Responsible rankings: can measurements be more fruitful for students, Schools and society?

A fruitful pattern of cut oranges on a baby pink background.

University of Bath School of Management Professor and expert in responsible business, Andrew Crane, on how rankings can effect positive change in the industry, and how to address current criticisms. Interview by Tim Banerjee Dhoul

Recent releases of Business School rankings have been accompanied by media coverage of optouts and boycotts in the context of Covid-19. The omittances have only added to the feeling that rankings are in something of a limbo period amid the clamour for much-mooted and comprehensive redesigns that might allow them to better reflect the current business education landscape. 

That rankings would benefit from change is almost universally recognised. In highlighting many of the problems associated with existing MBA rankings, for example, a 2019 report from AMBA & BGA found – in a survey of 1,328 MBA graduates, students and Business School leaders – that only 11% think rankings reflect the true performance of an MBA ‘very well’. Step forward two years, and the Covid-19 pandemic has provided an impetus for innovation within the business education industry. Might it also present the perfect chance to refresh and revitalise rankings? If so, how can they be made more sustainable for the business world we live in now and the world we will live in in the future?

Andrew Crane is a Professor of Business and Society and Director of the Centre for Business, Organisations and Society in the School of Management at the University of Bath, UK. As an expert in responsible business and the changing role of the corporation in the global economy, Business Impact felt Crane was well-placed to offer a view on the role of rankings and how they might function more responsibly, to encourage positive change in the industry.

What do you think the purpose of (Business School) rankings should be? How does this compare to the real function they currently perform in the sector, as you see it? 

I think Business School rankings should have two main purposes. First and foremost, they should be about giving potential students useful and reliable information that will inform their decision-making, especially about which Schools they should apply to, or enter. Without rankings, prospective students have a dearth of good information on which to base their decisions. 

Second, I think rankings can also be helpful in nudging Business Schools towards whatever we might see as desirable behaviours. A good ranking can be a real driver for change inside Schools. So, as long as the ranking measures things that are important, and measures them in a suitable way, they can have really positive effects on what Business Schools value, what they pay attention to, and ultimately what they do on a day-to-day basis. 

Realistically, one of the main functions that most rankings actually perform is to generate income (whether through sales or advertising revenue) for the media organisations that produce them. It is no surprise, in many ways, that most of the main Business School rankings are produced by media organisations because it is these companies that have recognised how much they have to gain from them. 

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it can have some negative side-effects on the other potential purposes. Most rankings, for example, are not as far as I am aware (with the exception of the Corporate Knights Better World MBA ranking) designed with any real vision of what Business Schools should be teaching, or the role they should be playing in society. If this vision is not built into the ranking, it may still provide useful information for prospective students, but it will not push Schools to behave in any desired way and nor will it consider how Business Schools will actually change in response to the ranking. 

Business Schools are often accused of ‘surrendering’ to rankings. Is this a fair criticism in your opinion? 

I don’t know about surrendering, because I think some Business Schools actively lobby the rankings quite a bit to try and influence what they measure and how. But what I do think is a major problem is that there is real incentive for Business Schools to game the rankings. By that, I mean that they might seek to get as high as possible a score on the ranking while doing as little as possible to actually change the fundamentals of what the ranking is supposed to be assessing. 

One upshot of this is that Schools end up investing too much time, attention and money on their rankings management processes rather than the things that are actually supposed to be important like the quality and relevance of their teaching. Also, the things they do end up changing may be those that are most likely to get a boost in the rankings rather than those that improve the educational experience. This certainly doesn’t happen everywhere but the pressures to do so are likely felt everywhere. This wouldn’t be a problem if the rankings were all designed with a clear vision of what they were trying to achieve in terms of School behaviour, but I fear that these are largely unintended consequences of Schools managing the measures rather than the fundamentals underlying the measures. 

Salary measurements in rankings often attract a lot of attention, with rankings agencies defending the need to demonstrate return on investment (ROI) to paying students. In this context, should Business Schools pay more attention to the cost of business education programmes?

Return on investment is, of course, important. But the idea that the return on an education should be purely, or even primarily, measured in terms of future salary is, in my opinion, deeply flawed. It is even worse than thinking firm performance should only be measured in terms of profits or share price. Education has so many more dimensions than just the direct economic return – even an MBA degree. It is about learning how to think and make decisions in different ways, building up new skillsets and networks, developing in who we are as human beings and professionals, and lots more besides. 

ROI needs to take these things into consideration as well. So, for me, Schools and ranking agencies should be spending more time and attention on how to assess, compare and communicate these other outcomes of a degree programme. Then, once they have a better handle of what the real return on the investment is, they can talk seriously about what the right level of investment (i.e. degree cost) should be. 

Do you think that many Business School practitioners might view rankings as a ‘necessary evil’? Either way, would it be fair to label them as ‘evil’ and/or ‘necessary’? 

Personally, I have something of a love-hate relationship with rankings. In the area of responsible business where I focus, rankings like the now-defunct Beyond Grey Pinstripes ranking or the Corporate Knights ranking have, for all their problems, been really helpful in pushing for change inside the Schools I’ve worked in. 

On the contrary, rankings like the Financial Times one, for me at least, are rather more undesirable because of what I see as a negative effect on how we view Business School education – far too much comes down to final salary. So, yes, I think they are ‘necessary’ because they provide an important service for prospective students. But some are certainly more ‘evil’ than others! 

This year, rankings releases have been accompanied with boycotts/optouts due to problems associated with Covid-19. What value, if any, can rankings offer without being able to score all eligible institutions? 

I’m not too concerned about this, providing they capture a meaningful slice of the population of Schools. It is not like applicants have every single School in their consideration set. Most are selecting from a much smaller subset anyway. So as long as there are enough being ranked for students to be able to compare sufficient Schools that they could feasibly apply and get accepted into, I think the rankings are still going to be valuable for students – which, after all, is their main audience.

Who is to blame for the problems associated with rankings? The agencies who produce them, the Schools that provide them with data, the prospective students who consume them, or the employers who might derive their perceptions of quality from them?  

This is a tough question! The problem is that we are sufficiently far enough down the road of rankings now that we effectively have a whole system of actors that are complicit in keeping them going, and sustaining the problems that are associated with them. Perhaps a better way of thinking about it is to consider who is best placed to change things for the better. And there I think the buck stops with those producing the ratings. If there are problems, they should fix them. 

Of course, Schools, students, and employers can – and absolutely should – play a role in agitating for change, and providing resources and momentum to fuel the change. But it is the agencies that have to change their rankings. Or else, we need different actors to come up with better rankings. 

If you could devise a new system for ranking Business Schools worldwide, what would your top three ranking criteria/factors be and how would you measure them? 

I think there is space for a variety of rankings focused on different aspects of what might be considered important aspirations for Business School education. 

Core to these should be at least some assessment of the relative learning gain of students on the relevant programmes of study – that is, what advance has there been in aspects such as students’ knowledge, skills, work-readiness or personal development. 

There are lots of potential factors and measures that could be used here, all of which I think tell us much more about the return on investment of an MBA programme than final salary. I also think it is crucial that Schools are assessed on how well they prepare students for tackling the big social and environmental challenges that are facing us as a society, and as a business sector. 

Personally, I think that any MBA programme that fails to progress its students’ thinking on how to address climate change, for example, is in dereliction of its duty as an institution of management education.  

What is your impression of the Positive Impact Ratings (PIR), launched in 2020?

Well, first off, it is great to see a new ranking entering this space and with a different set of actors behind it compared to the usual suspects. And I love that it is focused on positive impact and the sustainable development goals. 

