Building a responsible and inclusive future

Developing a mindset of continual learning for the future of work and inclusive leadership will underpin the MBA at Newcastle University Business School, explains its Director and Professor of Leadership and Organisation Studies, Sharon Mavin. Interview by David Woods-Hale

You joined Newcastle University Business School during a momentous year for the School as it celebrated 30 years of AMBA accreditation. What attracted you to the organisation? 

I was attracted by the stage of development of the School. It’s going through a period of growth and is expanding its presence with an additional building. It’s triple accredited and has world-class research, but at the same time there was an appointment of a new Vice Chancellor and Deputy Vice Chancellor, so there was an opportunity to join a brand new team and look at really embedding the Business School into the University and developing a vision around the future of work and leading on leadership. 

I previously led Roehampton Business School, University of Roehampton, London, as Director and before that I was at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, as Dean and Associate Dean Research.

At Newcastle University Business School, there is an opportunity to look at an interdisciplinary approach in terms of the stage of development of the Business School. The challenge facing Schools today is to prepare students and graduates for problems that are not just around business and management; to be able to take a more interdisciplinary approach to thinking and problem solving and to prepare business, management, economics, accounting and finance students, for the future of work, when we don’t know what that future will be. The jobs they will be doing in the future don’t actually exist now. 

In Newcastle, we have two national innovation centres (one in data and another in ageing) and integrating the Business School into the work of these centres is a fantastic opportunity to expose our students to further world-class research. 

What do you think draws prospective MBAs to Newcastle? 

When I joined the School, we were celebrating 30 years of AMBA accreditation and this is a testament to the Newcastle MBA. While it has changed and evolved, it’s still a very progressive MBA programme, which details a journey of transformation for the individual student, combined with innovative curricula, real-world interaction and the internationalisation of the programme on a global scale. For example, this year, our international study tour is to Brazil. 

We welcome students who are ready and committed to a journey of personal transformation and change, and offer them the knowledge, skills, and exposure to international experiences plus international approaches to business and management. 

What keeps people coming to us is a combination of our first-class reputation for academic excellence, high graduate employability and excellent student experience. It’s an all-round journey of personal transformation.

What skills do you think MBAs should be demonstrating upon graduation?  

We are in an ongoing dialogue with external organisations, our advisory board, our academic team, our students and employers, asking what a Newcastle University Business School graduate and post-graduate should know, and what they should stand for. 

In terms of key knowledge expectations, these would be the same as for any MBA graduate: being able to develop personal resilience; to thrive in complex and chaotic situations and those in which there is ambiguity; to make clear judgements based on information and evidence; being informed by a commitment to ethical corporate social responsibility; having a commitment to gender inclusive leadership, which will become increasingly important in our MBA; and being able to work individually and also as part of a team. 

Our corporate and organisational partners are talking to us about continual learning and they want people who can embrace change and accept that the MBA is not the end – they want people who want to learn for life. This means being prepared for the future of work, but also to learn, change and adapt in order to influence, lead and shape their future and their own future careers. This goes far beyond knowledge of business and management. 

How do you view ethical management? 

As part of our vision, we see ourselves as a globally renowned international Business School that is building a responsible future, through our graduates and post-graduates, for both business and society globally. It’s certainly a core value of Newcastle University around sustainability and responsible management. In the MBA, we have both a corporate social responsibility module, but also a commitment to ethical behaviour and personal values running all the way through. The Newcastle University Business School post-graduate has a strong understanding of their own personal values and what they stand for.

Do we need a new metrics system to measure MBA programme success? 

We would argue that there does need to be a new metrics system for measuring success, not least beyond international diversity, to include gender diversity and different elements of intersectionality for the type of cohorts we’re learning with. 

From my point of view, coming in as a new Director, one of our scholarships for next year will be for a woman, who will work with us exploring gender-inclusive leadership. This will be a scholarship that signals that women are very much encouraged to join our Business School. We know that all UK Schools have a long way to go regarding ‘gender on the agenda’ in all kinds of ways, as evidenced in Athena SWAN action plans. Gender equality is a core value of mine. We want to be explicit about our commitment to gender inclusive leadership. 

It’s not just about cohort size if you’re trying to bring a balance of international and gender diversity into the MBA learning environment. 

As a female Business School Director, do you feel like you are trailblazing the way for other women?

I’m the first woman Director at Newcastle University Business School. In my first semester, I think I made an impact on the academic group, because colleagues see my commitment to talking openly about the gender pay gap, gender inclusive leadership or gender on the agenda in curricula. I’m not afraid to have these discussions. 

I want to award a scholarship to a woman with aspirations who envisages a major transformational journey. I will be involved with that learning journey as a mentor and with the students on the programme and I’m hoping to make a positive impact. 

You’ve done some work with Board Apprentice Global Scheme on diversity. Can you explain some more about this?

It’s a not-for-profit franchise that offers an immediate solution to the lack of diversity in the boardroom because it is, in effect, a development programme for people and boards to develop experience that they wouldn’t otherwise have had. Introducing diversity to company boards through an apprenticeship scheme.

I went through a selection process to become a board apprentice for a JP Morgan Investment Trust. I wouldn’t ordinarily have been in a position to have this experience. I’m in higher education, I’m from the north of England and I didn’t have any non-executive (NXD) board experience other than committees to do with higher education. I went through a selection process and joined the JP Morgan Claverhouse Investment Trust plc. 

I had the privilege of observing the board for nearly 18 months and joining board activity across the different methods that it uses to govern. I engaged with the Chair of the board, other directors, the fund managers, the board business and enjoyed learning more about the financial investment sector – including the AGM and meeting shareholders. 

This increased my experience of governance and knowledge as a NXD If I hadn’t recently moved into the Director role at the University of Newcastle, I’d have already applied for NXD with this new knowledge and experience and therefore offering diversity to other boards. 

The Board Apprentice offers people, who don’t necessarily have the ‘right’ knowledge and experience, opportunities for development. This programme looks at diversity beyond gender and encompasses ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, age, disability, personality and skillset. Simply by observing a board, an apprentice can change the dynamic within it. Through the chair, I was able to ask questions of the board offline to help understand and refine my own decision making. Having a board apprentice is a positive, committed action and adds to the diversity of established thinking within boards and increases the pool of people who are able to apply for NXD positions. 

I also met with the London Higher Group of Universities which has started a board apprentice journey. It’s working with corporate organisations, enabling people from universities to become NXDs and their councils and senates are engaging with board apprentices from the corporate sector. Universities require diversity on their senates and councils in the same way that FTSE firms do. Universities are not exempt, but it can be very challenging to reach outside the University community, to get the diversity you need. 

