Dean Katrin Muff : Breaking Barriers in Business Education

Courage is a kind of virtue. Some call it a blessing, some call it a curse - all depending on the result of the outcome. Maybe it is something that grows with experience? To trust our insights, we have to get relevant feedback and accumulate expertise. Business leaders have to integrate environmental and humanitarian aspects into their daily decisions alongside the financials. It is therefore so important to make sustainable practices essential pillars of business schools’ curricula and community values. We predict that business students that appreciate this importance are likely to become the leaders of tomorrow and have a great impact on society.


"50+20 is a radical vision of what business school or management education could and should be".

The vision that Katrin Muff, Dean of Business School Lausanne (BSL) is talking about is the one she created with her peers as the 50+20 vision. It is an initiative with the purpose of integrating sustainability into educational curricula, teaching and research, and also converting the business schools themselves into custodians of society. The 50+20 project was presented at the RIO+20 UN Conference in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. 

The 50 stands for the 50+ years that have passed since the Gordon-Howell and Carnegie reports in the late 1950s defined the modern discipline-based business school that still dominates the landscape today. The 20 represents the 20 years that have elapsed since the original 1992 RIO Earth Summit where business joined forces to engage in sustainable development, yet the voice of business schools was largely absent. Katrin Muff is also the Co-Founder of the World Business School Council for Sustainable Business, a member of the Board of the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI), and a member of the International Advisory Board of the University of Maastricht.

The 2002 UN World Summit in Johannesburg marked a crucial turning point for higher education’s role in promoting sustainability. The next 14 years saw Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) principles transform into concrete opportunities for business leaders and management educators to address together societal issues through intersectionality of leadership goals and expertise. ESD aims to integrate essential sustainability values into all dimensions of formal learning, by promoting critical thinking, diversifying teaching methods, empowering learners to participate in the decision-making process and engaging them around global issues. But not much has happened since then and that is what Katrin Muff and her colleagues have decided to fix.

It was at the 2010 Annual conference of the Academy of Management in Montreal, that the idea first took shape. A few deans including Muff asked themselves: “What is the role of business schools in helping to solve the emerging big sustainability issues around the world?” A talk at the United Nations in New York led to Muff mobilizing a broad global stakeholder group to develop an answer to this question and to present it at the 2012 Rio+20 UN conference.

The 50+20 core auditors team: from left to right, Thomas Dyllick, Paul Shrivastava, Katrin Muff, Mark Drewell, and John North

The 50+20 core auditors team: from left to right, Thomas Dyllick, Paul Shrivastava, Katrin Muff, Mark Drewell, and John North

Here are some excerpts from Margareta Barchan’s interview with Katrin Muff about the project:

Margareta Barchan: What was particularly difficult in launching the 50+20 project?

Katrin Muff: It took courage to even set up such an agenda. How could a small and fairly unknown business school in Switzerland do this on its own? And why is it that the more established schools aren’t already doing it? I think it took courage to dare to become a voice in the community. Training future business leaders is my daily job and my passion. That’s the easy part. The hard part was for me to step up to the plate and give this passion a real voice.

Barchan: How was the project received by other deans?

Muff: The EFMD (Europe’s largest association for business schools) launched their own conference about the future of business schools at the time, to which I was invited to present my thoughts. I got very positive feedback from some deans but mostly from other professors, and people started referring me and started to join the growing movement. The magic of the project was that it galvanized many others from around the world.

Barchan: Did you anticipate any opposition from within BSL?

Muff: My responsibility is to develop the school and I have spent a lot of time thinking of how engaging with the community around 50+20 will reflect on the school. I was surprised by how much interest this generated with our faculty and potential students.

Barchan: Any obstacles or dilemmas you have faced so far?

Muff: The only dilemma I have encountered is the workload but it turned out fine. For a while, 50% of my resources had to go to 50+20. The school was in a growth period and we had excellent people who contributed to the development, invented new programs, etc. It was well timed.

Barchan: Did you ever have doubts about whether this was the right thing to do?

Muff: No, it is my passion- what inspires me. The project team became a family as we spent weekends and evenings together on retreats during the project duration of a year and a half.

Barchan: Where is the project today? Are the sustainability circles enlarged and is the team doing things you talked about?

Muff: We went back to our schools in July 2012 and implemented the changes where we could. We each focused on our own schools so we wouldn’t just be preaching but also implementing. At BSL, we created a brand new Doctoral program in Business Sustainability that absorbs about 25% of my time and a part-time Executive Program in Business Sustainability in partnership with the University of St. Gallen. On a global basis, 50+20 was integrated into GRLI and we developed and launched innovation cohorts and collaborative bench circles on a number of topics around the world.

Barchan: It takes courage to stand up for one’s values and not fall back on teaching conventional economics and traditional business practices.

Muff: Yes, 50+20 helped me evolve as a business and academic practitioner. It is easy to have an ambitious vision, but to execute it is more difficult.  Do you dare to pursue it even if you might fail? One might have asked: what happens if BSL focuses on sustainability, what does this do to the influx of students, and would the professors support it? In order to get going at BSL, we turned the mission building exercise into a big stakeholders process. Before, I had the idea that some of us would develop a vision and then it would be implemented. When a vision is jointly developed, the implementation is much easier thereafter.

At the same time we were audited by the Economy for the Common Good which is a Certification Program for companies to determine their contribution to society. It was a student-led project and we discovered a lot of blind spots where we could improve. Developing a joint mission with our stakeholders was the first time BSL brought together alumni, students, professors, and community members.

Barchan: Was that the breakthrough point for you: personal values becoming the organization’s values?

Muff: The stakeholder mission process was definitely a turning point. I wanted to ensure that everyone could find something in the vision that spoke to them.

Barchan: Does it take a certain organization to endure this type of change?

Muff: There is a theory that says that this depends where an organization is placed on the axis of flexible versus stable and on the axis of internally versus externally focused. Quantum leap change is suitable for flexible externally focused organizations, while stable, internally focused organizations better stick with continuous improvement. Those involved in the 50+20 project were all very externally focused, had the connections to what was happening in the world. Over the past 8 years, BSL has become very flexible and the 50+20 project brought an external perspective that accelerated things greatly. It not only matters what type of structure but also what type of leaders heads an organization that is facing change.

Barchan: What are the signs of a responsible future leader? You see so many students coming in. Can you tell when they will become Brave Leaders, standing up for their values and beliefs?

Muff: Their attitude, flexibility and adaptability are the telling signs. Our research shows that, in addition, strong communication skills and the ability to step back and see the whole picture are key to success. Education encompasses knowledge, skills and attitude. The attitude is most difficult to change. One thing we did is that we implemented mandatory courses in self-reflection in order to increase their self-knowing. I believe that Brave Leaders are best seen in action, which is worth more than their words alone.

Barchan: What ultimately is success for you?

Muff: When you can align your inner values with what you express in work. If you are in an organization that allows it, then you are lucky. Making a bold statement like the 50+20 vision at the Rio conference is not enough, success to me lies in my ability to translate this vision in my daily practice at the business school, into our programs, the way we manage, into our research and also in how I personally walk my talk.

It strikes me that many leaders act in a very disjointed way from their values. If you feel connected with your values, you may develop the courage to make the changes you want to see. Then, those values and your courage spread to your surrounding network, and will eventually become embedded in a larger community.