Where I have my reservations is on the methodology. Any ranking that is entirely based on students’ responses about what their School is doing is going to have some inherent problems. Most students simply lack enough breadth of experience of other Schools at any point in time to be able to judge effectively the performance of their own School. What is their point of comparison on what good performance looks like? 

Students are a good judge of their own educational attainment, but I’m less convinced they are a good judge of how advanced their School is in making a broader societal impact. Most of what they learn about how good their School is on these aspects will come from a single source … the School itself. Those Schools that talk internally a lot, and convincingly, about how great they are in making an impact will be much more likely to have students that think the School is indeed doing a good job on these criteria. 

I worry that rankings like this will end up assessing how good the internal communications are of the School rather than the underlying fundamentals. Don’t get me wrong, encouraging Schools to improve how they inform students about their societal impact is a good thing in itself. And students are a good source of information on many aspects of School performance that directly affect them. But the approach of PIR gets it wrong in my opinion when it comes to how we best assess and influence Business School behaviour in the context of impact. 

Let’s give students a strong voice in assessing the impact of business education on themselves, but as far as impact on the wider world goes, I would rather see assessments from external stakeholders, and more objective, comparable criteria.

Rankings are usually very popular, so how might the business education industry go about replacing them with something that equally engaged prospective students around the world?  What else might allow students to ascertain quality in a crowded market? 

I don’t think you can replace them. Even if you got rid of the current ones, others would spring up in their place because they are serving a student need. 

They don’t even need Schools to actively participate if they base their metrics on publicly available data. So eliminating them isn’t a plausible alternative, for me. But you can certainly change them or complement them with other types of assessments or ways of demonstrating quality, relevance and impact.  

Much like in every other industry, there has been a growth in the last few years of sites that aggregate students’ reviews and feedback on universities and courses, which I am sure play a growing part in informing students’ decisions. I’m kind of surprised that we have not yet seen a platform of this type successfully emerge to dominate the MBA market. But I’m sure it won’t be too long. 

In addition, I would expect more specialised rankings of business programmes to emerge that focus on specific topics, much like the sustainability ones. So, for example, are we going to see a Business School ranking focused specifically on entrepreneurship, or marketing, or finance? The more this kind of fragmentation occurs, the more opportunities there are for digging deeper and devising better metrics to measure what really matters. 

So, paradoxically, the solution to the problems of our current rankings might be to have more of them, not less. 

Andrew Crane is a Professor of Business and Society and Director of the Centre for Business, Organisations and Society in the School of Management at the University of Bath, UK. He is a leading author, researcher, educator and commentator on responsible business. Follow him at @ethicscrane.

This article is taken from Business Impact’s print magazine (edition: May-July 2021).

Four reasons why the finance industry is lagging behind on equality at the top

Business concept vector illustration of a businesswoman standing among businessmen. Living in a man's world concept.

The pervading shortfall in equality in finance-related industries at the senior management level threatens the future of these sectors. Yetunde Hofmann, global change, inclusion and diversity expert, looks at four critical areas to address to drive improvement beyond the rhetoric

The business case for gender and racial equality – and diversity in general across industry regardless of background – is clear. Having a diverse team at all levels of the business and particularly at the top enables creativity, innovation, breakthrough and commercial success.  

By its very nature, the finance industry, and related industries, should in turn be role models and trailblazers in terms of achieving equality in all of its guises, from the most junior members of staff to the CEO. This is particularly important at the top.

In reality, while there has been some progress to date, particularly on the boards of the FTSE 100 finance companies, the pace of change across the industry is still slow. The World Economic Forum, in partnership with the Financial Times, produced a report on the state of equality in finance-related industries that illustrated that in order for there to be a 50/50 split in gender at senior management levels by 2024 there would need to be 480,000 more women in UK management than the figures predicted there will be by then. The future, therefore, does not seem bright. There are several reasons why the industry is currently, and may remain, behind on equality at the top. 

1. Discrimination still prevails

Discrimination, and in particular race discrimination, still prevails within the finance industry, as is reported in this recent article for the Guardian, which states that two out of every three black and ethnic minority member of staff in the finance industry experiences discrimination on the basis of race. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 many organisations, a large number of which were from the finance industry, came out to state the actions they would take to combat discrimination and promote equality.  Sadly, today, four out of 10 employees still experience a lack of commitment to the establishment of an inclusive workplace from their employers.

2. Lack of visible role models

When a talented employee is in the earlier stages of their career in an organisation, one of the key elements of motivation is to see people who look like them and/or represent what they also stand for in positions of power and influence. In spite of the launch of the UK’s Women in Finance Charter and the many signatories to it, women hold fewer than 25% of today’s leadership roles in the finance industry. Some reports and articles, such as this one from STEM Women, state that the figure is even less than that.  When you then include the additional dimension of race, the statistics are worse still. Ethnic minorities make up less than 20% of employees in the UK’s banking and finance industry, according to government statistics, and at the most senior of levels the data is even more stark. In 2020 out of the 650 senior investment bankers in the UK, only three were black, as reported in this Financial News article. When there are very few or no role models in positions that matter to ambitious and talented individuals in the earlier stages of their careers, the message sent is that ‘this is not a position for you!’

3. Inadequate accountability

Gender pay gap reporting is slow in its prevalence across the industry and ethnicity pay gap reporting is very much behind. As recently as 2019, 90% of the industry in the UK still had not started the reporting of its ethnicity pay gaps. Although the UK HR association, the CIPD has requested that the government mandate ethnicity pay gap reporting for all FTSE 100 companies by 2023, there is little strong evidence that there will be consequences if they do not comply. On top of that, according to the Financial Times, the number of companies participating in gender diversity reporting has declined.

On the issue of disability, through the creation of the valuable 500, a number of organisations from the finance industry have signed up to enabling equality, which is a laudable initiative. Once again, it would be great to see accompanying methods and measures of accountability that will ensure effective implementation and ultimate achievement.

4. The pace of progression

As far back as 2016 it was reported in the Harvard Business Review that the pace of career advancement of women in the finance industry is slow. Today, the landscape is no different. A recent article by the Financial Times states that the gender pay gap has widened in industry generally, despite the push towards it. This is an indication of higher rates of attrition as well as the slow pace of progression. Women in the industry also report feeling that their career progression is blocked by male managers. For finance industry talent who are from ethnic minority backgrounds, the pace of progression is slower still and made more challenging. Two thirds of those with minority backgrounds report experiencing discrimination in the workplace. Demonstrating the confidence to go for promotion regardless of gender or race increases when you know you are valued, welcome and belong. It comes if there is belief in the presence of fairness and equal opportunity in the organisation, which currently the evidence available does not present.

What does all this mean for the finance industry?  The light at the end of the tunnel is the fact that with every problem or issue there is a resolution and a way to turn things around. What it requires is a decidedness and a commitment by leaders in positions of power and pivotal decision-making roles to genuinely drive change. This means change beyond the rhetoric. It means a willingness to step up and be role models in the industry. The keys to change lie not in the hands of government or research bodies. They lie in the hands of organisations and at the forefront of business is the finance industry.

Yetunde Hofmann is a board-level executive leadership coach and mentor, global change, inclusion and diversity expert, author of Beyond Engagement and founder of SOLARIS – a pioneering new leadership development programme for black women.

Creating and sustaining shared values

Black businesswoman thinking while working among her colleagues in the office.

Shared values can lead to increased customer loyalty, higher employee retention and increased profitability. Sophie Ransome, Head of HR at Atalian Servest looks at how to develop and embed them into organisations

The idea of ‘shared values’ has received much greater focus of late, with the term being included on more and more company websites or job descriptions. Shared values can certainly link to organisational goals, but that’s not the purpose of them. While ‘company values’ relate directly to an organisation’s approach to its bigger mission and vision, ‘shared values’ relate more to those priorities that shape a business’ ethos, culture and CSR.