Board apprentice programmes build a pipeline of people who are ready for their first board position. Because of my subject area, I’d never worked in the finance sector in that level of depth and the opportunity allowed me such a good exposure to the sector, which benefited my own personal development.

Do you think there’s still too much talk and not enough action on gender inclusive leadership? 

Up until about six months ago, I would have said ‘absolutely yes’, but I think now, we’re hitting a tipping point of what has been acceptable and what’s not. This might be around the gender pay gap, sexual harassment, and the gendered representation in the media of women leaders – which has a major impact on socialising future leaders. 

The media shows Hilary Clinton or Theresa May as powerful women leaders, but are talking about what they wear or how they look. This is being challenged and becoming unacceptable. The backlash to the US presidency race will also be a part of the tipping
point I’ve just described. People are becoming more comfortable with calling out gender discrimination.  

You cannot be what you cannot see. We want students to think more critically about what they see when they see leadership images and how leaders are portrayed around them; some of these messages are so normalised, they don’t realise how sexist they are. 

One of my key next steps is to consider how to develop gender-inclusive leadership with men and women students, because change is not just the responsibility of women. 

Our students are letting us know when they see men-only guest speakers or panels and expect to engage with leaders and entrepreneurs of both genders. I use the term ‘gender inclusive’ because we need to pull the models apart, so everyone can relate to the terminology. 

Do you feel optimistic about the future of Business Schools and business education? 

I feel very optimistic about business education that understands what we have to do now and in the future and is different to what we’ve done in the past. 

Providing personal development journeys that engage with the whole person rather than comprising knowledge transfer is a fantastic opportunity. 

From our point of view, in our School, we’ll be educating and developing for the future of work and leading on leaders for a future we can shape – this is a positive way of looking at massive change, continually. 

How do we prepare people to engage and learn in an unknown future of work

This will be about developing the knowledge, skills, values and open mind sets for a future we don’t even know yet. 

That’s a challenge I’m excited about.   

Why old business paradigms no longer work

The way we do business is changing. As a result, that the old paradigm of ‘win-lose’ is dying out, and anyone still operating in this way looks set to become obsolete. 

Our ability to survive this shift depends on our skill at adapting to the environment – the basis of Evolutionary Theory. 

Survival of the fittest is not about being the strongest, biggest or fastest, but it is about what is the best ‘fit’ for the environment. When the environment changes, the fittest adapt, they are the survivors. 

You might think that if a company isn’t in the business of creating something that can be digitalised, they don’t need to worry. You’d be wrong. In the cultural evolution of our time, organisations need to be aware of the changes so they don’t disappear.

Every era of humanity has cultural shifts where the mass population decides that something previously ignored is no longer acceptable, such as the trafficking of slaves. As we advance as a society, the overlooked become something the majority of the developed world disapproves of. 

Now, the vast accumulation of wealth, without consideration for others, is on the list of activities that are no longer acceptable.

The next phase of humanity is about being decent. It’s about knowing we are consistently doing right by other people – and ourselves. If you think this is just limited to political opinions and parenting, think again. 

The businesses who fail to acknowledge this shift, from win-lose to win-win, will fail to survive and those that are among the first, will thrive. It’s about clearly demonstrating your commitment to being a force for good – in your company, your community, and on your planet. That in itself is a beautiful opportunity, where you can create a lot more than monetary wealth, get to raise kids who aren’t embarrassed by your unethical policies, are proud of what you do, and don’t have to be begged to visit your deathbed to hear your dying regrets.  

This is why you have to pass all your decisions through the win-win filter.

It has to be from the inside-out, because the way you treat your employees, your investors, your customers, and the planet, is increasingly related to your profitability.

At the very centre of a true win-win is honesty, absolute transparency, and open communication. Those who can approach business with honesty in order to create genuine win / win outcomes, are the fittest, and they will survive. Applying this outlook to every situation may take some time at first, but it gets easier with practice – and it will ensure that your decisions are future friendly, and allow you to shift smoothly into this new paradigm of business.

Michelle Lowbridge is an author of numerous books, and a business owner.

Creating a beacon of culture in the darkness of war

Syrian-born businesswoman, Shireen Atassi, stepped away from a career in banking to launch a non-profit foundation in Dubai, promoting Syrian artwork and artists. She talks to David Woods-Hale about her unconventional career path, post-MBA

As part of AMBA’s 50th anniversary celebrations, we conducted 50 interviews with MBA graduates from across the globe, to celebrate the diversity of a global network of post-graduate business students. 

These stories showcase bravery, entrepreneurship, achieved ambitions, goals reached, careers changed, borders crossed and boundaries broken down. 

But, considering the global geopolitical environment, one story stands out from the rest. 

It’s the story of a woman who left her village in Syria – currently the world’s most violent country, according to the Global Peace Index – to complete her MBA, and then moved back to the Middle East in a bid to protect and promote the art and culture of her homeland. 

Shireen Atassi, CEO of the Atassi Foundation and an MBA graduate of Imperial College Business School, picks up her tale.

‘I grew up in a little town in the middle of Syria,’ she says. ‘My father was a partner in a construction company and my mother was a gallerist. I graduated from school, spent a year in Switzerland and then moved to Manchester, where I did a BSc in economics. I went back to Syria for three years. By this stage, my parents had moved to Damascus and my mother had another gallery there. I worked in a consultancy firm, and in the evenings, I worked at my mother’s gallery.’

Atassi is thankful for this experience, explaining that it gave her access to the worlds of both business and culture; but by 1996, she was ready to leave Syria for the second time.

‘Everything was too small for what I wanted and the opportunities were too few,’ she says. ‘I had a privileged childhood with access to lots of things, because of who my parents were. This wasn’t a path I wanted to go down and I wanted to open my own doors. I’m not someone who had a plan and worked according to that. All I knew was that I wanted to open doors and tick boxes on my own.’

Atassi opted to do a full-time MBA in London at Imperial College Business School. 

She explains: ‘A lot of people who do MBAs don’t know where they’re going. Some people want to change careers – from engineering or medicine to business. Others are like me with no masterplan and want to use the opportunity to regroup and broaden their horizons. Did the MBA give me a masterplan? No – but at the time it wasn’t an issue for me. I wasn’t keen to tell people where I wanted to go.

‘Instead, my MBA gave me a completely different perspective on business. As a consultant, you scratch the surface of business but you don’t lead companies. You talk big, but you don’t get your hands dirty and manage a business. The MBA gave me a well-rounded idea on the elements of how you would manage a business.

‘Back then, if you had an MBA it was either to be a banker or make money. It was almost surreal how students were motivated to think the bigger the words you use and the bigger your salary, the better your programme was.’ 

