How business schools are helping students cope with stress

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The Independent Online

The rounded manager" is one of those phrases that echoes round the corporate recruitment world. It reflects the fact that companies are seeking much more than the harder analytical and financial skills in their aspiring senior managers. They expect to see evidence of strong leadership, good people skills and an ability to resolve conflicts in a calm and reflective way. Business schools have responded to this expectation by raising the profile of personal development within their MBA programmes, using a wide variety of techniques to identify students' strengths and weaknesses.

It is the lunch break at Bristol Business School, which dedicates several days throughout the MBA course specifically to personal development. While many head for the cafeteria after a session on stress management, a dozen or so students and members of staff have elected to take part in a 90-minute meditation session run by Austrian trainer Dr Johannes Balas. They will try four or five different positions for meditation, from sitting quietly in a circle focusing on a burning candle to expressive movement.

"Meditation is one of the techniques which can help people deal with positive and negative stress arising from the emotional, intellectual and physical challenges faced by managers in a complex world," says Bristol's MBA director, Svetlana Cicmil. "It will help our students adapt to moments of dislocation in their business lives. If you understand yourself better through this kind of reflective deliberation of your own behaviour, then you will be able to better understand your colleagues."

But meditation is only one aspect of Bristol's personal development process. This is a continuum of activities, including advice on how to focus on career goals, CV writing, coping with colleagues and psychometric testing. An awareness of stress management and relaxation techniques is also important.

Beyond challenging the brain, the Bath University School of Management's MBA students are encouraged to stretch all of their abilities. The MBA Director, Peggy van Luyn, explains that they have the use of the university's sports facilities: "In our revised MBA programme, personal development is taking centre stage as we develop 'the whole manager'." In their first week, students take part in team-building exercises, which serve as an ice-breaker but also help inspire them to succeed as team leaders and team members.

Negotiating a giant "spider's web" made of intertwined ropes is one of the team-building challenges for Bath MBA students as they strive to motivate and influence each other. They have to lift other team members and get them through the web without touching the ropes.

Another exercise requires the whole team to stand on a narrow wooden plank, each in turn helping the others to get to the other end of the plank without falling off. "These activities develop a sense of camaraderie and the realisation that they are all in it together," says Van Luyn.

Many other schools offer similar induction exercises. Both Manchester Metropolitan University Business School and Lancaster University Management School take advantage of their proximity to challenging natural terrain to offer their MBAs the chance to test themselves in the great outdoors. Manchester students take part in a Peak District activity weekend at the start of their course with rock climbing, abseiling and orienteering on tap.

Manchester's MBA director, Patricia Rees, explains that the aim is partly for students to boost their self-confidence by proving to themselves that they can do things they never thought they were capable of: "There are credits for the winning teams which enable them to buy materials such as oil drums and rope for building rafts, which they then race against each other on a lake. But the weekend is not all about physical trials. As part of their team-building exercises, students have, in the past, re-enacted Hamlet for one another, depicting it in their own words. This demonstrates how different groups interpret the same material."

"When it comes to leadership skills, we really major in putting theory into practice," says Malcolm Kirkup, MBA director at Lancaster. "We feel that students are coming onto our course to be transformed in some way. To achieve that, we can't just sit them in a lecture theatre and set them academic assignments. We have to work on their personal skills too."

This means taking students off campus to put them into an unfamiliar environment such as the Lake District to challenge them in a different context for up to three days. Every individual has the opportunity to lead a small team and every team member has the chance to give feedback on their leadership style. It may be orienteering or retrieving objects from the middle of a lake. The idea is to create an activity to test an individual's leadership skills from pre-planning through to outcome.

As Malcolm Kirkup says: "Employers are asking tough questions as to the MBA's value. Business schools have a responsibility to identify the particular skills that are lacking in the senior managers of the future and must rise to the challenge of developing them."

'Meditation lets you think about what you want to achieve'

Matt Lowe, 33, is studying on the one-year full-time MBA programme at Bristol Business School and took part in the meditation exercise as part of the Personal Development Process. He is now an advocate for the value of building reflective time into the high-pressure MBA course.

Matt Lowe's rationale for doing an MBA was to have time out to reflect on 10 year's work experience, having become the youngest ever manager of a major branch of the BSS Group, the national distributor of heating and plumbing materials.

"I felt I had reached a plateau and was determined to remain open-minded about which way my career would go. Bristol's emphasis on personal development meant that we were asked at the outset of the course to say what we would like to achieve during this year.

"Meditation formed a valuable part of the review day further into the course. The sessions, which included one on stress management techniques, opened my eyes to the notion that the MBA must deliver a very broad experience if it is to develop you as an individual beyond the academic learning aspect. Meditation is one way of giving you space to think about what you actually want to achieve."