It is well understood that shared values in the workplace lead to stronger social connections, which in turn have been found to boost productivity. These connections occur when employees are fully aligned with the company culture and it is truly embedded, building on the organisation’s overall purpose. Employees are a company’s greatest asset, so engendering a workplace and team with shared values will undoubtedly bring significant benefits.

Tackling social issues

Shared values have been identified as a way for businesses to tackle social issues that matter to their employees. Ensuring diversity and inclusion in business practices is a key example. For us, it’s important to recognise the importance of actively listening and learning from everyone across the business – effective change isn’t possible without fully understanding the backgrounds, experiences and feelings of our colleagues.

Last year, we launched CHROMA, a platform made up of three key networks: Physical and Mental Health; Race, Ethnicity and Faith; and LGBTQ+ – each of which is driven by colleagues. It was formed to give all colleagues a voice, promote individuality and empower individuals to shape not only their future but also that of our business and the wider industry of facilities management.

The success of CHROMA comes from it being a fully inclusive platform, one that our colleagues want, and are able, to engage with at all levels of the business. It helps to create an environment where our people have the authority and confidence to put forward ideas on how we, as an organisation, can be better.

Continual improvement

The idea of continual improvement underpins shared values in a business setting. While these values often centre around the societal issues that matter, they also encompass how a business wants to present itself and the people within it. ‘Being’ better is one element but ‘doing’ better is essential. 

Encouraging colleagues to be active participants in improving the business and how we do things is a key part of our culture. As a business, we aim to foster an entrepreneurial spirit that helps colleagues build their knowledge and confidence. This, in turn is designed to deliver an environment where employees can be creative and share ideas with ease.

We encourage this mindset and have developed the ONE project to bring it to life. ONE is a competition where Dragon’s Den meets Britain’s Got Talent, offering employees the chance to become our next home-grown entrepreneur. The aim of this learning and development (L&D) project is to reach and engage with colleagues at all levels and locations throughout the UK and Ireland and to inspire a company-wide commitment to idea generation.

Defining purpose

Even when you hire like-minded employees, you can’t expect shared values to materialise without making a conscious effort to develop them. This is especially true in larger companies. With thousands of employees, located all over the country, with their own experiences and priorities, it is important to provide a framework for shared values and create an environment where those values can flourish.

This starts with leaders defining a clear company purpose and a meaningful set of company values. Although not the same as shared values, company values can define a brand and create the ethos behind its culture. Our purpose and values, for example, are prominent in on-boarding materials and the intranet, as well as in our offices and other sites. We are diligent about promoting and communicating these values – it sets the tone on the issues and behaviours that are important to the business. And that must come from leadership – cultivating our culture and encouraging engagement within their teams.

Nurturing shared values

Creating a culture and demonstrating shared values is challenging when employees are spread out across sites or working from home. It means that entire teams might not meet as one group very often. So, leaders have to create a space for this process, nurture the resulting shared values and celebrate successes whenever they happen. Programmes, such as CHROMA and ONE, do that and result in a thriving company that everyone is invested in.

Shared values can lead to stronger brand equity, increased customer loyalty, higher employee retention rate, higher productivity and increased profitability. That’s a pretty strong business case for creating shared values. And it’s up to leaders to create, shape and drive them.

Sophie Ransome is Head of HR at Atalian Servest, a facilities management service provider. Initially trained as an employment lawyer, she joined Atalian Servest as the company’s first employment counsel.

Leaders and entrepreneurs in focus: Alec Dobbie, CEO and Co-Founder at FanFinders

Close up shot of red darts arrows in the target centre. Business target, focus, goal success and winner concept.

Making goals ‘numeric’, the changing role of a CEO and the importance of having a consistent leadership approach – the Co-Founder of a performance marketing company talks to Business Impact

You need to set tangible targets to determine if your entrepreneurial venture is working or not, says Alec Dobbie, CEO and Co-Founder, FanFinders – the performance marketing company behind Your Baby Club, a platform that connects brands with parents.

‘Make it numeric,’ Dobbie says. ‘Whether that’s ‘X’ number of users or a certain amount of revenue – these [goals] help you determine whether you’re on the correct path or if it makes sense to pivot.’

Get more advice on running a business and an insight into the changing role of an SME’s CEO in this interview with Business Impact.  

Can you tell us a little bit about your current role and what it involves?

Month-to-month, there is some consistency in my role as CEO as far as devising our strategy and forward-planning. But, day-to-day and week-to-week, the reality of running any small business is that your position evolves constantly.

We’re in the middle of recruiting for our finance team, so this week I’ve been lending some support in that area, while last week I was assisting our software developers. It differs as priorities shift or circumstances change, because an SME doesn’t have multiple layers of teams just waiting in the wings to replace others. Individuals have to be able to step into other roles and take on different responsibilities. This keeps it really interesting.

What single piece of advice would you offer undergraduate and postgraduate students of business and management who plan to start their own companies after completing their studies?

Go and do it. Don’t wait for a perfect opportunity to do it, make it happen. Work hard at something and use pre-set goals. You need a way to determine what ‘good’ or ‘terrible’ means in your market and how you get there; and make it numeric. Whether that’s ‘X’ number of users or a certain amount of revenue – these help you determine whether you’re on the correct path or if it makes sense to pivot. I’m not suggesting you quit early, but I am suggesting that you have the flexibility to move away from something that isn’t right.

Mentorship schemes in business are becoming increasingly popular. Who would have been your dream mentor when you were at the outset of your career and why?

It would be one of those people who just got up and did it, so perhaps someone like Peter Jones. I admire those who have achieved off their own backs but not pontificated about it too much. It would be nice to say Mark Zuckerberg or Sergey Brin [Google Co-Founder], but they operate in a different world to me. Otherwise it would be someone truly defining and inspirational, like Dame Stephanie Shirley [a UK businesswoman who, starting in the 1960s, worked to create job opportunities for women with dependents and adopted the name ‘Steve’ to help her in the male-dominated business world].

What are some of the challenges and opportunities you’re currently facing, both as a leader and as an organisation?

As an organisation, it’s finding new ways to connect with people in a competitive digital market. People continually relocate to different platforms and their habits change, so it’s making sure you stay ahead of the curve – ‘cutting edge’ not ‘bleeding edge’.

For me, it has been becoming more organised and making time for myself. The likes of exercise and meditation are just as important as any ‘work’, because if you’re not the best ‘you’, you’re not going to be that at work either.

Do you feel that leading a company has enabled you to make a positive impact? If so, how?

I always reflect that eight years ago this business didn’t exist at all and was just an idea. We now provide the opportunity for people to work somewhere fun. Internally, we’ve been able to implement things that we think matter, like unlimited holidays, fully remote working (before the pandemic) and giving people back that 10 hours they were spending commuting each week. On a strategic level, I think our ambition has always been to build software that creates better experiences for users and, as we look to introduce personalisation, this objective remains the same.

Which three words best describe your approach to leadership (or your management style) and why?

1. Consistent: it’s vital to be consistent in your approach and feed this across the business.
2. Fun: because if we’re not enjoying our work, we should just pack up and go do something else.
3. Accessible: making yourself available to new ideas and engaging people at all levels can really help foster innovation.

What tops your list when looking for new hires at manager level and above?