She pauses, before adding: ‘In saying that, the year I spent at Imperial was one of the richest in my life, academically, culturally and socially. It opened my eyes to a lot of the business questions that I hadn’t been able to answer when I worked in consultancy. I learned about the nitty gritty of managing and actually being in a business. 

‘I met my husband while I was doing my MBA and tried to find a job in London, but had to move to Dubai.’

Atassi received two job offers in Dubai, one from a young venture capitalist and one from established corporation Ernst and Young (EY). 

‘I chose Ernst and Young,’ she tells me. ‘It was a safer bet and I already had some experience as a consultant. This seemed the more conventional way to go. My hunch was telling me not to take it – but I did. But Dubai at the time was very young. Being a consultant is only as interesting as your clients and I have to say, my clients were not that interesting.’ 

In 2000, Atassi applied to work for Mars, which had built a factory to produce chocolate in Dubai; she was offered a different job to the one she applied for, finding herself on the operational side of business for the first time. She found it played to her skills.

‘I think I’m made for that kind of thing,’ she explains. ‘I loved operations and procurement. I managed a number of markets and was in charge of direct and indirect materials.’ 

In 2007, she decided to set up her own business – a consultancy firm for training and software around procurement and supply management. 

‘With hindsight, there were a few mistakes in my execution,’ says Atassi. ‘The timing was wrong. There were a couple of accounts that were close to being signed, but the [2008] recession materialised.

‘This was a male-dominated society. I walked into a boardroom of an oil company in Abu Dhabi to give a presentation on my software and it was a room full of men. One said to me:“where’s your team?” I was offended and replied“I am the team.” Had I taken a partner who was a male, who wore a suit, it might have worked better, but I have no regrets. Part of your success as a person is to accept these facts and deal with them because the world is not perfect. 

‘Even if I had set up my company in the US or UK, I should have understood that my clients were not small businesses,’ she continues. ‘They were large corporates and to walk into these big organisations, you need to have an appropriate corporate image. You need to play the game: I had big plans but I didn’t act like a big deal – this had an impact.’

A couple of years later, in 2010, Citibank in Dubai invited Atassi to come on board for six months, a contract that became nine months and then a permanent job. 

She says: ‘I loved it and I did damn well with them. I managed the Middle East and North Africa. I also co-managed Africa. My career was going well, but in 2014 it plateaued. I’d had a career path and I was worried about career progression.’

It was at this point that Atassi’s Syrian roots, and her immersion in the arts, through her parents, impacted directly on her career path. Like many ambitious business leaders, she came to realise that ‘sometimes life happens’, drawing you in a particular direction.

Due to the conflict in Syria, her parents had moved to Dubai in 2012. Her mother had been forced to close down her gallery in Damascus and had brought with her a sizeable collection of precious Syrian art and curiosities. 

‘I wanted to keep an open mind and an open heart,’ says Atassi. ‘I’d lived with this [art] my entire life. My parent’s home had been a cultural saloon, full of playwrights, artists and moviemakers, so it was something I’d always had in my life. 

‘We felt it was appropriate to counteract the narrative about the killing, blood and destruction in Syria, so we decided to put the collection online to show the world that Syria is a lot more than we see in the press. Syria is a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious country that has existed for thousands of years, in which people have lived together.’

The family had accumulated a sizeable collection of 500 pieces of artwork and decided to create a non-profit foundation to promote the artwork and the artistic production of Syrian artists all over the world. 

Atassi explains: ‘We wanted to tell the stories over and over again, because we were privileged enough to do this,’ she says. ‘With privilege comes responsibility towards the environment, family, country and friends. 

‘I’m privileged to have been able to go to Imperial College Business School. I felt like I lived in a bubble in Dubai – but I’m a normal person and when I feel strongly about something I find it hard to sit back and watch.’

The Atassi Foundation was incorporated in 2015. Dubai’s legal structure doesn’t allow the existence of not-for-profit organisations, so the company was registered in Lichtenstein and launched in March 2016. 

‘It’s just me and my mum,’ says Atassi. ‘We have a small team and we work from home. We do everything from inventory and stock through to curating, marketing, launches, websites and making contacts.’

She adds: ‘I went against everything the Business School taught me and set up the business without a strategic plan. I just needed to start.’

Since its launch, The Atassi Foundation has collaborated with museums and leading art galleries in Dubai, Toronto and London. In Dubai, it produced the biggest Syrian art show of all time and has commissioned research into the Syrian Cultural field. 

‘It’s been surreal,’ says Atassi. ‘But now, 14 months after launch, I’m taking a step back. 

The first year was great in terms of PR – we set ourselves on the map. Anything that’s happening in the arena of Syrian arts and culture is landing on my lap, so I’m taking a step back, to re-strategise. 

‘We need to think about funding,’ she admits. ‘We need to use our budget in the most sensible way. If we spend money in
the wrong place, we can’t replace this, so we want to build funds to do what we need to do.’ 

Does Atassi feel she made the right choice to forgo financial services for the world of art? 

She considers the question carefully. ‘I don’t have a big ego,’ she says. ‘But I was developing this at Citibank – I didn’t recognise myself. I could have gone places with that career, but it felt like I was wearing someone else’s clothes. At the time I wasn’t aware of that. It felt strange. Now, my commissioning committee and my board of directors are my parents and myself. I have teenage children. I’m able to do what I love.

‘I’m telling a story and it can’t get more personal. It’s my life story and the story of my mum’s art business. This is a beacon of culture. I’m talking about my country and I’m telling my story. I’m privileged because I can tell the story, but I’m just one of many people trying to tell it.’

She pauses again before adding: ‘I understand how humanitarian education and human development is a priority. We’re talking about millions of displaced Syrian people and I can’t begin to tell you about the level of hatred this war in Syria has created. It’s like opening a Pandora’s box of evil. But none of this [evil] has any relevance to Syrian people. ISIS has no relevance to us – they’re not home-bred. It’s out of our hands. 

In spite of this she adds: ‘It just takes more people to do what we’re doing. I was speaking to a non-governmental organisation in Lebanon, setting up schools in the country. They’re doing marvellous things.

‘When you decide to do something like this – and I can’t decide whether I’m a social entrepreneur or a cultural patron – you’re taking a very uncalculated risk. You have no idea how your career is going to go. If I decided to go back into employment, what would I do? Where has this put me on the career map? I’ve spent 20 or more years working in a corporate environment. 

‘No one in this part of the world sets up an art foundation. I didn’t know how it would be perceived. In Syria, entire streets were being wiped out and I was setting up an art foundation, but I’m doing this based on a very important conviction. Art and culture hold a mirror to society; they tell stories. There’s a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the artists themselves. They bring people together. In the situation we’re in it’s taken a completely different meaning.’

