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Business Journal
MBA Stands for Mexico's Business Accelerator
Business Journal

MBA Stands for Mexico's Business Accelerator

by Jennifer Robison

What the whole world wants is a good job. This finding -- one of the key insights from the Gallup World Poll -- should resonate with business and government leaders everywhere. A good job, as the World Poll points out, is related to several indicators on a national level: food and shelter, work, health, and citizen engagement. More personally, a good job is what keeps people out of poverty.

QUOTE: The governor's objectives required a cadre of home-grown business experts to produce and sustain a world-class business environment.

Mario Marín Torres, governor of the state of Puebla, Mexico, understands this insight. In fact, he campaigned on a jobs platform and when he was elected, put a great deal of political muscle into keeping that promise. The way he managed it, however, is extremely unusual. In fact, it's fair to say there's nothing else like it in the world.

The missing cadre

Measured against countries in the developing world, Mexico's population is highly educated; more than 90% of its citizens are literate. Spending per student increased by 49% for primary and secondary students and by 67% for tertiary students between 1995 and 2003, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). And Mexico's share of public spending invested in education is the highest among OECD countries and almost twice as high as at the OECD average level. So when Governor Marín began his term, the idea of using education to increase job growth was a good cultural fit.

Governor Marín had some important objectives: reduce poverty, increase Puebla's domestic and international competitiveness by increasing per-person productivity and creating world-class jobs, attract investment and technology to the state, and establish Puebla as a globally recognized center for management technology and productivity.

Although its citizens are well-educated, highly skilled and experienced business leadership is thin on the ground in Mexico, according to Efrain Morales, dean of the Gallup University campus in Puebla. Yet that's the sort of leadership that invents what Governor Marín wanted: a culture of economic advancement. The governor's objectives required home-grown business experts to produce and sustain a world-class business environment -- the kind that naturally fosters the creation of good jobs.

That's a lot for a one person to do. So Governor Marín turned to Gallup to help bring his plan to life.

Selecting appropriate students

For more than 30 years, Gallup has conducted research into employee and customer engagement in companies big and small all over the world. And Gallup University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have partnered on innovative degree programs in locations around the world, including the Gallup MBA/MA program in executive leadership.

So Gallup had the research and resources to help Puebla create this cadre of business leaders, and Puebla had the need. But there was a gap in the middle. There was a process in place to administer an MBA program from the United States to Puebla, but there was no method to select appropriate students, and there was no efficient way to measure progress. So Puebla created one.

In 2006, the government of Puebla signed an accord with Gallup that would help Puebla fill in the gaps and reach their goals. Gallup opened a division of Gallup University in Puebla, bringing its worldwide management expertise, leadership technology, and science to the new enterprise. At the same time, Gallup began developing another project, the Puebla Job Creation Laboratory, that taught carefully selected local business leaders HumanSigma technology.

The charter class

The first group of MBA students was comprised of individuals who were ideally situated to have a profound impact on Puebla: government officials. It made economic sense. The government was paying for the program, so educating government employees would return immediate benefits to the state and its citizens. And it made social sense. To receive their graduate degree, all students not only were required to take the usual classes in marketing and accounting, but they also were required to conduct a large-scale project that would measurably demonstrate the impact of their learning -- a project that would also benefit the citizens they served.

The state government formed a new department, the Ministry of Work and Competitiveness, to facilitate the movement of Gallup science and technology throughout the government. The department was also charged with assessing candidate students because the stakes were too high to permit low standards.

"Gallup University Puebla has to be world-class," says Roberto Rojas, Ph.D., the managing partner of Gallup's Puebla office. "The students had to be held to the same standards as MBA students anywhere. Otherwise, the program would do a disservice to Puebla, the students, and Gallup."

Once the program was approved, Rojas and his team began recruiting a professorial staff, developing a curriculum with a strong emphasis on leadership and management science, and acquiring classroom facilities. The process went quickly, and in June 2006, it was time to open the doors for Gallup University Puebla's first MBA students.

Leading at home and abroad

Marilu Comellas, M.D., is the director of the state of Puebla's Hospital of Specialties. Nine hundred people report to her, from janitors to neurosurgeons, and she is also responsible for the hospital's intensive care unit. She is not the sort of person who has time to spare to collect another graduate degree. Students in the program faced a grueling course load -- four to five hours of instruction a day, three to four days a week, for 18 months -- and for the duration of the MBA course, Comellas rarely made it to bed before 2:00 a.m. But when a patient mentioned the program to her, she jumped at the chance to be evaluated for candidacy in the class.