Regardless of level, for companies of our size we’re looking for cultural fit. Can they work within the structure we have and with the other people in our team? Some people wouldn’t suit working here, because there might be too much independence. If you need a check-box list of tasks provided or managing throughout the day, this environment wouldn’t be a great fit. They need to be hardworking, proactive and self-motivated. All of those are at the top of the list, because we have an established culture of autonomy.

Alec Dobbie is CEO and Co-Founder of performance marketing and consumer intelligence company, FanFinders. With more than 20 years’ experience as a developer, Alec and his co-founders started FanFinders in 2013, with the aim of evolving marketing to parents. Its self-coded consumer platform, Your Baby Club, now has almost 6 million members and operates on two continents.

The skills you need to be a sustainable leader

A future leader sitting on a bench outside holding his phone with his briefcase on the side.

What traits do you need to be a ‘sustainable leader’? Alison Watson, Head of the School of Leadership and Management at Arden University, looks at qualities to embrace and develop, and outlines why businesses will need them

Our next generation of leaders are going to be under intense pressure to incorporate sustainable practices into everything they do. They will need to ensure that businesses around the globe are contributing to the social, environmental and economic issues impacting our planet. This article considers the skills that business graduates will need to develop to ensure they can become the sustainable leaders of the future.

Changing consumer demands require adaptation

Brands across a wide variety of sectors and fields are placing a huge focus on sustainability right now – and with good reason. With the effects of climate change becoming ever more prominent and a rising public awareness around the pitfalls of some of the elements of western life we take for granted, such as fast fashion and unnecessary food waste, many consumers are looking to buy goods and services from businesses that operate in ethical and sustainable ways.

In 2021, sustainability has become an issue that is impossible to ignore and businesses, in turn, have become compelled to act. The leaders of today must adapt quickly to meet this consumer demand – their businesses risk being left behind if they are unable to do so. 

Meanwhile, the development of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals has driven many businesses to think about how they can incorporate environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) goals within their organisations to become cleaner, greener and more ethically minded.

But what about the leaders of tomorrow? How will these changes impact them?

Leadership the world needs

The leaders of tomorrow will be expected to be holistic in their approach and make decisions based on sound moral and ethical principles. They’ll need to empower their teams and be visionaries about the ways in which we can revolutionise business to maximise sustainable and ethical practices. 

Put simply, they must become people who will drive change and help create a better world by addressing the core social, environmental and economic issues affecting our planet.

But what core traits will business graduates of today, and therefore the leaders of tomorrow, need to develop to be successful sustainable leaders?

Long-term-thinking visionaries

In business, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the now – and that’s understandable when you consider the multiple pressures our business leaders are under as part of their everyday roles. CEOs are typically working in fast-paced environments and often don’t have the short-term stability to make sound, long-term decisions on projects which won’t bring about an assured uplift in profits.

The sustainable leaders of tomorrow, however, will need to be able to align those short-term business objectives with longer-term, strategic plans that consider objectives related to economic health, the environment, people and society. 

At their core, sustainable leaders should have a comprehensive worldview which contemplates and understands humanity’s place as part of a global ecosystem. They will need to consider how we can minimise our impact on the world around us and ensure we are responsible stewards of the planet we call home.

Once they’ve identified their longer-term objectives, these individuals will need to be able to lead and influence others. Leaders will need to take others along on their journey in generating a commitment necessary to ensure everyone works towards a common set of objectives and goals.

As individuals with a strong moral compass, sustainable leaders must also focus on making decisions that are rooted in moral and ethical principles. They should also be able to back these decisions to the hilt – being responsible and accountable for the decisions they make and the outcomes that follow them.

Seekers of collaboration

The best sustainable leaders are expert collaborators who seek involvement in networks that can broaden their understanding of the business landscape and the way it impacts our world.

By engaging with other leaders from a range of specialisms and sectors, leaders can broaden their horizons and continually inform their developing worldview. It can help to adjust their perspectives and enable them to build strong, long-lasting relationships with key stakeholders. These networks will also reinforce an understanding of people across various cultures and backgrounds, allowing leaders to become keen advocates of diversity.

At the heart of this, sustainable leaders must have a deep understanding of people. They need to know how to empower and get the best from their teams while having a deep emotional and social intelligence which enables them to gauge the impact of their decisions on the people around them.

Effective educators

By its very nature, being a sustainable leader means embarking on a period of change within an organisation. The best leaders take others along on this journey with them, not only by influencing and inspiring, but also by educating their teams so that they understand the reasons behind the decisions being made.

When it comes to managing their people, sustainable leaders must focus on coaching and mentoring, rather than dishing out commands and giving direct instruction. They should empower their teams to learn for themselves and hone their abilities so that they are able to address core challenges themselves – exploring, learning, and devising actions which can help them to address the common challenges they face.

All of this will help ensure that they develop their business’ culture in line with the objectives they have set out, embedding sustainability within the corporate culture and giving their organisation the best possible chance of supporting the world’s sustainability agenda.

Alison Watson is Head of School of Leadership and Management at Arden University. Alison has a wealth of experience in business and management having worked for a number of large retailers as an operations and project manager. Her recent research interests focus on inclusion and encouraging wider access to higher education.

The dark side of confidence

A line of eggs, and one egg is daydreaming to be king. This is symbolic to dreaming big, overconfidence and arrogance.

Reining in pride is a crucial part of business education, says Rita Trehan, co-author of Too Proud to Lead

Business Schools are magnets for talented, ambitious people who are used to achieving what they set out to do. Usually, these driven students go on to become emerging leaders in organisations and their hard work is rewarded with success. 

But too much success also presents possible pitfalls. After a string of accomplishments, young leaders may conclude that their successes prove that their decisions are always correct, and that their ideas are always the best. That attitude risks leading them to dismiss the ideas and perspectives of colleagues. The word for this is ‘hubris’, and it is equally dangerous for the person displaying the hubris as it is for those working with them.

The importance of well-functioning teams whose leaders prioritise co-operation, humility and open-mindedness are clearly demonstrated in my work as the head of a consultancy that helps CEOs and their organisations examine their culture. So, too, are the dangers of what happens when overconfidence is left to grow unchecked. Leaders’ overestimation of themselves and underestimation of others result in poorer outcomes and missed opportunities for both the business and the person who succumbed to hubris.

How hubris works and how to fight it

Too often in both corporate leadership and business education, we equate the drive to succeed with the pressure to succeed at all costs. The pressure on executives and students to achieve results can lead them to abandon any attempts to consult and co-operate. The pressure to meet and outperform, be it for a class or an earnings report, leads to short-termism and a relentless pursuit of success at the expense of broader considerations. 

This results in leaders being wrongly admired for their overconfidence, drive and single-mindedness. It rewards autocratic decision-making by CEOs and boards, and the forgoing of consultation and collaboration. In the short term, the results from this approach might look good and indicate that things are working. In the longer term, it is bound to lead to problems. Poor collaboration leads to siloing throughout the organisation, which can lead to the creation of fiefdoms in which data is not shared but wielded for power against ‘competitors’ within the company. It is not a recipe for long-term thriving.

Companies concerned with legacy, long-term survival and staying relevant are broadening their purpose. Profit and shareholder value are no longer sufficiently broad aims — businesses need to develop a purpose- and values-driven vision for the future. 

By doing so, they are democratising their purpose and creating ownership of it throughout the organisation. By adopting a shared vision, instead of a CEO-driven vision, companies will diffuse most of the risks of a skewed, hubristic approach taking root. 

The trend towards ‘purpose’ as the key driver of a business’s vision for the future is a healthy one and involves all relevant stakeholders naturally – the board, employees and suppliers, as well as the customers and communities. 