Given Atassi’s experience, her passion for art and the dramatic change from working in banking, to telling the world about the threatened artwork of Syria, virtually single-handedly, does she see herself as part of a new breed of ‘socially responsible’ MBA? 

She says: ‘I don’t think there’s ever one-size-fits-all for an MBA graduate. We need capitalists, bankers and entrepreneurs in the world, but from my perspective, Business Schools needs to nurture an awareness among students. I came to an MBA to open doors, not knowing what doors I wanted to open. Business Schools are evolving like everything else. 

‘When I went to Business School, the internet wasn’t available to everyone. The world was different, but we have to put everything into perspective in the right setting. Education doesn’t stop when you leave Business School, you always have to be on top of things or you’ll be left behind.’

So what is her advice for her MBA student and graduate peers? 

‘In terms of thinking about investment for an MBA student, you’ll ask a lot of questions,’ she says. ‘Will the MBA open your eyes to things you’ve never considered doing before? 

‘I think I listened to my head too much and not my heart. When I think about it, it was always open to me to join the art business, but I wanted to tick boxes on my own – it was my head and not my heart. I didn’t know any better then. 

‘My advice is to dig deep and question yourself about why you’re doing things. Don’t get stuck in corporate stress – you could realise you’re on the wrong track.’ 

As our conversation comes to an end and Atassi considers the next chapter of her story, for herself and for Syria, she muses: ‘Where would we be if we weren’t optimistic. I’m not expecting miracles but I’m definitely optimistic. 

‘What I’m doing is not selfless – it’s incredibly selfish. I’m buying myself back. I used to cry, but not anymore. I know I’m doing something worthwhile; I’m not changing the course of history; I’m not going to stop the war in Syria. I’m not going to remedy the agony of the mothers, the fathers or the children who have lost it all.

‘What I’m doing now doesn’t just excite me; it gives me the oomph and strength to make this work. It’s more than a challenge. What’s the worst that can happen to me [in Dubai]? We’ll still have food on the table. 

‘I owe this to my children. If you ask them, they might not have a Syrian passport, but they’re Syrian. I owe it to me and I owe it to them.’ 

Comfortably numb: the peril of a plateau

A plateau in business is really an invisible state of decline, unwittingly fuelled by those at the top. Leading out of it involves innovation, transparency, values-led decisions and sustainability, argue Khurshed Dehnugara and Claire Genkai Breeze

‘Hello… Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone at home?’

Does the above quote from Pink Floyd’s hit Comfortably Numb ever resonate with you and your workplace?

We have defined this comfortable numbness as a ‘plateau’: when a business or economy reaches a certain point in its growth trajectory and, while not failing, has become stagnant. 

Putting this into the context of a natural metaphor, a stagnant pond cannot support life; it is dying, poisoned, unhealthy and toxic. In short, both metaphorically and literally, the plateauing, stagnant organisation could be toxic as well. 

Crisis versus plateau
Companies, operating in the volatile ‘new normal’ of the business world will face crises, opportunity, highs and lows. Threat is a now a constant reality and, as a result, businesses are becoming increasingly proficient at managing through crises. 

In the short term, at least, crises can generate positive opportunities. 

They bring a degree of drama which energises the leadership population  and galvanises entire workforces into action. This crisis mentality can engage teams and spur their inner heroes, mobilising them into fight-or-flight mode, where the adrenaline is pumping and making them feel good about themselves. This often leads to great results. For the short term.

For most businesses today, however, there are the plateaus; businesses are failing to achieve growth. Many of these organisations remain in this state, with their only response being to keep generating modest profits through cutting costs; for instance, achieving a 0% sales growth but 2% or 3% profit growth each year, which keeps the city happy and the board and the all-important shareholders satisfied. There is no profit warning, so no real problem, right? Wrong. 

This cost-cutting phenomenon is nothing more than a metaphorical anaesthetic, numbing the pain, dulling the ache, keeping the proverbial wolves from the door – but it is lobotomising the business of the innovation, creativity or passion it desperately needs.

Its people – and leaders – are internally dissatisfied; they see no way through this fog. They are comfortably numb.

This is a financial plateau. Often underneath this is a cultural plateau – in which employees are bumbling along in silos, disengaged and counting the minutes until home time. There may also be a leadership plateau – an habitual state of not focusing attention on real change and, quite simply, not feeling the need to.

Plateaus produce a compelling, but largely unconscious, dominant logic in the minds of leaders as well as employees. This creates a perceived safety zone between the pendulum swing of modest profits and cost cutting. 

However, beneath the financial plateau is a plateau of the imagination. 

In this instance, people in the organisation cease to be able to imagine another way of doing things, or a place of business where purpose, boldness, creativity and innovation lie at the core of the culture and are not the exception. 

The cultural and leadership plateaus that cause, and result from, this failure of imagination are a threat to vitality, invention and wellbeing. They create a workforce of comfort seekers and cynics; they create an illusion of activity when really the business
is engaged in a sophisticated game of killing time. 

Killing time for what? Killing time until employees can reach the top of the organisation, pay their mortgages, achieve promotion or just pluck up the courage to leave their job and focus on something that would genuinely engage them. If these feel like strong and unpalatable statements, they need to be. A plateau is really a decline.

The trouble with crises
It is easier to strategise around a crisis than a plateau because there is a consolidated and absolute focus on getting a problem sorted. A crisis is often more about recovering after a difficulty rather than maintaining or sustaining growth.

A case in point is Samsung. In October 2016, just weeks after launching its flagship smartphone, the Galaxy Note 7, the company had to recall more than three million devices after reports of overheating and exploding batteries. One clever PR strategy later and some Samsung super fans are still holding on to their Note 7s despite the risk. Given strong customer satisfaction with the product line, plus loyalty to other Samsung products, this customer base looks set to put the Note 7 fiasco behind it quite quickly.

Another example is Volkswagen. According to Harvard Business Review, less than two months after a scandal broke around Volkswagen cars’ high emissions in 2015, German consumers were already ready to forgive the company and look past its transgressions In a national survey, 65% of respondents believed that Volkswagen still built outstanding cars and that the emissions scandal was overblown. Less than a year later, the company had returned to profitability.

There is strategic merit in distinguishing crisis from plateau. 

During a crisis, businesses experience the behaviour from their people that they would expect all the time: excitement flares up, employees shine, and then, as quickly as it sprang up, this enthusiasm fades away.

Businesses generate a lot of discretionary effort in crises; lots of high-level communications, collective responsibility, increased collaboration, more truth telling, more focus on customer, very high levels of support and a ‘can do’ attitude. 

But some organisations ‘manage by crisis’ all the time due to the misguided belief that this management strategy keeps people mobilised. The tragic reality is that this is neither helpful nor sustainable over the long term. In fact, this type of initiative will run out of potency fast and, if leaders declare a crisis every few months, then the impact of it declines over time.

