The post-recession leader


As a global economic recovery gathers pace, organisations are focused on growth again. And having learnt the lessons of the downturn, leaders in all sectors are recognising the need to brush up on their softer skills. So how do the business schools measure up?

While core technical ability is no less vital to strong and effective leadership, softer skills – built around engagement, values and ethics, sustainability, and a more inclusive approach to business – have become just as important. But can providers of business education and leadership development programmes deliver?

The 2013 Hanover Research report, MBA Course Trends, which looked at executive education globally, found that while technical expertise is still important, soft skills are becoming more in demand for individuals moving into senior positions. The research also highlighted a greater focus by business schools on ethics. Many academics believe that recognition of the importance of soft skills will become pervasive in executive education.

The rapid pace of technology is also a factor, especially when dealing with younger employees who have grown up with the internet and communicate instantly via Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Senior managers must adapt their communication style accordingly. The world of work itself has changed. There no longer exists a job for life, and so the ability to adapt to different environments and cultures, the talent to manage change and the mental resilience to deal with the stress of the modern workplace are all key ingredients of success.

Hudson adds: “In the future, executive education will be focused on developing leaders who are more inclusive and less dictatorial, more strategically and globally minded, more influential, and more prepared to question and challenge, especially when dealing with performance.”

Roger Barker, the IoD’s director of corporate and governance standards, agrees. “There is much more to being a director than just making sure the business is compliant with rules and regulations. Good decision-making on the board is dependant on personal interaction. Directors need to be able to engage with a range of opinions and challenge ideas constructively.”

Some business schools with well-established post-graduate programmes are responding to the demand for greater emphasis on the development of soft skills.

The University of Liverpool has adapted its online MBA programme to include a personal development plan, which encourages students to set professional and personal goals and to identify the soft skills that will enable them to achieve these targets.

Director of studies Claire Moxham says: “Technical competence alone is no longer sufficient for C-level positions. To be a transformational leader in the context of globalisation, corporate social responsibility and innovation requires a balance of technical and soft skills. As the pedagogy of the online MBA is based on collaboration and communication, students develop technical knowhow and their softer inter-personal skills in parallel. Discussions on soft skills, trust and social responsibility permeate all of the modules, giving students exposure to international perspectives on these important issues.”

Show some emotion
Leaders will also be expected to demonstrate emotional intelligence (EI) to enable their own continuous personal and professional development, and that of the people for whom they are responsible. This is particularly important when teams are under pressure to cope with increased workloads in the face of reduced staff, where a leader’s EI plays a key role in motivating people.

Kerrie Fleming, director of the Ashridge Leadership Centre at Ashridge Business School, says: “Developing EI is all about being self-aware and aware of others. This involves lifting your head from the task in hand and noticing what is going on around you. It is about how you deal with problems – leading by example, taking the initiative, handling difficult situations, and developing good relationships with colleagues and clients. EI is a powerful means of communicating effectively, building relationships and creating a positive working environment.”

Change management skills have become increasingly important as many organisations need to restructure to meet challenging and different market conditions, so a leader’s ability to negotiate and manage conflict has become more significant.

Another crucial soft-leadership skill is the ability to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity, says Professor John Blenkinsopp, head of organisational behaviour and human resource management at Hull University Business School. “Management education traditionally sought to reduce uncertainty by equipping managers with analytical tools to break down the problem and thereby reduce uncertainty,” he says. “While this remains valuable in many situations, at other times uncertainty is unavoidable, and managers need to be able to stay with the uncertainty rather than rushing to action.

“Our own research has shown that the challenges of the MBA, the parts of the programme that cause students most anxiety, can lead to an enhanced ability to cope with uncertainty and recognition that sometimes it is appropriate to wait rather than act.”

Shaping effective leaders
Some business schools see no need to distinguish between different types of leadership skills; they are treated as integral to executive development and education.

At Henley Business School, for example, no explicit mention is made of, nor any distinction drawn between, soft and hard skills on the MBA programme.

“They might be popular, but these terms don’t really mean anything. If anything, management is intrinsically understood to be both,” says Henley Business School’s Dr Chris Dalton. “An executive MBA is a chance to take control and set the direction for the whole second half of a person’s career. Many schools under-estimate, or misjudge, how important personal development (PD) is for this, and either fail to address it or make an attempt to do so using bolt-on sessions with titles and content more reminiscent of titles on self-help bookshelves at airports.”