This broadening of responsibility creates a need for greater transparency and a wider set of obligations, which forces CEOs to adopt a more inclusive approach. In this way, ethical, equitable, environmental and societal values become a part of their decision-making.

Business Schools can take the lead

Hubris, like so many other issues, is easier to prevent than it is to reverse. That makes Business Schools the perfect place to curb overconfidence in the next generations of leaders. Fortunately for educators, teaching this is not an additional curricular goal to add to the heap — it can be integrated into the existing syllabus.

Not unlike other competencies in business education, teaching against hubris needs to include the development of critical-thinking skills and emphasise the values of collaboration, long-term thinking and the practice of welcoming alternative and opposing viewpoints. 

Stopping hubris requires: 

1. Being able to spot the warning signs — lack of collaboration, lack of humility and a lack of understanding (or willingness to understand) regarding the effects of their decisions.

2. Understanding why people fall victim to hubris, and which kinds of environments encourage it and how to avoid them.

3. Examining high-profile examples that illustrate the business consequences of hubris, both at the level of companies — such as WeWork, General Motors, Uber and Deutsche Bank — and at the individual level – among the executives whose overconfidence in their infallibility led to predictable failures that tarnish their otherwise brilliant careers. The lessons of history must be accompanied by education in anti-hubris values and skills to check overconfidence.

Cautionary tales

I doubt many readers would need more than a moment to think of several examples of hubris in business. There are cautionary tales among both individuals and entire companies: They’re blockbuster movies and 600-page biographies, or, in the case of Boeing, the subject of tragic TV news for weeks. 

Educators can use these examples as case studies. In the 2021 book, Too Proud To Lead, my co-authors and I look at four cautionary tales. The We Company, once again rebranded as WeWork, shows us, ironically, how its name was belied by a failure to embrace true openness and collaboration, while its investors’ unquestioning faith in Co-Founder, Adam Neumann, constitutes its own form of a complementary, enabling hubris.

While Neumann was overconfident in his own abilities, and instilled that in his acolytes and investors, the subject of our second case study, General Motors (GM), is overconfidence in the permanence of the status quo. GM’s failure to compete with Japanese automakers in the 1980s and 1990s cost it market share and reputation. After its recovery in the late 2000s, aided by the US taxpayer, GM seems once more to be underestimating a new wave of competition — this time from Tesla and the industry-wide move to electric vehicles.

Travis Kalanick’s Uber, meanwhile, shows how building an arrogant corporate culture infects and undermines the reputation and potential for long-term success of a business founded on a great idea. Kalanick, Uber’s Co-Founder and first CEO, oversaw incredible growth at Uber but there have been multiple accusations of sexual harassment and unethical competitive practices at Uber during his reign. An air of invincibility, from the top down, continues to haunt the company. 

These examples offer an indication of how some leaders – to their own detriment – close themselves off, assume the future will look the same as the present, and believe in their own invincibility. All these failures have their basis in some form of unchecked power, but none to the degree of our fourth case study, Deutsche Bank (Deutsche). 

Deutsche’s expansion in the 1990s led it to becoming the biggest bank in the world, with assets of more than $2 trillion USD. Instead of seeing themselves as stewards of capital, Deutsche’s leaders interpreted this growing pool of wealth as proof that they could launder money and manipulate markets. Its scandals have cost it revenue and reputation; it has since been eclipsed by other lenders in the EU, not to mention US and Chinese banks.

Focusing on a positive vision of leadership 

Hubris is not just a label for the defeated, to be appended to the loser as a badge of chastening. It is also important to discuss the hubris of iconic leaders, including Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos. What is there to be regretted in the careers of the most successfully acquisitive business figures of our time? Doesn’t their influence and wealth prove that their confidence was earned and that any arrogance, however unfortunate, didn’t get in the way of their success? Why shouldn’t students emulate their risk-taking and tenacity? 

In some cases, the backlash against their hubris is in progress: Domination at all costs appears to have put Facebook, Amazon and other tech masters, such as Google, en route to being broken up or otherwise subdued by governments around the world. In other cases, the damage is measured in what could have been: If Amazon was less focused on bending its commercial partners, employees and yes, even its customers to its will, who knows what else the business could achieve? Better pay for workers and better terms for suppliers would cost Amazon money, margin and profit to fix, but probably not enough to wound it or slow it down appreciably. It would also thin the ranks of Amazon boycotters and the desire of its critics to rein it in. 

Hubris, of course, thrives beyond the c-suites of the world’s largest corporations. Being ‘too proud to lead’ can cause the downfall of leaders in organisations of all sizes, as well as the downfall of lower-level managers and business students who have bought into their own early hype. Leaders of organisations you once worked for may come to mind. We do not need to dwell on these examples. Instead, we can focus on a positive vision of what kinds of leadership business education can hold up. Leaders who think through their purpose and align this to a wider purpose for their organisation are broadening their aims and aspirations to be more inclusive, more in touch with the wider world and more in tune with changing trends and sensibilities. These leaders regard this not as a demeaning activity, but an empowering one. With the emphasis on empathy, nurturing relationships, and collaboration, leaders are driven by group focus rather than self-focus, which leaves little opportunity for the self-centred nature of hubris to set in.

Holistically successful leaders do something that I call ‘walking the hubris tightrope’ – they attempt to balance ambition and drive with purpose and service. This art form is more of a process than a destination — avoiding hubris is not a box to be checked off but a value to be imparted. Whether educators choose to teach this will profoundly shape the next generation of business leaders.

Rita Trehan is a business transformation expert and the Founder of consultancy, Dare Worldwide. 
She is also the co-author of
Too Proud to Lead: How Hubris Can Destroy Effective Leadership and What to Do About It (Bloomsbury Business, 2021). 

This article is taken from Business Impact’s print magazine (edition: May-July 2021).

Why brands shouldn’t focus on meaning

Oat drink branding wars.

Purpose-driven companies might be putting themselves at risk if they opt for meaning in their branding, says intellectual property expert and author of Brand Tuned, Shireen Smith

‘Distinctive branding lasts, differentiation does not,’ writes Byron Sharp, Professor of Marketing Science and Director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, in his 2015 book, How Brands Grow.

Sharp suggests that rather than striving for meaningful, perceived differentiation, marketers should seek meaningless distinctiveness. This has a significant impact on brand creation approaches.

Brand names

When it comes to choosing a brand name, opt for a name like ‘McDonald’s’ rather than ‘Burger King’. People are drawn to descriptive names that suggest the category and such names require a smaller marketing budget to promote. However, the recent decision in the case of Oatly vs. Glebe Farm Foods demonstrates the serious drawbacks of suggestive names.

The name ‘Oatly’ comes very close to being purely descriptive, which is why London’s High Court decided that the name of Glebe Farm Foods’ oat-based drink – ‘PureOaty’ – did not take advantage of Oatly’s reputation.  

To better understand the significance of this decision and the broad protection trademarks give, compare it to a fictitious hypothetical case of a competing mayonnaise product called ‘PureHellman’s’. Without doubt this would infringe on Hellmann’s trademark rights. Hellmann’s is more distinctive because it does not convey any meaning about mayonnaise. As a result, it enjoys broader protection than a name like Oatly which uses the generic term ‘oat’ in its name.

As the words ‘oat’ and ‘oaty’ are both generic, it was purely the presence of the letter ‘L’ in the name that lifted Oatly from being purely generic, and incapable of being registered as a trademark, to being sufficiently distinctive to function as a trademark. But not all trademarks are equally worthwhile. The name itself determines the strength of the trademark rights a brand enjoys.