Boom and bust 
Considering the logic of organisational history, companies in the past would typically move through a cycle of massive change, steady state, then massive change, then steady state. The aim was to get through these waves as efficiently as possible and businesses became experienced at catching up and repairing gaps, to return, eventually, to where they wanted to be. Corporates that were good at change management were celebrated, but change management sometimes equates to nothing more than an illusion to keep people active, productive and focused.

The low-growth environment of the past decade has partly contributed to an acceptance of plateaus in productivity and growth. But a plateau is a long burn; an unseen issue within the business that can be easily disguised. It is a major challenge, but it is insidious because its damage will only be noticed when measured over a long period.

A well-supported decline?
We’re going to throw a spanner into the works here, because after defining the plateau, we want to argue that the plateau doesn’t, in fact, exist. It is an artificial state of mind. 

If the only way business leaders can generate any positive results is through cost cutting, then their business, essentially, is not plateauing. The ‘plateau’ is nothing more than an invisible state of decline – unwittingly fuelled by those at the top. It is an illusion – a cloak of artificial buoyancy that props up a lack of positive activity. 

So, with that in mind, our definition of what has commonly been described as a ‘plateau’ in corporate life is, perhaps more appropriately, ‘a well-supported decline’. 

This decline occurs when organisations stop challenging their limiting assumptions or constraints. They’re creating results through deficit rather than innovation and, in a psychological era of austerity, it’s understandable how this subconsciously unfolds within business.  

The hollowing effect
If businesses continue in this stasis for long enough, they become hollow. 

Their core values, purpose, culture is removed and this often manifests itself through people movement. 

Senior executives typically remain in a role for no more than three or four years; they simply become part of the hollowing mechanism coming to believe ‘cost cutting is what we do here’. 

In large organisations, whole generations of leaders often leave within months of each other, simply because they’re unable to shift or lead the business away from decline. In other words, instead of companies making difficult changes or hard decisions, leaders who don’t make a difference are moved on. 

As a result, these businesses don’t disappear – the cycle merely starts all over again. Leading a business in a state of gradual decline is much harder work than leading a business through a crisis. Some leadership teams are ‘relieved rescuers’ when a crisis comes along, adopting the mentality ‘right we know what we are doing here, let’s roll up our sleeves and get on with it…’

Leading through a crisis
Waking up the organisation up in a crisis is easy – you don’t need to tell people too much about it as they usually already feel the heat from the metaphorical flames. The clichéd burning platform is screaming at you so there little analytical is skill required to diagnose the challenge ahead.  

Crises respond well to the traditional hierarchy of status and power. Leaders want people to act immediately without too much deliberation when a command is given. So, divide up the tasks between the team, project manage, communicate quickly and regularly, and make sure everyone knows where you are up to by establishing crisis management teams for employees outside of their day-to-day work.

The leaders’ role is often to act as a container around the crisis in a bid to stop panic, keep calm and project an in-control image. The brief is to make the difficulty go away, recover and return to order with perceptions of security, as quickly as possible.

Leadership energy during a crisis is characterised by endurance: grit your teeth, get through it even if you have to collapse on the other side. This is one of the reasons that it isn’t a sustainable, long-term strategic choice. 

Leading out of a ‘plateau’
Waking the organisation up to a well-supported decline, a ‘plateau’, is an altogether subtler act. It is an act of observation, looking differently at what is reality rather than what we imagine it or wish it to be. 

This is an act of courage and responsibility; a process of leaders being comfortable with their vulnerability and saying ‘we don’t know’. The diagnosis here is mostly about identifying and surfacing the repeating patterns of behaviour that are keeping the business stuck and circular in its leadership activities. 

Leadership action in a ‘plateau’ has an experimental nature to it: trial and error, probing, testing and learning; finding some data and bringing it back to the table for examination. It involves applying all of the organisation’s efforts to the day-to-day work, and not separating from it through analyses. The day to day is where the insidious patterns exert themselves and where they need to be disturbed.

Authority at this time emerges from how the system organises itself around the leader, how the individual is connected to others and how much they trust in their team, the culture and the corporate vision. This is because new performance needs leaders to disrupt the system and to disturb it first. After this, a leader needs to take a stand to achieve breakthroughs, bearing in mind that this tactic may be received by the establishment as something ridiculous that feels ‘out of sync’ with the way the business is currently tracking. 

Leaders in a plateau display anxiety in a different way to what is needed in the crisis. They put themselves at risk, but at the same time need to create a sense of psychological safety so that others will want to step out and join them on the precipice. They must quickly become experts in dealing with disappointment, loss of hope, resignation, and perhaps most importantly, resisting invitations to return to the past. 

Conclusion
So, in short, do we live in a business world led by people who love a crisis but are so comfortably numb the rest of the time that they embrace a plateau with open arms? 

In terms of energy and ongoing momentum, anything that looks like a straight line on the balance sheet is actually a decline. The flat line causes a decline in energy, expectation, imagination, belief in possibility and desire. Over time (and perhaps unnoticed) all the people with any energy and purpose start to leave. 

Those with more of a personal investment in the organisation will stay until their own needs are met, but ultimately the effect on the overall organisational system is one of intransigence and self-justification. 

Austerity is the fiend that appears to be the friend of growth – when the real solution to leading from plateau to profit is innovation, transparency, values-led decisions and sustainability. 

Retaining leadership energy in a plateau has a different feel to leading through growth or indeed crisis. And, if you’re reading this and you feel comfortable in your business performance, you should ask yourself if this is, in fact, merely a placebo effect of numbness?

Shouldn’t we, as leaders, always be uncomfortable? If not, how can we possibly be agile enough to innovate perpetually? 

Now is the time for leaders to be savvy, strategic and take a sustainable, long-term view. Great plateau leadership will ebb and flow and leaders need to know when to rest and when to up the intensity. 

But the challenge must be moderated by encouraging teams and peers, in order to keep up the momentum – because the cloaked nature of the plateau can make the finishing line seem a long way away. 

Khurshed Dehnugara and Claire Genkai Breeze have been Partners at Relume Ltd. since 2000. Specialists in coaching senior executives to be challengers of the status quo, their clients are listed corporations worldwide. 

They are authors of The Challenger Spirit – Organisations That Disturb The Status Quo (2011) and Flawed but Willing – Leading Large Organisations In The Age of Connection (2014). 

The ever-evolving MBA

Only those MBA programmes that adapt quickly to new challenges will succeed in the long term. ESMT Berlin’s Rick Doyle explains how his Business School is ensuring ongoing evolution

As we constantly read, hear and experience, these are volatile times – politically and for business. 

