate Business Schools

Episode Summary

In this episode of People and Strategy, host Tony Lee speaks with Alex Triantis, Dean of the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University, about the demand for a different kind of MBA experience that is both remote and premised on meaningful engagement, corporate social responsibility, and purpose-driven careers.

Episode Notes

Organizations intuitively look to graduate business schools as a funnel for job-ready candidates, especially in light of widespread talent shortages. However, forces such as the post-COVID workplace and new generational values are actively shaping what goes into a graduate business educational experience. In this episode of People and Strategy, host Tony Lee speaks with Alex Triantis, Dean of the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University, about the demand for a different kind of MBA experience that is both remote and premised on meaningful engagement, corporate social responsibility, and purpose-driven careers.

This episode of People and Strategy is sponsored by ADP.

Episode transcript

Episode Transcription

Speaker 1: Business success requires thinking beyond today. That's why ADP uses data-driven insights to design HR solutions to help your business have more success tomorrow. ADP, always designing for HR, talent, time, benefits, payroll, and people.

Tony Lee: Welcome to today's People and Strategy podcast. I'm Tony Lee, Vice President of Content for the Society for Human Resource Management, and the SHRM Executive Network, which is the premier network of executives and thought leaders in the field of human resources.

I'm excited to speak today with Alex Triantis, Dean of the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Washington, DC. Alex has a background in both industrial engineering and finance, and has taught at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Maryland before becoming dean of that school's Robert H. Smith School of Business. Alex moved to the Carey Business School in 2019, and also serves as chair-elect of the board of directors for the Association to Advance Collegiate schools of Business. Alex, welcome to the People and Strategy podcast.

Alex Triantis: Tony, thanks very much for having me.

Tony Lee: Yeah. No, this is great to have a chance to talk to you about the correlation between business schools and the students that they graduate and the business world. And I think maybe a great place to start is that the hiring market for business school graduates has been pretty strong in recent years, especially in light of widespread talent shortages. But that said, do you think most organizations look to graduate business schools when seeking job-ready candidates?

Alex Triantis: I think they do. They look at both graduate as well as undergraduate, and I would say that there's been a bit of a slant recently towards looking more at undergraduate business school graduates. But we have seen a very strong market across all schools for graduate business school graduates, both for MBAs, which is sort of the classic degree that everybody knows, as well as Master of Science degrees, which are more specialized in finance and accounting and so on in those degree programs.

Tony Lee: Yeah. So I guess the interesting question that comes out of that is research has shown that the most successful new hires, and eventually the most successful managers, have a strong combination of both hard skills and soft skills. So as someone who majored in engineering, do you think soft skills gets the focus they deserve in a business education?

Alex Triantis: Well, great question, and I like to sometimes call soft skills power skills or influence skills, because soft makes them sound like they're easy to learn, and we know that they're not. They require a lot of practice and guidance. But there's no question that we're hearing from companies that, yes, they want graduates who have really good analytics skills, and that that's almost become a necessity. But really, the differentiator comes down to those soft skills that you mentioned and being able to communicate well to explain results from analysis in corporations, the ability to negotiate, to work on teams, and so on and so forth.

And so, that's where I think business schools have put more emphasis and I think are really thriving. The great thing about a business school is it's very multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. And the ability to kind of tie together different skills and then to be able to present well and to, as I said, influence people has become more and more important over time.

Tony Lee: Yeah. So what do you say to a recruiter or even a people manager who says, "I can teach the business to someone, but I'd rather hire a liberal arts major because they know how to write and talk" and that kind of stuff?

Alex Triantis: Well, I certainly don't want to knock the liberal arts, and I think that in particular, in terms of critical thinking skills, and again, the ability to communicate clearly in writing and verbally are taught very well there. But as I said before, what a business school does is it brings together a variety of different disciplines, where you've got to have, as well as having the language of English, or whatever the language of the country you're working in, you have to have the language of business, of accounting, of finance, and understanding what the issues are.

So I think that's the real strength, again, of a business education, is you do get critical thinking skills, but they're also applied to problems that are very similar to what you're going to be seeing when you start working. And so, we're getting our students ready for that. We're giving them an opportunity to practice those skills in an environment where they can more readily fail and learn from those. And so, to me, there's more of a package there that gets them job-ready day one.

Tony Lee: Mm-hmm. Okay. So you've spoken in the past about the importance of developing partnerships between business schools and employers. Can you share what that might look like or if there's an example that you can cite?

