How Wharton Creates ‘Leaders That Have A Positive Impact On The World’: Q&A With New Vice Dean Nicolaj Siggelkow

The Wharton School’s Huntsman Hall. Courtesy photo

Let’s talk about your new role as vice dean of the MBA program. How did the opportunity come about?

The opportunity opened up because my predecessor decided, ‘Okay, I’ve done this for a while and it’s maybe time for someone else to step into the role.’ I was absolutely delighted and pleased that dean James and deputy dean Nancy Rothbard approached me for that position.

As you progress in your career, you really think more about the impact of the work you do. I’ve clearly had some impact in the academic world, but I think the biggest impact that we can have as the Wharton School is really through our students, and primarily through our MBA students. A thousand students basically go out into the world every year, and they are the ones who ultimately make the big decisions on investments and hiring, for example.

I think the MBA program is the biggest lever The Wharton School has of changing the world. That’s exciting. On top of that, Dean James is right on that path, and I think she has assembled an amazingly good team. I thought it would be fun to be part of that team and collectively push things forward.

What are some of the high level things you’d like to accomplish?

One is around a more personalized, individualized educational experience in the two years that students are here, and in all the different opportunities of how they can grow and develop. That’s certainly something that we’re going to continue to push forward.

Nicolaj Siggelkow

I just read the Poets&Quants article on the Wharton Class of 2024 and, for better or worse, I think that one theme is that Wharton is big, and Wharton basically has an infinite number of opportunities. So, how do we help students navigate that and really get the most out of it, even as their goals might be changing over time? There is some transformation happening, which is good, so how can we help adapt their learning journey?

The next thing is while, on the one hand, everyone would like to have this individualized, personalized experience, everyone also wants to have a feeling of belonging and community. And those things are somewhat in conflict. I think, intriguingly, every company is currently having the same question coming out of COVID. Everyone says, ‘I really would like to decide when I can work from home and when I go in. That flexibility is really valuable to me. And whenever I go to work, I would like everyone to be there, because otherwise, why would I come to work?’

There’s a tension there, and it’s sort of similar here: Everyone wants to have this absolutely personalized, individualized experience while at the same time feeling a deep sense of community and belonging. I think, for us, we have to really think hard about how we rebuild communities at Wharton. One initiative will certainly be to strengthen and continue to build communities around what I call ‘areas of passion or interest’. Take, say, environment and sustainability; We know a lot of students coming in are very much engaged and passionate about this topic. We are trying to create communities that go a little bit beyond a particular class or major. Students want to use their two years here to hone skills that will impact the world once they leave, and ultimately, that allows us to extend these communities beyond the two years.

Third, I really want Wharton to be the trusted, lifelong partner in your needs around business education. Clearly, we try the best we can to teach you a lot in the two years that you’re here. But, we can’t teach you everything that you will need to know, and you don’t know what else will come five years, 10 years in the future. Thinking about the customized, personalized journey, it shouldn’t stop after two years.

In a very long winded way, we’re kind of getting to this big, hot topic of ‘What is the value proposition of our MBA?’ To me, it’s being part of the Wharton community, it’s being part of the Wharton ecosystem, and that extends beyond those first two years. Creating these deeper links and continuing our help, that is why you want to come to a place like Wharton.

Speaking of the value proposition of the MBA, we’ve seen several schools reconsider their traditional two-year MBA, while others are grumbling that the degree may be losing its cache. That’s not the case at a school like Wharton. But, if you’re talking of lifelong relationships with students for business education needs, does that diminish the value of the traditional two-year degree?

I feel we have enough to teach you for two years. We can keep you busy. Now, I wouldn’t say an MBA is the right degree for everyone, and I think that that’s important. But, for the big hairy problems that we’re facing as a society, and that a lot of businesses face — be it climate change, be it social equity — I think you need to have a more systemic understanding of these businesses.

Sure, I can do a one year master’s in subject X, and I will learn a lot about that. If that’s the only thing that I need to know and want to know, perfectly fine. But, if we want to create impactful leaders who will create significant change in organizations, I think we need to have a more holistic view. There’s quite a bit you need to learn to appreciate that most problems can’t be solved with one little fix. There’s usually a system and you push here and it has the ripple effects there. If our goal is to have a huge impact on society and educate leaders who can do that, I think they require quite a lot.

Now, will the program always be a two-year residential? That’s a different question. Can the content of the second year be delivered in a more flexible, personalized way? Probably. Clearly, I don’t think that the exact format of it has to be living here in two years in Philadelphia. But, I’m a little bit skeptical of how much you can do in a year.

Are you talking here at Wharton about different format options?

We are still in the process of rebuilding post COVID, but we have been looking at what we’ve learned in that time. Obviously, the biggest innovation in terms of that is our new global cohort for the Executive MBA, which has a slightly different customer base and experience of our MBA. If you have in the workforce for 10, 15 years, you may not need as much of the community and network building.

We are starting this year with a few classes that we offer just online. When the university changed its calendar, we carved out a week in each quarter, called opportunity weeks, where we now can offer things that we could not offer before. That might be an international trip or an intense class that you can take in that week. All of that also increases the flexibility of how students can put together their schedules. There are continuous kinds of innovations happening around the curriculum and how we deliver it.

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