Digitisation and the disruption it causes have made it onto Business School campuses and into curricula. Vast environmental and social challenges, such as climate change and an increasing disparity between rich and poor, have done the same. MBA programmes are constantly evolving to help students recognise upcoming challenges and give them the skills to be successful, responsible business leaders and entrepreneurs. 

An MBA helps students change their careers by continuously challenging them through an innovative curriculum and programme design. Throughout the programme, they work on academic and professional projects that are designed to place them in unfamiliar situations. The groups rarely have two students from the same country or professional background. 

This fosters a learning environment in which they can explore new areas of business, develop fresh competencies and a new career plan, while working in an international environment. By the end of the programme, students develop managerial and cross-functional skills needed to branch out in new directions and to succeed professionally. 

Constant evolution

European MBA programmes have to evolve constantly to remain competitive in the market. As most people know, a typical MBA programme in Europe lasts one year. The goal is to offer a general management programme in a condensed format. This is so candidates minimise their time out of the workforce, while gaining practical experience that helps them change or transform their career. 

Some MBA programmes are shorter, while longer ones might offer a modular format allowing the student to customise their studies. For the latter, students can often add on exchanges, specialisations or internships, but they spend more time out of the job market, so there is, as always, a tradeoff. 

The ESMT MBA programme lasts 12 months. To get the most out of the one-year programme, students need to have a clear idea of the outcome they would like to achieve. Most students have significant work experience from the beginning, with the average experience of ESMT MBA students being six years. By participating in the practical aspects of the programme – company visits, masterclasses, international field seminars and consulting projects – our students gain experience in a new field or delve deeper into managerial issues in a sector already familiar to them. 

Combining theoretical and practical aspects of the MBA is critical if students want to gain the skills necessary to become better managers. These ‘soft skills’ are often missing in company hierarchies and are aspects of the MBA to which we pay particular attention at different stages. Developing a career plan, 360-degree feedback, networking, negotiations, leadership, public speaking and many other courses are a vital part of the MBA. 

We would be remiss if graduates were not going away with these skills. In fact, companies reiterate again and again how indispensable they are for MBA graduates to become leaders in their companies. 

International students

One notable trait of European MBA programmes is the international student population. ESMT consists of 95% international students, and most European MBA programmes fluctuate between the 90-95% international mark. Students graduate after an intense experience working with international teams comprising five-to-eight nationalities and the cultural perceptions that come with diversity. 

Every class discussion, lunch discussion, case study, project and so on, is reviewed and discussed from multiple international, professional, and personal perspectives. 

Companies often tell us that the best graduates are those with the skills to navigate an international work environment while helping the company grow and remain relevant on a larger scale. In turn, graduates with these skills are equipped to navigate their careers and manage or effect change for themselves years after graduation. We see this year after year with students coming from backgrounds that typically would not lend themselves to moving into the specific career to which they aspire. 

For example, one ESMT graduate recently moved from a military background into an international career in a major logistics company. Another graduate went from digital marketing to consulting for an international consulting company and yet another previously worked for an non-governmental organisation (NGO) in sustainable development, but is now also working for a major international consulting firm. These are but a few examples with corporate ties, but every year, graduates also put their skills to work for SMEs and start-ups. One of the most recent cases of this is two alumni who founded Space Shack in Berlin, a co-working space and incubator. ESMT students and alumni can use the space and work with
their own or other start-ups during and after the programme. 

We maintain very close relationships with the 25 founding companies of ESMT. They, along with many other companies, are ever-present during the MBA. The level of corporate engagement varies from year to year and ranges from guest lecturing in class, leading master classes, company visits, internships and projects – and of course hiring graduates after the programme. Often, the representatives from the companies are ESMT alumni themselves. 

We spend a lot of time building long-standing relationships with these organisations. It is important that they know MBA graduates have a lot to offer and are equipped with the skills the company needs. Relationship building is the best way to ensure that there is a strong level of knowledge transfer between the companies and ESMT. Company visits in Germany, interview days, individual interviews, and class participation are just a few ways in which we maintain these connections. 

We also involve company representatives in workshops and learning exercises for students. A good example is the workshop about salary negotiations, hosted by an HR director of one of ESMT’s largest recruiters. 

Another example is the annual mock interview day, which is supported by several recruiters from real companies. They practise interviews with MBAs based on a real application, and give constructive feedback. We bring diversity into this workshop by working with interviewers from different industries: from large corporates to Berlin based start-ups. For the case interview practice workshop, we work with real consultants from our partner companies. 

Consulting projects are of utmost importance for the companies, the School and, of course, the graduates. Historically, hiring MBA graduates was not a popular option for businesses in Germany: the PhD was king in business culture. Now 70-75% of ESMT MBA graduates work in Germany each year. 

Integrating consulting projects into the MBA curriculum is a way to demonstrate the benefits on both sides of the spectrum. 

Companies can see, first-hand, the value of bringing in an international group of professionals to solve issues they may not otherwise have the capacity to evaluate. 

One of the cornerstones of ESMT is to promote responsible leadership and especially connecting that with management of innovation and technology, sustainability, and entrepreneurship. These areas ensure that companies and the MBA programme remain relevant as the business world changes. MBA elective courses such as ‘bringing technology to market’, ‘innovation and new product development’, and ‘sustainable supply chain management’ are all courses that touch on helping companies develop their long-term and environmental sustainability. 

These courses lend themselves to preparing graduates to think creatively and strategically while doing their jobs. 

Preparing better managers

It is with these concepts in mind that our career services office creates the consulting projects with our corporate and business partners. This year alone, there is an impressive list of consulting projects that help companies incorporate future-proof business concepts into their short-term plans, such as:

determining the viability of investment in an early phase 3D printing technology start-up by a leading global company to enhance its business channels and help in the development of future technology

conducting market research and a feasibility study for a leading global company to determine how camera-learning technology can be implemented and adapted to introduce the company’s new products into the mainstream market evaluating how current products for a global company can be best developed to incorporate augmented reality technology for the mass market determining an implementation strategy for a global company to enhance and create business channels and products for robotics and cloud-based technologies consulting with a Germany-based real-estate company to establish the social, environmental, and economic impact of the real estate industry. 

Not only are the consulting projects for companies a very effective way to get useful answers to the questions and topics they raise, but they are also an excellent opportunity to identify potential talent and start an interviewing and selection process. For the students, the projects are a great learning exercise and networking opportunity. 

The learning outcomes mentioned previously remain at the forefront from our first meeting with candidates, the application interview process, and during their job search. 

