Creating a counterforce through education

Delivering world-class education in post-apartheid South Africa is about creating programmes that touch people and are rooted in lived realities, says Jon Foster-Pedley, Dean and Director of Henley Business School, Africa. Interview by David Woods-Hale

Can you tell us a little bit about your career journey? 

I grew up in a service family in the UK; my dad was a senior officer in the Royal Air Force (RAF) and my brother followed him. I was supposed to too. I won a scholarship to the RAF’s officer academy as a pilot and then studied sociology. It was a life-changing moment. I never lost my love for flying, but I developed an incredible interest in the world around me. 

I entered the corporate world through aviation, becoming an airline captain, selling aircraft and eventually teaching European aviators how to sell them too – while still flying on my own account, doing aerobatics. I did an MBA through Ashridge and this led to my formal teaching career, first in the UK and then at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where I set up the executive MBA programme before going to New Zealand on sabbatical to establish an innovation hub. 

I was approached to become Dean and Director of the Henley MBA programme in 2010. Henley had had a South African presence for 27 years; in fact, I had registered with Henley in the UK to do my DBA, and when I came to South Africa for a second time, I had done some teaching work with Henley.

When I took the post, though, it was a dire situation. The University of Reading had bought Henley Business School in the UK three years previously, bringing a radically different set of expectations and level of complexity from its side – which led to Henley UK approaching me to run the Africa operation. The School was technically bankrupt, there had been no investment. The person who hired me tragically succumbed to cancer and then there were five of us left. We had a turnover of R17m a year and 80 MBA students. But we had great possibilities. 

We were lucky to be the only Business School accredited by AMBA in South Africa with an international MBA. Very quickly, we tripled the MBA intake from one a year to three and then five; the turnover increased exponentially to R135m last year and is projected at R160m this year. The staff followed the same trajectory, from five to 70 full-time staff with 150 part-time on top of that. From one country in Africa, we now provide more than 65% of Henley’s global MBA student body (including the UK). 

Even though we are part of Henley UK, the story of Henley Africa has been less of an academic institution and more start-up. We’ve done it on our own: we are and remain, managerially independent. We have paid off all our debts and grown 800% with no investment whatsoever, by bootstrapping. Today – seven years later – we are an entrepreneurial success story that just happens to be a Business School. I imagine we’ve been the fastest-growing Business School in Africa.

What do you think differentiates the Henley MBA?

We want to build the people who build the businesses that build Africa. We believe business leaders have to understand the context of the areas in which their companies operate – and serve them. It cannot be enough just to look for profits, hitting performance targets, delivering value for shareholders and pocketing your bonus in the process. Business needs to be a force for good and Business Schools need to catalyse that – especially in Africa.

One of the key skills for us as business educators was to design a course that didn’t follow the typical ‘marriage break-up’ inspiring structure of so many other MBAs. Our course understands that our students have lives – real lives with real pressures – outside the classroom, which is why our programme runs over two-and-a-half years instead of the customary one-year full time or two years part time.  

We launched our ‘family-friendly MBA’ support programme for students and their partners, with a series of workshops to build family resilience, better parenting, project management skills and to strengthen relationships. We are going to start introducing mindfulness and meditation too, to complement the project-management skills. It’s all about creating a family-learning, family-friendly MBA programme for people building a family life where they have to earn while they learn.

You’ve worked hard to transform race and gender balances in your cohorts; could you share some insights? 

We’ve gone from 20-42% female on our MBA programme and from about 32-68% Black. In executive education, which didn’t exist when we started seven years ago, we are now at 60% women and 80% Black, while our staff are 75% women, 75% Black. We are not quite there yet at senior level, but we’re working on it.

I’ve taken a lot of sustenance from South African activist Steve Biko’s work on race. People talk about decolonising education, ripping down statues of former Prime Minister of the Cape Colony (Cecil) Rhodes and creating a Black Africa, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. It’s about slaying myths and dragons. Apartheid was like living for generations in a violently abusive personal relationship, which eventually undermined self-belief and confidence. 