Brand protection

Names that suggest the category are weak for brand protection. The time to be aware of the drawbacks of such names is when you’re choosing a new name. This involves weighing up the advantage that descriptive and suggestive names have in helping form a mental association in customers’ minds with what the company sells against the significant drawbacks.

Effectively, opting for a meaningful name means that competitors are free to use the generic element of your name. You stand out less because it is a fundamental tenet of trademark law that nobody can get exclusive rights to use generic terms that others in the category legitimately need to use.

That’s why Oatly was unable to stop Glebe Farm calling its oat milk PureOaty even though Oatly is a famous mark and enjoys greater protection than lesser brands. Had it chosen a name like Hellmann’s then it would have been able to stop a competitor simply adding ‘Pure’ to a similar name. It would have got a strong trademark which is a ‘must have’ for a brand like Oatly that is purpose driven.

Purpose-driven brands

Oatly was somewhat apologetic when seeking to enforce its rights in its name during the Oatly vs. Glebe Farm dispute. Being called a bully did not sit well with a brand whose purpose is to promote health and environmental consciousness. Yet it is essential to enforce your trademark rights vigorously to protect your territory. For example, EasyJet comes down heavily on uses of the word ‘Easy

While Oatly followed legal advice and did take action, it found itself in a legal dispute with a competitor that has a similar ethos. The legal action alienated consumers who questioned what the similarity was between the two products. A petition called for Oatly to cease action against Glebe Farm, accusing it of ‘rather aggressively, and wholly unnecessarily’ targeting the UK farm. Perhaps that explains why Oatly decided not to appeal the High Court’s decision.

If Oatly had chosen a non-descriptive name, it is unlikely consumers would question why it was taking action to defend its turf. For a purpose-driven brand, choosing a highly distinctive name makes more sense because it reduces the risk that competitors would use similar branding that you would then need to dispute.

The Oatly example suggests that before finalising the choice of name it is worth considering some of the drawbacks of using a suggestive name.

Visual identity

A downside to searching for a meaningful basis around which to design a brand’s visual identity is that you miss an obvious opportunity to stand out distinctively, such as by using characters and other symbols.

I briefed my designer to incorporate a strong visual in the Azrights brand, but the final brand identity used no symbol because her approach was to focus on differentiation instead of distinctiveness. Having understood that we specialise in online business, she opted to replace our strapline, ‘Easy Legal Not Legalese’ with the strapline ‘Lawyers for the Digital World’ and produced a logo with stripes that were reminiscent of IBM’s logo. 

By using differentiation as the basis of the visual identity, the designer failed to use the opportunity to create a strong symbol to give us a distinctive look despite there being only one law firm (a much larger one) that was using a symbol in its branding. It used an orange tiger (now gone) and its brand stood out among all the other commercial law firms that were using plain logos.   

Your differentiation or positioning does not need to form the focus of your visual identity. For us, making the law easy to understand was, and is, core to the Azrights brand. So, the visual identity designs didn’t need to focus on our specialisation in digital matters.

The way to avoid sameness in branding is to stop choosing brand names and other identifiers based on their meaning, and instead focus on standing out distinctively by choosing names and identifiers that are legally distinctive. That is the way to create legally protectable distance between a brand and its competitors. As Byron Sharp puts it distinctiveness lasts; differentiation does not.

Shireen Smith is the Founder of Azrights, an intellectual property law firm and the author of Brand Tuned: The new rules of branding, strategy and intellectual property (Practical Inspiration Publishing, 2021). She has a master’s degree in intellectual property from the University of London.

BGA members can receive 20% off the price of a copy of Brand Tuned courtesy of the BGA Book Club. Click here for details.

The hidden benefits of language learning

Seamless pattern of a group of hand drawn people holding "thank you" signs in different languages

Learning another language is an asset for anyone, but do you know the full extent to which it can benefit you in your professional and personal life? Antje Vogdt looks at the impact on decision-making, multitasking, creativity and divergent thinking

The immediate benefit of learning a foreign language is obvious: you learn how to understand and to express yourself in a different language and you become able to talk to people who do not speak your native tongue. This might be a choice, for easier travelling for instance, or an obligation in school or for work.

But the advantages of language learning go far beyond simply communicating with others. Among them, you will find that you improve your overall performance in daily life and at work: decision-making, multitasking and creative, divergent thinking are but a few examples of the great asset that speaking two or more languages are for the cognitive process.

1. Decision-making

Research has shown that people working in a foreign language are better at decision-making. A group of psychologists at the University of Chicago wondered if people would make the same decision in a foreign language as they would in their native tongue. The intuitive answer would be ‘yes, of course’. You could even think that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systemic. Yet, the opposite is true.

To demonstrate that using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases, the team of psychologists under the guidance of Boaz Keysar divided a group of native English-speakers who also spoke Japanese into two. Those who were tested in their foreign language (Japanese) made less risky, more balanced and rational choices than those tested in English.

These loss-aversion tests were based on the theory of psychologist and Nobel Prize Winner, Daniel Kahneman, whose 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, posits two general systems of thinking. ‘System 1’ is intuitive and quick, and used by the brain wherever possible in order to minimise effort. ‘System 2’ is deliberative and slow, and better suited for modern-life problems but demands more effort to activate and keep active.

Speaking a foreign language appears to activate System 2 in advance of tackling a tricky problem, heightening deliberation as demonstrated in the experiments. The researchers therefore believe that a second language provides useful cognitive distance from automatic processes and unthinking, emotional reactions (those activated in System 1) in order to promote a more analytical thought (System 2).

  • Foreign languages make you rich

Being able to express yourself in a foreign language will help you land a job and gives you an edge over monolingual candidates in job interviews. It offers more career growth, whether you choose to move abroad or explore international business opportunities. Candidates with foreign languages are offered higher salaries, and the accumulated benefit of the language bonus estimated to result in a very interesting extra sum by the time you retire. But that’s not all.

  • The prospect theory

The positive impact of foreign language skills on decision-making biases, as outlined above, is largely beneficial in relation to financial decisions. Keysar’s team used scenarios proposed by Kahneman – whose 2002 Nobel Prize in economics was awarded for his work on prospect theory – to develop several tests. For instance, Keysar’s team gathered a group of students from the University of Chicago and gave them each $15 USD in $1 bills. Each dollar could be kept or bet on a coin toss. If they lost a toss, they would lose the dollar, if they won, they received the dollar in return and another $1,50 USD. Almost half of the first group just kept the dollars.  

A second group of students spoke Spanish as a second language – unlike the first group, almost three quarters of the students decided to take the bets. Keysar and his colleagues concluded that those who were taking the bets in a foreign language were less affected by the so-called ‘myopic risk aversion’ phenomenon that describes that, rooted in emotional reactions to the idea of loss, the possibility of small losses outweigh the promise of larger gains. By using a second language, the second group of students had more cognitive distance and were therefore able to perceive that the proposition made by Keysar and his team, over multiple bets, is likely to be profitable.

2. Multitasking and focusing

The so-called ‘executive functions’ – which we might think of as being like the ‘CEO of the brain’ – are a set of mental skills that help the brain organise and act on information. Multitasking is one of the things that the executive control system handles. In a study led by researchers at York University in Toronto, monolinguals and bilinguals were put in a driving simulator. Through headphones, they received extra tasks to do – everybody’s driving got worse, but those who spoke more than one language made fewer errors in their driving, as they were able to stay focused.

Multilingual people are constantly ‘juggling’ between two systems of speech, writing and structure, a kind of constant mental exercise. This ability to switch helps them to filter the most essential information at any given time.