Alex Triantis: Sure. Well, very briefly, I think there's a variety of dimensions to a partnership. Obviously, we want our students to be able to launch great careers out of the business school, so those employer relationships are critical. But really, a full relationship, from my perspective, involves having companies bring some of their problems to us, whether it's working together with our faculty or very frequently working together with our students, giving them consulting projects, in this day and age, giving them big data sets and saying, "I need to learn some insights out of this. Can you help us scratch away at the data here and see what you come up with?" Getting involved in all the various fun and important things that we do in business schools like pitch competitions and case competitions and crisis management competitions, and having a presence there and helping our students learn from their experience.

And then, one thing that we definitely should discuss is lifelong learning. I think just the pattern of learning has changed over time. We have a lot of working professionals in our programs doing graduate degrees or certificates. And having those close relationships where companies understand what the various schools can offer in those, whether they call them executive education or corporate education partnerships is super important. So to me, a full partnership involves a lot of those put together in a way that can be guided well over time, regardless of who comes or leaves in the corporation or in the business school.

Tony Lee: Yeah. No, it makes perfect sense. And we've seen some great examples of companies actually supplying a guest lecturer for the day, or in an extreme example, an adjunct professor to come in and teach on a topic that is of great importance to that company. Do you see that happening? And if so, how can a company best outreach to a business school to say that they're interested in partnering?

Alex Triantis: Yeah, we see that happening a lot. And I think most business schools will start with their alumni, who are anxious to visit and give back in a variety of ways. But at the same time, I can speak at least from the Hopkins Cary Business School, that we often reach out to other companies where there are folks in a particular area that we're trying to tap into.

So it can go both ways, as you said. I think folks on the corporate side can tap into people that they know at a particular business school or frankly, just cold call into the dean's office or the office of corporate relations or executive education or the career development office, whatever it may be, and just indicate interest. And I'm sure that business schools would be more than ready to take them up on the offer.

Tony Lee: Yeah. No, that's great. All right. So let's pivot a little bit. Corporate social responsibility, ethics, sustainability, they're all now part of the business education vernacular. And it's been that way for some time, but it's being discussed in the C-Suite on a regular basis as well. How can business schools, do you think, work with companies on these topics?

Alex Triantis: Yeah, it's a great question. You introduced that well, and I would say it's not only corporations that are saying, "Hey, this is really important," but our students come to us really wanting exploring sort of their why, their purpose of why they're in a business school. And very frequently, that involves a focus on a purpose-driven career and doing things to help societal problems. We actually, at Carey Business School, we have a course called Business Leadership and Human Values that every student has to take, and we use that as an opportunity for our students to really explore and think more deeply about the why.

So to your question about how can we work together, some of the same themes that I mentioned before, we are seeing an increasing number of new courses on ESG or sustainable development. We are seeing content being infused in courses like accounting and finance and supply chain. And for all of these, it really helps to have the expertise of business professionals to come in and help with the lecture in that vein.

So, sort of same answer to what I gave before is we will reach out, but also we will gladly welcome reach-outs from business professionals. Also, AACSB, I think, is doing a tremendous job in reaching out to businesses, creating an accelerator where the ideas around what the competencies really are that we should be training our students at business schools right now to get them ready for an impact on sustainability within the corporations. And it's not just, as I mentioned before, understanding how it impacts accounting and supply chain, but it's also, back to the soft skills, it's also understanding the importance of a multi-stakeholder solution and driven by human-centered design thinking and empathy, figuring out how to work on teams that involve folks that have business focus as well as an engineering focus or public policy focus. And that's where listening to what you all see as business professionals and helping us design the path for us to educate our students in these various skills and knowledge is super important.

Tony Lee: Yeah. We should shout out here that if anyone is interested in learning more about that, it's, and you can go on to learn more about how businesses are working more closely with business schools.

I want to ask also, some of the hot topics in all things work these days are, for example, employee engagement. It's a real pressing issue. Whether you're talking about the Great Resignation, quiet quitting, HR leaders seem to be facing, frankly, a disengaged workforce. I'm wondering, from your perspective, do you think this is a generational issue, young Millennials, Gen Z have different workplace expectations, or is there something more?

Alex Triantis: Wow. A lot to unpack here, because as you said, we're all trying to figure this out right now. I do think that there are different expectations, as you mentioned, in terms of the ability to move up rapidly in an organization, the interest in kind of moving fast from one project to another, this sort of multitasking ability, but also, I think, sort of necessity that many in the younger generation feel these days to do a lot all at once.

So I do think there is some of that general generational piece to it, but I think both or all generations are trying to adapt to this, right? Because we also understand the importance of being there as senior employees in companies for the more junior employees and supporting them and me and mentoring them. And that's been, frankly, I think a bit of a challenge in organizations that I've been speaking with, in terms of some of the senior employees may be feeling like they don't need to be in the office as much, and the junior employees feeling the same way for different reasons, but maybe not fully internalizing the impact, the negative impact, that they may be having on their careers by not being in there and engaging quite as much.

