Business school deans are well placed to comment on leadership. We ask three of them what they expect from a CEO in a downturn and what they'll be teaching the next crop of students
When a downturn brings a general crisis of confidence in the economy, the capabilities of leaders to ride the storm convincingly come under scrutiny. External stakeholders will be expecting directors to articulate a sound strategy for the coming months, while gloomy employees, who may feel that things can only get worse, will need their boss to keep them up to date. And it's not just business leaders who will be feeling the pressure.
While UK business schools have become increasingly popular over the years, with many giving the US schools a good run for their money, according to a joint report by Advanced Institute of Management Research and the Association of Business Schools, deans are also facing complex challenges. As well as formulating their school's strategic direction and positioning, they also have to manage its financial performance, its external reputation and image, and stakeholder expectations. The report claims that deans see themselves as having to fulfil "an impossibly broad range of leadership skills", from negotiators and strategists to managers and bureaucrats.
According to the deans consulted for the report, successful business school leaders should also encourage innovation, be self-aware, create energy, and have academic credibility. As Professor Len Shackleton, dean of the University of East London Business School comments: "This is no old-fashioned academia. We're in no different a position from that of a business out in the market. We have to get students in, sell courses, apply for grants. We spend a lot of time on marketing and advertising. We have a huge range of stakeholders. It's a funny old business." In this context, how do business school deans view leadership right now? What makes a good leader? Can that be taught? How do the new crop of business school students differ from those of 20 years ago? And what qualities do leaders need if we are, indeed, approaching a recession?
Director spoke to three to find out.
Who: Richard Gillingwater
Where: Cass Business School, City University
There are three different leadership styles. One is the intellectual, where the leader is the strategist and gets others to implement. The second is the motivator, who is good at engaging. And the third is the doer, the grafter, who is very good at execution. Each of these can play in different types of organisation, provided that the final attribute of any good leader is that they know what their strengths are and can compensate for them appropriately.
My view is that you can't teach good leadership. Having said that, any good management course will equip you with the tools and the functional insights (strategy, finance) and allow you time to reflect on what your preferred style is.
Business students are more realistic these days—they are a lot more focused about what they want to get out of their course. They definitely want to get more soft skills out of their MBA. They are hugely more international and very mobile. They are looking at the world as an opportunity and will move from Cass to international jobs all over the world.
In times of recession, business leaders need resilience above all else. Experience helps, although not a lot will have experience of previous recessions. And you need to have a clear sense of priority and strong execution skills. Mervyn King [the governor of the Bank of England] called it the NICE [Non-inflationary, Consistently Expansionary] generation. In the NICE times you have more latitude. But now, you can't afford to make mistakes. A lot of CEOs don't have anywhere near as strong a financial skills base as they should have. At times like this, you need to have a very strong awareness of the finance side of the equation."
Who: Professor Michael Osbaldeston
Where: Cranfield School of Management
Those people in leadership roles, particularly top leadership roles, are constantly asked: 'Where are we going and how are we going to get there?' Unless you have a very good answer to the vision you have for the long-term, then the credibility of your leadership will be challenged.
I have little time for what is often referred to as "heroic leadership", where the leader is this great superman character who does it all himself. It's phenomenally important to nurture talent and build the team around you. And you can have the best strategic vision in the world, but if you can't sell it and inspire others to get excited about it, then it becomes a bit academic.
The CEO has to manage upwards. In a company, it's managing the board, and also outside, in terms of all the various stakeholders who increasingly believe they have a role to play in our organisations.
The softer skills have become more important over the years. You can have wonderful analytical and rational skills in terms of working out long-term strategy, but if you can't build a team around you, inspire them to want to join you and motivate them to stay, then it seems a bit sterile.
The resilience to ride out a storm is incredibly important and it's obvious we have a storm around the corner. The size of the storm is yet to be determined. I'm a sailor and if you get caught in a storm, then what you do is batten down the hatches, take the sails down, don't do anything stupid and you know the storm will end eventually.
When it gets really tough you probably have to make tough decisions and choices that you've not made before. The key is not to panic or overreact. If we go on calling it a recession, then it will be one.
People from around the world are seeing UK business schools as having come of age in comparison with their US partners. Students are also becoming more entrepreneurial. Twenty-five per cent of our students tell us they're here because they intend to start their own businesses. Some do, some don't, but that's interesting, bearing in mind that most of them come from large organisations. Even if they're not starting their own company, they're looking to change something. I've also noticed that they're becoming increasingly values-driven. They'll have great interest in areas such as CSR and the role of business in society."
Who: Professor Len Shackleton
Where: University of East London Business School
Business leaders need a whole range of skills that they must try to balance. As an economist by background, I think analytical nous is very important. You have to understand the business you're in, where it's going, what the possibilities are, what your strengths and weaknesses are. But you also have to have an intuitive grasp of how people will work and what will ring bells and what will not.
You have to be simultaneously soft and tough-minded. Be prepared to listen to people, give full support, help them build their careers. Those are the soft skills. But you have to have the toughness to confront people and make decisions that will not make everybody happy.
There's an increasing emphasis on attempts to teach or at least draw-out leadership. I think this is on people's agendas at the moment. Because of the increasing complexity of business, and the number of stakeholders you have to deal with, it's really got to be a central focus. Business leaders can't just be technocrats. They've got to have this broader grasp.
There's no question that the student of 20 years ago is very different to the student of today. Statistically, there are a lot more. People come from very different backgrounds. Often, they're not intrinsically interested in subjects as such, but they want to get jobs. This is a central feature of what we're doing, at an undergraduate level. Preparing people for the work environment. We recognise that work has different meanings. It's not necessarily working for a FTSE-100 company but also in the public sector, small businesses, or working for yourself.
Every downturn actually throws up a number of opportunities. Even when an economy is losing jobs net, it's creating jobs all the time. There are opportunities to grab."