For Daniel Goleman, author of 2013’s Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, ‘focus’ is the hidden driver of excellence and ‘attention in all its varieties’ is a mental asset that is critical not only for your career, but also for living a fulfilling live. As he describes, attention connects us with the world. A second (or third, fourth…) language expands the number of people you can talk to, the number of universes you can explore. As you switch from one language to the other, from one system to the other, you train your power to disengage your attention from one thing and move it to another. You become more aware of the world.

3. Creativity

Bilingual individuals have demonstrated great creative skills in different arts. When learning a second language you dig deep into the mechanics, patterns, structures and syntax of the second language and confront them with your own language, thus strengthening your ability for complex thinking and understanding of the relationships between things.

Language determines the way we look at reality, and you will realise that there are different ways to understand our world. Learning a second language helps you to develop new experiences, new thoughts, new visions and new solutions. This form of divergent thinking is assessed, for instance, in the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking which measure a participant’s creative ability. Bilingualism is a great way to experience diversity. And diversity fuels creativity.

Recent studies into the benefits of language learning are less explicit, now acknowledging that the varying ways people use their language have different effects, and taking into account other factors, like context, background, the languages in question, how many foreign languages, and so on. (You can find out more in this 2020 article in The Economist.)

Learning a second language is always beneficial and, with all the apps and the possibility to watch films in VO (version originale – ie., in their original language) it has never been easier. Maybe you have transitioned to working from home, as many of us have done. Why not use the time otherwise spent in commuting and meetings to learn a foreign language? You’ll find a way to use it to your advantage.

Antje Vogdt is a publications and content manager with a passion for travelling and learning languages. She is currently exploring her love for design in all its varieties, and new and traditional ways of publishing, communicating and teaching – digital, on paper and in person.

Networking in a virtual world

Lots of blocks with speech bubbles on top all connected with white lines. This is symbolic to networking in a virtual world.

Coca-Cola HBC’s Group Talent Director and CEMS board member, Audrey Clegg, reflects on networking lessons from the pandemic and explores how large corporates can hardwire networking opportunities in their digital structures

‘I was a headstrong child,’ says Coca-Cola HBC’s Group Talent Director, Audrey Clegg with a smile. ‘I got that from my father. But fortunately my mother was emotionally intelligent. She knew if I wanted to do something, I’d really go for it. And if I didn’t… we’d probably end up fighting.’

That simple lesson has been at the core of Audrey’s learning, development and networking philosophy ever since: let people drive their own careers, give them the opportunities and experiences they need to explore what they love to do and encourage them to talk about it.

Networking isn’t a race

‘Networking takes a lot of energy so you need some fuel,’ says Audrey, who is also a board member at CEMS (the Global Alliance in Management Education). ‘If you’re doing what you enjoy, then, you’re getting free refills.

‘You don’t set off on a long journey – possibly the longest journey of your life – without planning. It’s the same with growing a network. You plot where you want to go carefully, who you need help from to get you there and then check in regularly to make sure you’re on track.’

Planning and strategy is even more important in the virtual world, Audrey believes: ‘It’s unbelievably easy to get side-tracked when you’re online. Follow a signpost on a little detour and you could be gone for hours. So decide how long you want for a particular task – checking your LinkedIn feed, for example – and then set a timer on your phone.’

Hardwired networking and an internal growth engine

Some institutions leave networking to individuals but others seek to help their people do it more effectively. Last year, Audrey and the Coca-Cola HBC Talent Team launched what they call their ‘Opportunity Marketplace’. It connects business demands, big and small, with people who can meet them and gain skills and visibility at the same time.

Alongside international collaboration and maximising employee skillsets, a core component of the initiative is providing a digital platform for managers to post assignments. Employees complete a profile and are alerted when relevant opportunities arise.

So far, around 1,500 people have applied to more than 300 projects through the platform, of which 92% are already completed already  – with an estimated 15K person-hours saved.

‘As with all digital change, you need behaviour change,’ observes Audrey. ‘But we had a great team who got the tech right. The benefits were clear so people took to posting fast.’

Examples include: programmers wanted for an initiative that automatically tracks hardware assets across the group; bartenders with a talent for social media to boost Coca-Cola HBC’s new spirits categories; recycling experts to design a collection scheme for aluminium capsules used in Costa Coffee outlets; marketeers to keep up to date on promotion strategies; and learning specialists to share best practice leadership behaviours.

Among Coca-Cola HBC’s 35,000 people in 28 countries, the chance encounters that create new ideas or the foundations for future collaborations can be hard to come by, especially in recent times. But light-hearted postings help to form new relationships and opportunities. For example, Brand Ambassador, Motunrayo Abiona in Nigeria, posted for a DJ for a virtual party and found Talent Lead Peter Vaszondi in Hungary. ‘He rocked the house,’ says Audrey.

The network effect

As the Opportunity Marketplace is a genuine network, the opportunities flow both ways. A number of Coca-Cola HBC leaders are using it to crowdsource insights they need when they take on new roles.

Maria Anargyrou Nikolic, for example, moved back to her native Greece to become Country Manager after 10 years working in other markets for Coca-Cola HBC. Longing to know how culture and customers had changed in her absence, she posted for help and found mentors to brief and guide her.

‘We’re seeing many similar short-term opportunities posted for recent graduates on the platform,’ says Audrey. ‘So even if you don’t get on to one of our graduate programmes, there are lots of ways to vary your experience and build your network in an entry-level or early career job. And we have plenty of them – today, for example, there are around 150 such roles in our network.’

In conclusion, then, there are ways to max your network, even in a Covid-19 world. But as with beating the virus, the most successful solution is a combination of humanity and science, according to Audrey.  

‘Be warm, treat people as you’d like to be treated but stay focused and use the data. Plus, always ask prospective employers how they can help you build your network. Any organisation of reasonable size ought to have some good tools and platforms in place. If not, keep looking. It’s a key ingredient for a successful future.’

Audrey Clegg is Coca-Cola HBC’s Group Talent Director, where she leads its mission to get the right people, in the right roles, at the right time and grow the business. She is on the boards of CEMS (the Global Alliance in Management Education), Esade Business School and the Vedica Scholars Programme in India.

Changing times call for changing approaches at Business School

Person thinking about change and sustainability.

Nicolas Sauviat, winner of the BGA Future Leaders Case Competition 2020, calls on Business Schools to ensure cases reflect the changing world of business and help enable a generation of leaders that seek ‘meaning’ in their careers. Interview by Tim Banerjee Dhoul

Case studies are a great way to teach the practical application of business knowledge, but must be kept up to date with changing times and the world’s growing focus on sustainability, according to Nicolas Sauviat, winner of the BGA Future Leaders Case Competition 2020. 

The competition invited students and graduates from Business Schools in the BGA network – of which there are now 162 spread across 39 countries – to submit their report and recommendations on a sustainability conundrum facing Nespresso France.  

A master’s graduate of Aston Business School, Sauviat won with a hybrid proposal in support of both inhouse and public recycling initiatives that speaks to the importance he places in recognising the shifting dynamics of business, and of keeping an open mind. 

In this interview with Business Impact, he offers his thoughts on the value of the case study method and the importance of pursuing purpose in both a professional and personal capacity. 

He also outlines why the central selling point of a Business School programme, for him, is its ‘uniqueness’ and ‘how it brings something new and responds to a changing world effectively’.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your professional and personal background?

I come from a family of four children and grew up in Limoges, a medium-sized city in France known for its porcelain and cows. I studied corporate law at the University of Limoges before turning to international business thanks to a partnership with the University of Oklahoma. There, I discovered the thrill of being abroad and have been travelling ever since. 