Tony Lee: Yeah. No, that's a great topic, so let's explore that a little bit further. You're in a unique situation, because educational institutions went through the pandemic like everyone else. You had to go to virtual learning, and now bringing students back, I would imagine students are much happier to get back on campus than, frankly, employees may be to get back into a workplace.

Alex Triantis: Yeah.

Tony Lee: But you have employees there as well, so you're seeing both sides of it. Have you weighed the values of remote versus hybrid versus in-person as it comes to both learning and working, and have any thoughts to share there?

Alex Triantis: Sure. Well, I would say that students generally are looking for more interaction. It doesn't always translate into wanting to be in a classroom at a particular day and time as much as one would think about. And I think that's challenged us in interesting ways. Because we went into this remote teaching environment, how you teach remotely is challenging, just like how we have our meetings through Zoom and so on.

We actually have, at Hopkins Carey Business School, we have a pretty extensive teaching and learning group of about 35 people who are just focused on learning and how learning is changing, all the way from technology and how that impacts it to just figuring out sort of how you design a course, what you do in-person, what you maybe do offline, so to speak, which is actually online through asynchronous learning, and how you create more and more experiences. So I think that's a necessity these days to try to make it, as you used the word before, engagement, how do you really engage with your students through experiences? But I think it's actually great, because we're better preparing our students for the future of work and working together on teams and projects and so on.

So the other thing I'll mention is that we have, at Carey, but also in general, any graduate school of business has a large number of working professionals who are getting an MBA or maybe a Master's of Science degree. We've found that the appetite to be in-person again, has declined after the pandemic. So online MBAs now represent the majority of MBAs in the United States. There's more students doing an online MBA than being there in-person, either full-time or part-time. So we can see that that market really accelerated through the pandemic, and I think that's here to stay. So again, it's up to us to figure out how to optimize that experience so the students get the networking, get the engagement, but at the same time have the flexibility that they seem to really value.

Tony Lee: Yeah. It's a tough one, but it sounds like you're getting your hands around it well. Another topic I want to touch on with you is, a lot has been said and implemented in recent years by both employers and educational institutions that are eager to create a more inclusive environment. Do you think those efforts are working? There's been a lot of debate that DE&I training since the George Floyd murder has increased dramatically, but there's been question as to how effective it is. What's your thought there?

Alex Triantis: Well, my thought is, just to give you a sense of the magnitude of what we and I imagine a lot of business schools are doing, we developed a roadmap a little more than a year ago, and it was, I would say, post-George Floyd. I think that's the point where every business school was doing something, but the commitment really accelerated at that point. We have a 27-point plan of things that we're doing in DEIB. And I promise I won't take you through that plan, but it gives you just a sense of how deep the commitment, I think, really has to be in order to influence students, in order to work more closely with corporations and with our communities.

And some of it is obvious and maybe a little bit easier, such as how do you increase diversity in your pipeline? And so, we and other schools have figured out partnerships that can allow that. Some of it is figuring out a course or courses that focus on managing diverse teams or leading in a diverse environment. So those are kind of typical type of course names that we and others would have.

But the harder part, I think, to your question is how do you really, truly make it an inclusive experience? In fact, at Carey, we call it DEIB, with the B being belonging, which is sort of the ultimate goal where students really feel like, "Yeah, I really belong in this environment." And for that, every single course, every single club and interaction and extracurricular that you do at the business school has to be designed with that framing of, "Are we really making sure that we're being fully inclusive? Do our faculty know how to put in content which is important in whatever the course that they're teaching, not just one that's focused on DEIB, do they know how to address issues that may come up in the middle of a class?" And that's going to take a while for us to kind of achieve, across the board, ability to ensure that inclusiveness.

Tony Lee: Well, it sounds like you're making great inroads and efforts there. So we're out of time, but Alex, thank you. We really appreciate you sharing your expertise and insights with us today. You can follow the People and Strategy podcast wherever you listen to your podcast, and you can learn more about the SHRM Executive Network at Also, listener reviews have a real impact on a podcast's visibility. So if you enjoyed today's episode, please take a moment to leave a review and help others find the show. And finally, you can find all of our episodes on our website at Thanks for listening and have a great day.

Speaker 1: Business success requires thinking beyond today. That's why ADP uses data-driven insights to design HR solutions to help your business have more success tomorrow. ADP, always designing for HR, talent, time, benefits, payroll, and people.