"I look for educational and development opportunities," says Comellas. "And this program seemed fundamental. It teaches how to capitalize on the human factor by using talents to build better teams. What I learned has become the core of all my actions -- decision making, leadership, even my relationship with my kids."

QUOTE: The MBA students had demanding jobs, a tough program, and a heavy course load, but they also had to prove they were worth their employers' investment.

Comellas is one of the program's best students, but she's not atypical. All of them have high-level government postings, a proven leadership record, and serious responsibilities. But they don't necessarily have advanced knowledge in business leadership development. "We're training them to be a very special kind of leader," says Morales. "They need to be authentic leaders, transformational leaders. It's very important because everything they learn is necessary for their work and for creating jobs, but also necessary from a global perspective. The MBAs we're graduating are models for the rest of the world."

Essentially, the MBA students had demanding jobs, a tough program, and a heavy course load, but they also had to prove that they were worth their employers' investment while becoming global models for job creation. Yet, they all considered it a good deal for them. "I had heard of Gallup since college, and I was interested in their tools, their metrics, and the kind of consulting they do," says David Pablo, business administrator and chief of project evaluation at the Secretariat of Rural Development. "So I started the MBA program because I felt it was the best and biggest opportunity the government could [provide to help me] develop professionally and personally."

Though the pressure on them was intense, Rojas says that most students found the classroom to be a "place of peace." Perhaps peacefulness is a relative term, used in comparison to the students' research work outside of class.

Student projects

The student projects are the heart of the program. Throughout their course of study, the students learn the things that every MBA should leave graduate school knowing, along with elements of management that are unique to the program. But these students also have just 18 months to demonstrate that they've applied the lessons in business and management science to improve the effectiveness of their departments and initiate programs that increase Puebla's domestic and international competitiveness by increasing per-person productivity and creating world-class jobs. And they did this in some highly imaginative ways.

Vianet Gonzalez, a 13-year veteran of her department, is the director of the secretariat of planning; she is also in charge of administrative development and IT. Her primary responsibility is to improve the quality of government services from a technological standpoint.

According to a study conducted by the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank, Mexican business owners say the second greatest constraint to firm investment in Mexico is corruption (the first is informality in how business is conducted). Even the rumor of graft can destroy citizens' faith in government. So in her project, Gonzales drew on both her IT and leadership skills to bring corruption to the light of day.

"I like to keep important things simple, and corruption is important. So I [developed] a simple program," Gonzalez says. She created a database that tracks government-funded projects. It has all the typical fields that describe any project -- scope, private sector bidding, funding, etc. -- and if something shady occurs, the database throws it in high relief. "There is a corruption problem, clearly, but it's also a cultural problem," says Gonzalez. "My project lets government stay one step ahead and lets the authorities be seen as being in control."

It has certainly put her secretariat in control, and that's important to the taxpayers of Puebla and for the reputation of the government. But the database program is also easily replicable. It can be adapted to work in any public or private agency anywhere in the world. Thus, it fulfills the program's goal to make Puebla a model of business management -- and to help Gonzalez develop into a model leader.

David Pablo took a different tack. His project won't be used by members of his department, though he's integrated what he's learned about employee engagement there. Instead, the beneficiaries will be people who use his department -- small farmers -- and consumers.

QUOTE: Low produce prices drive farmers out of rural areas and into big cities – where they can't find work either – and a poor selection of healthy food in urban areas.

Fresh produce is difficult to obtain in Mexican grocery stores, yet Mexican farmers have trouble marketing to big grocery chains. The problem in this instance isn't a rapacious middleman, which farmers all over the world decry, but the lack of an efficient middleman. This results in low produce prices that drive farmers out of rural areas and into big cities -- where they can't find work either -- and a poor selection of healthy food in urban areas.

Pablo's project fills the gap by creating a market for the farmers, a produce source for the grocery stores, and better food for consumers. "We have very few channels of commerce for the [agricultural] producers of Puebla, and that is blocking sales," says Pablo. "What we need are points of sale in Puebla City so they can sell directly to the final consumer."