ESMT Berlin’s MBA classes are quite small, comprising about 65 students per year. To maintain a core group of students who complement one another and work together to achieve their career goals following the programme, we have to select those who are best suited to work in small, international groups and who thrive in a close-knit, cooperative environment. The application process is designed so that we work individually with candidates even before they submit their application. 

We encourage them to connect with students and alumni before applying and use the application interview as a key component to assess a candidate’s fit and motivation for the ESMT programme. This way, the candidates and the School are sure to make a decision that is right for both parties. We have to consider the strengths of the ESMT MBA curriculum as well as the needs of the market for MBA graduates at all stages of the programme lifecycle. 

We design our programmes to meet the needs of the market so that there is a direct correlation for everyone involved; for example, electives such as design thinking and digital marketing. In so doing, the MBA remains relevant for the future of business. 

Taking feedback from students and corporate partners into consideration, we have added a full range of leadership seminars and workshops to hone the management and self-awareness of participants. All MBA students have the option to enroll in classes on data analytics and organisational behaviour courses focusing on status in management. The goal is to prepare MBA students to be better managers. 

Pre-experience Masters programmes are more popular than ever and offer excellent opportunities for students to work with businesses and develop them for the future and embrace new technologies. However, this group of students has not yet developed the on-the-ground experience and leadership skills that MBA students bring with them into the classroom, following six or more years of work experience. It is difficult then to compare the learning and development that students are able to achieve as a result. 

Thus, despite the growth in pre-experience programmes, the MBA remains relevant by developing leaders with experience in general management as a key component for future corporate growth. At ESMT, we take specific steps to remain relevant. We continuously invest in faculty research and industry experience, development of forward-looking centres focusing on the latest trends in business, top-notch facilities, and a student population willing to take risks that will likely pay off or help them to land on their feet in new areas of business they have not yet thought of. 

Business Schools have to stay agile and on top of the changing business environment. This is especially true for MBA programmes. Only those programmes that adapt quickly to new challenges will succeed in the long-run. Despite, or perhaps because of this, I remain optimistic about the future of the MBA. 

By tapping into the creative resources they have at their disposal – faculty, staff, students, and companies – Business Schools have the potential to educate responsible leaders who are prepared for the fast pace of change. 

Rick Doyle is Head of Marketing for Degree Programmes at ESMT Berlin Business School.

Perspectives on Asia Pacific business education

Business School leaders from across Asia Pacific talk exclusively about the challenges and opportunities facing them. Interviews by Jack Villanueva and Kevin Lee-Simion

Yang Yang, CEO and co-founder of iPIN

Can you introduce yourself?

I am a founder of an AI company in China, which is developing a platform that will allow people to make applications to help college and high-school students in their personal career development plans, and also help students complete applications for Schools. 

A big challenge of AI is that machines cannot understand highly abstract words such as the US or AMBA. However, all the business areas people need AI to understand, relate to these words.

In order to overcome that, we built a social-economic graph and used it to model the whole economic development of China. This way, machines can understand highly abstract words such as ‘companies’, ‘Schools’, ‘majors’, ‘occupations’, and ‘cities’. Because of this, we can provide some applications to help people plan their career path or help recruiters to recruit people by quickly finding the best candidates among millions of applicants.

How can AI help foster innovation and entrepreneurship in tomorrow’s leaders?

AI gives innovators a lot of new tools. For example, there were a lot of people who wanted to do something before, but they couldn’t because they were lacking AI technology. Now, because of things like deep learning, machines can do many different kinds of work, especially classification work, better than human beings. This has created many new opportunities in many business areas.

How has the use of AI changed the business landscape in China?

AI in China is growing very fast. Many companies in China are using AI to solve different kinds of problems in areas such as finance, education, manufacturing and e-commerce. China has a huge population and can generate large quantities of data, especially data around personal behaviour, and this can help businesses and entrepreneurs in China. This can also help machines better understand people’s behaviour in many different dimensions.

Suresh Mony, Director of the Bangalore Campus of Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS)

In your mind, what does a ‘great’ Business School programme look like?

Educators have a big role to play in creating jobs in society. With the advent of AI, jobs are really being threatened. World Bank research finds 69% of the jobs in India and more than 70% of the jobs in China will disappear within the coming decade. So we must do something drastic. It is SMEs that will create the most jobs per unit of capital invested. The world before 1820 was known as an entrepreneurial society, but everyone had small businesses. With the advent of the large-scale enterprises, it became a society of employees. If jobs are going to become scarce, we need more enterprises and Business Schools should be more instrumental in that. 

The great programmes generate graduates who are analytical, who can synthesise ideas and manage businesses. They are probably not the best at creating businesses.

Entrepreneurship requires people who have critical thinking skills, tolerate ambiguity, and can create. The curricula and pedagogy will have to be tuned to help students create value.

Pedagogy is still classroom orientated. We’ll have to have less of the classroom and more action in terms of enabling students to observe, be apprentices, go out in the market, make their own studies, and make their own decisions. This will help them create a value proposition for the customer.

Do you think today’s students and subsequent graduates are being taught the skills they need to succeed?

Sadly, no. A recent US survey found only 11% of Business School graduates set up their enterprise and of those, only 7% raised capital. 

The mind set for Business Schools is to train students for industry and capture low-hanging fruit. This makes students more job orientated. And the fact that Schools are able to land students good jobs in industry means the hunger is missing in students. 

Business Schools have to have a different structure for entrepreneurship and education, and for faculty. They should not be judged by the workloads or research output, but by how they can create entrepreneurs.

How can Business Schools work to support students’ development of knowledge of entrepreneurship?

A Masters in Entrepreneurship Education, would be a distinct programme and Business Schools should develop it as a two-year long programme with sufficient focus on the action learning part of it; action learning for innovation, and action learning for entrepreneurship.

It would need to be seperate to the conventional MBA, which supplies talent to industry so graduates can become executives. You have to have a different pool of students for entrepreneurship. If you have a creative outlook and innovative ability, I think you will go for entrepreneurship education.

Those who come from business families, even if they do an MBA, after one or two years go back to their businesses, or they go and set up their own enterprise.

Sherry Fu, Director, University of Manchester China Centre

How can Business Schools better support students to participate actively in their own futures?

Business Schools need to provide systematic business knowledge which should build a solid foundation for students. This requires curricula to be continually updated so they keep up with social and economic developments.

Schools need to pay more attention to extra-curricular activities that support students’ career aspirations. The extra-curricular activities and career support are vital. 

In terms of career development, we need the right people to be career advisors. These people don’t have to be academically strong, but should be practical, have real industry experience, and insight into specific sectors that they can share.

We should manage students’ career expectations. Career support doesn’t mean holding the student’s hand; it’s about giving the right advice. We don’t guarantee students a job, secure a job for them, or find a job for them. However, some students will have those expectations that when they sign up to the MBA programme; they will get their ideal job, a promotion in their company, or a better paid role. Students need to take ownership of their own career development.