I worked for businesses and NGOs in Spain, finished my studies in international business at Aston University and flew to Hong Kong to promote cross-sector collaborations and disrupting business models at Shared Value Project Hong Kong – a non-profit organisation striving to build uncommon partnerships for the UN SDGs. Most recently, I joined the World Benchmarking Alliance, an international organisation which develops transformative benchmarks that compare key companies’ performance on the SDGs.

The BGA Future Leaders Case Competition 2020 asked entrants to analyse four options available to the CEO of Nespresso France in relation to addressing the problem of single-serve aluminium capsules that are deemed wasteful and damaging to the environment. Which option would you have implemented, if you were the Nespresso France CEO, and why?

I would implement a hybrid solution between ‘setting up a proprietary recycling system’ and ‘sponsoring a complete overhaul of the country’s recycling system’, as I recommended in my entry. This is for two main reasons: impact maximisation and risk mitigation. 

While investing in the French recycling system is clearly superior in terms of both impact and ROI, Nespresso needs to complement the public system with its own private system until the former reaches sufficient capacity. 

The move would allow Nespresso France to adapt to the new business environment where interdependence, collaboration for innovation and proactiveness on purpose are increasingly crucial to success. I added to this combination my own (fifth) option for Nespresso to become a B Corp. The B Corp certification brings depth and transparency to this sustainability commitment. 

Nespresso’s innovative dual recycling model would be highlighted by a unique positioning based on transparency and collaboration. If applied, this plan would result in two thirds of the cups to be recycled by 2024 and 100% of the French population to have access to proper recycling options for the aluminium capsules. It would also provide an estimated 3% additional growth on the 2020-2023 period across Nespresso France’s operations. 

You are an international business MSc graduate of Aston Business School. Did your experience of this programme help in your approach to the BGA Future Leaders Case Competition?

My time at Aston was fundamental to my developing the skills needed in the BGA case competition. It honed my analytical reasoning and business strategy skills, which were both key to solving the case study. It also broadened my horizons, especially thanks to the palpable entrepreneurial atmosphere at the university. The many societies available, notably Enactus, were a fantastic way to get hands-on experience, for example. 

While at Aston, I learned the importance of having a well-thought strategy, and, more importantly, to act on it and not be afraid to adapt it according to ongoing circumstances – as reflected in my submission. The MSc in International Business was therefore a crucial step in my professional and personal development. I gained professional experience and made lifelong friends there. It is a time I will cherish for the rest of my time. 

Do you think the case study method is an effective way to learn about business and management?

I think it is extremely important to look at real-life examples to get a deeper understanding of business. To gain effective knowledge, you need both a healthy dose of theory and a matching dose of relevant analysis grounded in reality. The case study method is therefore a great way to implement the knowledge acquired in the classroom and to examine the world’s complexities. 

That being said, the way to succeed yesterday is not necessarily the same as would be needed today. Times constantly change – especially with sustainability issues which were systematically ignored before. ‘Business as usual’ cannot work anymore. These relatively new aspects to doing business offer great opportunities – such as sustainable businesses gaining an edge over their competitors – but do require creativity to solve. They reflect the new paradigms we live in, which the case study method needs to acknowledge.

If you were to return to Business School later in your career (e.g., to study an MBA or other executive-level programme), would use of the case study method be something you would look for in the Business School at which you would want to study?

I would definitely look for the practical applications of the knowledge taught. The use of the case study method would be one aspect of that and I would expect each ‘theory’ class to be matched with implementation studies. 

I would pay extra attention to how ‘recent’ case studies are used in the programme and how sustainability is included in every aspect of it. I would also look for how the case study is effectively used – is there an emphasis on one good solution or a debate on its complexities? 

The use of case studies needs to reflect the challenging problems of the world we live in and foster creativity on how to solve them.

What other factors might be important to you, if you were ever to return to Business School to study further?

If I ever were to return to Business School, I would look at its reputation and rankings but, more importantly, the uniqueness of the degree. It is crucial to see how it brings something new and responds to a changing world effectively. 

The ‘why’ needs to be at the centre and the programme must show its current relevance. You cannot study business the way it’s been done so far, focusing on only the old profit dimension of business. It is only one dimension among many others – for instance, people, planet and purpose.
As the ones enabling the next generation of business leaders, Business Schools have to show the way forward and be trailblazers in sustainability.

Can you tell me a little about a favourite course/module, assignment or professor, from your time at Business School?

I can talk a bit about my favourite professor: Kaz Kirollos. He was the head of both the entrepreneurship and the international business programmes and knew his way around in both [Kirollos is now at Warwick Business School]. 

Kirollos embodies the successful mixing of theory and practice. He would explain the theory and its limits before diving into case studies and debates in the classroom. He knew that there was no ‘right’ answer in business but that there are instead shifting dynamics which require an inquisitive and open mind. I guess his entrepreneurship experience was especially important in that aspect as he emphasised a trial-and-error approach to business – something that really resonated with me.  

Your past experience is full of activities relating to work with a social impact. Are ‘purpose’ and ‘impact’ things that you will continue to seek in your future career? If so, why?

‘Impact’ and ‘purpose’ are definitely things that I will continue to seek in my future career. I think I come from a generation looking for meaningful work – not just work as a means to survive. As a generation, we are also aware that we are the last ones who will be able to make a strong impact on many global issues, such as climate change. 

It is significant that we just entered the UN’s Decade of Action. In this way, while NGOs and non-profits certainly have a role to play, the private sector needs to step up in order to bring forth a sustainable future. This is not from a charity point of view. Aligning profit with purpose is beneficial to both society and businesses – creating both economic and societal value. Companies need to understand that, in the age of stakeholder capitalism, purpose is the new competitive advantage. 

While at Business School, you worked on an entrepreneurial project for a product that produces mosquito-repellent blankets in African countries, with the platform, Enactus. What did this experience teach you about the realities of business?  

Being a project leader at Enactus taught me much, especially about constantly failing! Making a project move forward is but a long succession of failures and delays. Once an obstacle is removed, another pops up. In this way, being part of this student-led organisation really developed my entrepreneurial skills, which are required for any business. It also showed me the difficulty of finding the right contacts and business partners, especially in an international setting. 

Furthermore, it showed me how hard it is to implement cross-sector collaboration. The companies we reached out to were really unsure about working with a team of students – which is understandable – and kept going back and forth even with the whole university backing us. There was also a lot of discussion around the project even though we were only mimicking an already tested and proven method. As a result, conducting proper business in Ghana took us much longer than we expected – a common result for most international projects.

Do you think socially oriented leaders can have a bigger impact at the helm of a small startup or within a large multinational organisation?

This is a very tough question, to which there is no definitive answer. Both are needed to drive impact. What is certain is that the private sector has a crucial role to play to bring forth a more sustainable future. Without the private sector, we won’t achieve the SDGs. The private sector needs to bring much-needed scalability to sustainability. Its capacity to solve problems profitably and at scale is indeed key (the earned profits being reinvested to generate more profit). 

On the one hand, multinationals can have a bigger impact given their sheer size, influence and resources. They are, however, much harder to move for socially oriented leaders. On the other hand, startups are much more nimble and can offer innovative scalable solutions. I personally really enjoyed my time in a startup as you really feel you are making a difference. Socially oriented leaders can have a strong impact in both. The true defining element is, in my opinion, cross-sector partnerships to involve all stakeholders in the process and to create maximum impact from every initiative.

Nicolas Sauviat is a sustainability professional with an academic background in both law and international business. He is passionate about cross-sector collaboration for the SDGs and advocates for aligning profit with purpose. His experience has spanned the US, Europe and Asia, working for organisations ranging from NGOs to businesses.

This article is taken from Business Impact’s print magazine (edition: May-July 2021).

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