Henley’s pluralistic approach welcomes any activity that managers are doing, at work or elsewhere, to develop their strengths and new behaviours, or to set challenging goals. “We were pioneers of promoting learning and working with, and through, other people in groups and teams, and we focus on emotional maturity this way,” adds Dalton. “We have made PD a core component of the degree, with mandatory reflective assignments. Management, leadership and learning are all presented as a question of seeing patterns of relationships and this approach is right at the heart of the process.”

For Helene Speight, global talent director for the InterContinental Hotels Group, the PD element was a factor that led to her choosing a Henley MBA. “I’d spent nine years working at GE before deciding I wanted a career change,” she says. “Having experienced working for such a great company, it was essential that I made the right move. I valued the time that the Henley MBA set aside for PD and I knew this would help me focus on my career plan. It was through this time and commitment that I discovered that the areas where I wanted to develop would require a move from operations to HR. I used my personal development time to plan out how I would make that move.

“Having overcome the obstacles for making a career change, I am aware of the problems others may face. There are still a lot of people in the resourcing industry who struggle with the concept of leaders moving functions and refuse to look at transferrable skills. Some people ask me if I made the right move and the answer is a resounding yes.”

Saïd Business School also takes a joined-up approach to leadership development, and as a result, lectures there effectively resemble robust boardroom conversations. Kathy Harvey, director of the Oxford Executive MBA at Saïd Business School, says: “We teach how to relate, how to express yourself, how to persuade and negotiate. One of our courses allows students to observe the way others engage in business discussions and learn from them. Senior executives on our Strategy and Innovation Diploma learn how to convince and persuade, while understanding the complexities of different business strategies and the impacts they have on wider society, as well as just within a business context.

“We don’t teach a specific ethics course, but we expect participants to think about the full implications of every dilemma, and that includes social responsibility.”

The ethical executive
Several business schools have demonstrated their commitment to offering programmes that are relevant to the needs of post-recession leadership by signing up to the PRME (Principles for Responsible Management Education) initiative. PRME calls for business schools and universities to adapt their curricula, research, teaching methodologies and institutional strategies to new business challenges and opportunities.

Salford Business School, a signatory of PRME, has developed a new post-graduate curriculum focused on developing sustainable business models. Professor Amanda Broderick, the school’s dean, says: “We have also enhanced our co-curriculum and extra-curricular inputs in this area. This includes guest lectures, such as Muhammad Yunus’s presentation on the social business model, and a follow-on Yunus award that celebrates the efforts of our social enterprise by students, companies and communities.”

Changes are also taking place in industry-specific education programmes. GCU London, also a PRME signatory, runs an MBA in Luxury Brand Marketing, a course that recognises sustainability and ethics in leadership as a crucial issue for the fashion industry, particularly in light of the Bangladesh factory collapse last summer.

Programme leader Dr Ruth Marciniak says: “This topic is prevalent across various modules on the programme and specifically in a module that we deliver, Responsible Leadership, wherein corporate social responsibility is explored within businesses, together with its value to society. The programme acknowledges that leaders play a proactive role in contributing to and building a sustainable society. Within the MBA Luxury Brand Management programme, CSR, ethics and sustainability are explored in terms of their impact upon product management and brand perception of luxury goods.”

There is little doubt about the rising importance of ethics and corporate social responsibility in business education. Professor David Collins, MBA programme director at Hull University Business School, says: “The focus on soft skills reflects an understanding of what business leaders do; they are world builders, they construct moral economies and invite workers – and customers – to inhabit there.

These moral economies are places where energy, collaboration and creativity are valued and there is a premium placed on working with, and through, the skills of others. With more concern than ever before about ethics, values and sustainability, it is unrealistic to even think of providing business education without these at its core.”

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About author

Alison Coleman

Alison Coleman

Alison Coleman is a freelance editor and writer with national and international publications, covering all areas of business, but with a special interest in entrepreneurs, start-ups, exports, finance, and executive education. Her work can be found on, and in Director, economia, The Guardian, Employee Benefits, and Hays Journal.

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