What we do as Business School educators is support, give advice and make sure we work with students to help make things happen so they can achieve their career goals.

Do you think it’s also about pushing students to become entrepreneurs rather than just employees?

Entrepreneurship is a trend in China because society is encouraging young people to run start-ups and the government has policies to support start-up companies.

We encourage students to have an entrepreneurial spirit so they can be more passionate, but I think Business Schools also provide career support so that students can become more senior within big organisations. 

On the one hand, we encourage students to move forward to gain senior roles, but for those people who want to run their own companies, we can give them more ideas or more education on innovation
and entrepreneurship.

At Manchester Business School, we have an enterprise centre and an incubator for students who want to set up their own companies. The School will invest in them, financially support them, and give them an education in entrepreneurship and innovation.

How can Business Schools nurture the skill sets employees need to succeed?

There are four key areas around which we nurture our students’ skills. The first area is about core skills and the core employability sessions that we deliver via webinars. These webinars are about careers and are given
by industry speakers, practitioners, and our professors. 

Second, we make sure each centre has dedicated staff to tailor sessions to our students with the right information to fit in the local market. 

Third, we provide tailored one-to-one sessions and employ career advisors to provide consulting to students. We ensure the people working for us have real business knowledge and an understanding of the jobs market.

The fourth way in which we nurture our students’ skills is by running events to which we invite industry speakers and we make sure our current students and alumni attend. This means students can learn and get opportunities from their peers, get the right skills sets for career development, and build networks.

We don’t want students just to master the main theories of business. The key is whether they can use these theories to
handle the challenges in the workplace and make a contribution.

As a Business School, we should make sure our students are socially responsible. They shouldn’t just care about making money, they should contribute to their organisation and the wider community.

Robert Yu, Head of China, Lego Education

What’s the concept of Lego Education?

Lego Education believes in learning through play. We empower students and teachers to become lifelong learners through playful learning experiences with our digital and physical education solutions.

Education is about empowerment. At Lego Education we’re very fortunate that we started a journey of this empowerment in 1980. Over the past 37 years, we have learned a lot, experimented a lot, and gained a lot.

Delivering playful experiences at Lego Education is about four things. These are encouraging cultivation of computational thinking; encouraging the building of STEM curriculums; helping and investing in the professional development of teachers globally; and investing in the ecosystem
with global partners.

How does playful learning fit into the Business School?

A playful learning experience should be joyful and socially engaing so that, students find meaning in it. That’s how we define ‘playful’. 

We feel Business School students are facing too many challenges in finding a job, stepping into a career, and solving real-life business problems.  

Can you explain some of your work in encouraging students to be more creative?

We help teachers learn what it means to be a lifelong learner, to be creative, and actively engaged in the classroom. Only when teachers are empowered to deliver a creative classroom can any of type learning happen and that kind of study habit can be cultivated through the teaching process.

We encourage teachers to design a lesson plan, promote different solutions in the classroom, and encourage them to ask students to come up with different solutions and communicate them and in the process, evaluate and reconsider options. Through these processes, students develop computational thinking. They learn to deconstruct tasks, to generalise, and come up with solutions which they will evaluate. At the end, they learn to look objectively at their conclusions which is what we want out of a creative experience.

Does learning in a more creative and playful way lead to innovation?

We have research showing that playful experiences induce deep learning. It’s not just about engaging or creating learning spaces to encourage creativity, it’s about the playful experience itself that includes deep learning which will help learners develop different kinds of skill sets.

Why do you think it’s important for MBAs to collaborate and be lifelong learners?

We live in a world of change and we adapt to this by continuing to learn, being curious, being innovative in the process of solving problems, and coming up with solutions that can help build abstractions. These are all things we are trying to promote, and encouraging learners and teachers to develop throughout the learning experience. 

I feel Business School leaders realise that learning is an experience, and this can be enhanced through different approaches; whether that’s action learning, playful learning, case studies or internships. Once we look at holistic learning in this way, students can benefit immensely.

Why is it important to have that balance between the digital and physical approach to creative and playful learning?

We integrate a digital experience into our entire solution because we know that students are using digital technologies every day, and they will face more digital options in the future.

We believe it is important to give them an understanding and a framework blending physical and digital experiences in a leaning scenario, early on.

Peter Helis, CEO, Helis & Associates

Why is it important for Business Schools to collaborate and build partnerships?

The difference between partnerships and competition is that one is positive and the other is negative. Partnerships are about talking with each other and competition is more about organisations assuming, or not knowing, what is going on in their markets, and not dealing directly with each other.

I would always prefer a partnership because one plus one becomes a lot more than two. We’ve seen that in China, where corporates are very keen to have partnerships with the Western world. Sometimes this is viewed as a joke because people in the West still see China as a competitor, instead of a place for potential partnerships.

In terms of China and Asia Pacific, do you have any examples of exciting and interesting partnerships that you’ve worked on or are working on?

Think of our company as a platform. We don’t build the partnerships directly, we build a platform where people can meet and exchange ideas.

We organise conferences, matchmaking and delegation trips for both sides. We’ve organised very large conferences in southern China and western China. We’ve also organised conferences in Munich and Berlin.

Through these conferences, or platforms, people meet. And then once they meet we can follow up on this. 

When we look at APAC, Vietnam and Myanmar are doing very well, but China is really like a continent, and there are so many untapped areas with huge potential. We can basically copy and paste some of the principles that you’ve already applied in the region in which you’re based.

If you venture to central, western, or southern China, you still have a lot to do before you go to the other APAC countries.

How can a Business School begin to work out a partnership?

Start by doing some research at home and see what areas are interesting. Then, if you don’t have a plan for China in motion, engage with a company such as ours and explore how you can approach potential customers or business partners. If you already have a business in China, take the next step. 

Look beyond your current surroundings and try to set up businesses in southern or western China.

Martin Lockett, Dean of the Nottingham University Business School in Ningbo, China

What are the main elements of evolution for the MBA?

It’s about improving the skills of people who come as students onto the MBA. Some of that will be about deepening knowledge, but a lot of MBAs spend too much time on knowledge and not enough on attitude.

You can give people learning experiences that enable them to experiment safely with new ideas, so they learn the skills needed.

At a Business School where I used to work, we asked students to develop a new business idea. Then we reflected afterwards to get people to think about questions such as ‘what did this mean for me?’ and ‘what can I learn from this?’

In our MBA we ask students to develop a business plan, and we hope they will take that forward. They can experiment and learn in a safe environment and develop their skills as a leader – whether that’s for their own business, developing innovate ideas in an organisation, or for a more general role in an established business.