Pablo's project not only organized points of sale but also assisted with marketing, packaging, and transportation, which created related jobs. The result is the Fresco brand, now available in grocery outlets -- even vending machines -- all over Puebla. "The project gives additional value to the product, so the consumer gets a variety. All the fruit, vegetables, and herbs are produced locally, and there's a real social and employment impact," Pablo says.

Comellas' project neatly dovetails with Pablo's. As a public health official, Comellas is certainly aware of, and worried about, the fact that Mexico has the second highest rate of obesity and 10th highest rate of diabetes, per capita, in the world. Successful treatment of diabetes requires a sophisticated infrastructure, but Mexico is an enormous and mostly rural country. Thus, it's difficult for public health officials to adequately screen every citizen for diabetes. It's a lot easier -- as she proves -- to prevent it.

Comellas designed a module that creates personalized coping plans for people at risk for or living with diabetes. The modules have been installed in nine hospitals in the state of Puebla, have reached 140,000 people the first year, and collect data for future patient evaluations. Based on multidisciplinary socioeconomic and medical data, the modules provide information on detecting and preventing diabetes -- the leading cause of death in Mexico -- to the people most in danger of getting it. It also offers useful information on how to control diabetes for those who already suffer from the disease.

Ultimately, Comellas hopes her project offers a better quality of life to the 11.7 million Mexicans who are projected to have diabetes by the year 2025 -- and hopefully, it will reduce that projection significantly. "The project could be seen in a global perspective because of the positive impact on health," Comellas says. "It can be applied anywhere else in the world, but it should be applied with the vision that this is preventative. Earlier detection helps people avoid complications of the disease, and diabetes is a world problem."

Learning potential

The 25 MBA students at Gallup University Puebla are among the hardest working MBA candidates in the world. They work hard to maintain their jobs; to complete an education in 18 months that takes most people years; and to create meaningful, transformational projects for the people they serve. They work this hard to change the lives of the people of Puebla. But it's changing the students' lives too.

"I've learned how to be a leader and that leadership isn't only in the professional aspect of life," says Comellas. "I've learned how to reach all my goals, how to fight for them, and that I have no limits. But the most important thing [I've learned] is the importance of being a leader and to know the real value inside of each person."

Gonzalez started the MBA program because, as she says, "I wanted to grow personally and professionally. The things we learned inspire me to make a better community. When you talk about these topics, you make them more tangible, more manageable. I have more conviction now, and the program has given relevance to my leadership."

And David Pablo? He'd just like to express his gratitude and get back to work. "I'd like to thank the governor of Puebla, who gave an opportunity of development to a government employee," he says. He'd also like to use more of what he's learning in the program at work, introducing greater employee engagement and productivity in his secretariat. "But mostly," he says, " I'd like to keep doing what I'm doing because it's one of the most important areas in the government. If we work this hard in the country, there's got to be a positive effect in the city."

On December 14, 2007, commencement finally arrived. TV news stations came to film it, Governor Marín spoke (and gave each graduate a raise), and 25 MBAs received their diplomas. It was a momentous occasion and a meaningful one for all involved.

Then on Monday, each of the new MBAs went back to work -- and not a minute too soon. Puebla needs everything the 25 know about leadership, management, and job creation. The whole world is waiting for a good job, after all.

Becoming "True Leaders in the World"

Excerpts from remarks by Mario Marín Torres, Governor of the State of Puebla, Mexico, at the MBA graduation ceremony, December 14, 2007:

I am pleased to see that in only a period of [just] over two years, we have accomplished our goal. We are giving this recognition to the first generation of Leaders in the Administration of Companies [MBA]. The purpose [of this program] was not to offer just another master's degree; that is something any university can do. [We chose Gallup as our partner in this effort because] Gallup has been distinguished worldwide for having the mechanisms and the methods to [help students become] true leaders of the world. . .

This is a project that we have developed from scratch and we have supported throughout its development. That is why I'm glad . . . [that we made] this economic effort, because it also, I must mention, has a cost. [It] is worth the value, because now our colleagues with a master's degree will help us improve our government. . .

Please, to our general accountant, take note: I think these colleagues deserve a promotion. The effort they made deserves recognition; we want to take advantage of their knowledge. . . . And I believe that as government officers, they will give better service to us, the people of Puebla. But if in the future they work for another private or public company, they will put into practice this knowledge with greater efficiency, showing the leadership that characterizes Gallup University.

Many congratulations to Gallup [and] many congratulations to you, my colleagues, and to your families.


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