The integration of values and strategy: How an MBA prepares you to make the most impact

  • February 10, 2023
  • By WashU Olin Business School
  • 4 minute read

When you’re leading a modern organization, you’re not just expected to focus on profits. More and more, purpose is playing a huge role in corporate navigation. This is why investing in leadership development that’s built on future-forward principles—including values-based, data-driven decision-making—has become a critical must-have for anyone seeking an MBA.

The benefits of creating a purpose-driven organization are becoming clearer by the day. Leaders who fold a sense of value into everything they do can enhance employee engagement, increase innovation and drive revenue. It’s a matter of being able to combine System 1 and System 2 thinking, something that takes practice and attention but can achieve huge successes.

If you’re unfamiliar with System 1 and System 2 thinking, they represent each side of the values-based, data-driven decision-making concept. System 1 thinking is gut-driven, whereas System 2 thinking is evidence-based and analytic. Many leaders end up leaning toward System 1 thinking, and that’s not a bad thing. Someone who’s been in the trenches for 30 years should have a good nose for the right solutions. However, new and seasoned leaders can both benefit from using System 2 thinking to back up their knee-jerk System 1 instincts.

When you’ve been trained in values-based, data-driven decision-making, you learn how to effectively merge the best-of-best properties of System 1 and System 2 thinking styles. For instance, a values-based, data-driven leader knows that leadership isn’t about mindlessly going with the algorithms, although those algorithms are critical, and that going with what they think is right might not turn out to be right for everyone.

The leader understands how to couple objective information with the values of the organization and its people—as well as the community and the customers it serves. This means that the data might support the decision you want to make and just reaffirms your gut instinct or the data might contradict the decision you think is best—leading you to do some more digging for a better solution.

Leaders who exemplify the future of leadership development

There are a few notable leaders around who are able to see the big picture through a values-based, data-driven leadership view. Marc Benioff at Salesforce leverages his Silicon Valley roots in that he’s tech-savvy and attentive to evidence. He’s outspoken about social issues, community causes and more. So he exhibits a holistic understanding of how to lead with thoughtfulness and integrity.

Another leader who has combined values and data for decades is Warren Buffet. Though his charitable side may seem to sit separately from his business side, they combine well to give him a high degree of authority, trust and respect.

Traditional MBA programs didn’t put a high degree of emphasis on delivering values-based, data-driven leadership classes in the past. Now, an MBA program must focus on cultivating this type of leadership in order to best prepare students to be successful leaders. At WashU Olin Business School, students can expect that we will focus on guiding students in the interplay and integration of combining values and evidence through their MBA courses to prepare them to be leaders ready for the future of business management.

What a values-based, data-driven MBA looks like

What does all this mean in concrete terms? At the Center for Analytics and Business Insights, we work with about five companies that come to us with problems containing strong data components they’re trying to solve, like pricing product lines or managing supply chains. Our student teams head up these projects and analyze the data to find solutions. Historically, this has resulted in ecstatic companies and students walking away with real experience solving problems that they might face as leaders of their own organizations.

Sometimes a problem will need a more values-based solution backed by data. For example, we ask students if the solution could somehow be guided by a bigger purpose, such as making the company a better corporate citizen. This makes sure our MBA cohort can experiment with solving leadership issues using ethics or values as well as data.

Last year, Olin’s MBA students worked with Schnucks, a local grocery chain. Schnucks wanted to better serve its customers who shopped at stores that were economically disadvantaged. Students kept this corporate citizenship angle in mind as they poured over data related to food stamps versus other payment options.

This year, our students will work with Reinsurance Group of America, Incorporated. RGA is working on the Longevity Research Program with Olin that has the potential to be able to predict COVID deaths or deaths related to other illnesses. This program focuses on research that can help predict the morbidity of patients with life-shortening diseases. Their goal is to help improve disease prognosis and prevent the disease entirely.

While projects that students can participate in may look at different companies’ efforts, each provides a unique take on values-based, data-driven decision-making. Our hope is to expand the horizons of our students so that they can see there isn’t just one way to look at values and data.

Future-forward leaders: Doing what’s right and responsible

Leaders today and tomorrow are going to be expected to wear a “values hat.” They’ll need to have a keen understanding of the relationship between data and values, and they’ll be expected to make important decisions with confidence. That’s not a small feat but it’s a doable one for MBA program graduates who’ve been trained on techniques like System 1 and System 2 thinking.

So why invest in leadership development at Olin? Values and data are part of our school’s nerve center. It gives our students the chance to dive into exciting research that may have far-reaching consequences. If you’d like to be a future leader and you’re ready to learn from dedicated faculty, you’re in the right place.

Pictured above: Olin’s Seethu Seetharaman leads the first morning in a two-day workshop focused on “values-based, data-driven decision-making” for board members of the Center for Analytics and Business Insights.

About the Author

Washington University in Saint Louis

WashU Olin Business School

Firmly established at the Gateway to the West, Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis stands as the gateway to something far grander in scale. The education we deliver prepares our students to thoughtfully make difficult decisions—the kind that can change the world.

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