All our learning is assessed blindly, offshore, so examiners and moderators don’t know whether they are assessing students from the UK, Africa, China or Europe. Students from Africa do just as
well as anyone else, which underlines the reality that we might be different culturally, but we are not different neurologically
or intellectually. We have all the intelligence we need, it’s just about putting it in its place. People need to start believing this and owning it – that’s true decolonisation; getting rid of a set of values that systematically destroyed the people upon which it was imposed. 

We haven’t cracked how to tackele the issues relating to gender yet, I’m considering a course in re-gendering leadership because there definitely needs to be a gender dialogue, but not one that excludes men.

What innovative teaching methods have you come across that are used to create leaders of tomorrow?

I’m a great believer in context first and foremost. Then the true academic journey that starts from a premise or a hypothesis, understanding that we don’t have the answers. It’s only through research and its rigorous cross examination that we can get closer to plausible South African answers for South African problems. 

A key part of that process is Henley FIRE (Full Immersion Reality Education), which takes the student out of the classroom and into the field, ethnographically, with all the contextual truths that it involves. 

And we also have Henley ICE, our embedded capability in innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, with our own progressive models and methods. 

What we are trying to create is the capacity to learn through action so that you can see and suffer the consequences of your decisions in real time and adapt accordingly. If you’re in a corporation, beset by centralised group think or, even worse, bureaucracy, you’ve unwittingly lost that freedom to use your initiative and avoid the ‘train crash’. Worse, you’ve lost your imagination and courage. We bring those back.

How important is sustainability and in what ways have Business Schools adapted this into their programmes? What does sustainable leadership look like?

When I took over as Dean, I had written a big strategy document using systems thinking approaches about how to build a brilliant Business School with Henley Africa. The starting question was, ‘what’s education supposed to do?’ It’s certainly not about creating academic positions and tenure. I felt Business Schools were losing their way. They weren’t speechless but were, effectively, voiceless.

The answer instead was to reframe what Africa meant. It was about creating a purpose – a movement – around education and fully embracing the possibilities of Africa. All of that is synonymous with sustainability; in fact, in a country with the highest Gini coefficient in the world, sustainability lies at the core of everything we do. Levelling the playing field for rich and poor is the only real way of creating a sustainable society here. Rooting the programme in the lived realities is a fundamental part of the Henley Africa MBA journey. We make reality our friend and we make things better, relentlessly. And we measure that, so we don’t get fooled by our own rhetoric.

As part of the sustainability agenda, can you tell us about your MBAid initiative and corporate activism anti-corruption drive? 

I wanted longer social projects with which the students could get involved, to make a difference rather than just come and go. Once students saw children in need or sick people, they couldn’t become anything but engaged in the learning. They would drop their guard and allow you to work with them far more profoundly – and let us inculcate in them the fundamental principle that business can, and should, be transformational and benign.  

Learning at Henley Africa is a multi-initiative, richly layered process. Being a force for good starts with involvement in community projects, providing invaluable free advice to more than 300 NGOs, which would never be able to afford it. The basic precept is that you have to learn to see – we architect epiphanies. That goes for all of us, academic staff most of all; if we are not learning faster than our students then, quite frankly, we are not very good educators. 

MBAid encompasses non-profit work, social work, collaborations, internships, activist social interventions, staff training and scholarships – turning the energies of business into social good. But charity also begins at home. Our minimum wage was hiked considerably several years ago. All staff have to study or face leaving us – but the education is free. We’ve got four or five MBAs who are staff now.

We are also transforming the face of business education through the MBA scholarship programme in Africa, because by awarding scholarships to deserving candidates who wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity to unlock their potential, we can give them the tools to make an even bigger difference in their communities and our industries. We gave some 15 full fee MBA bursaries last year, all funded by us.  

Another critically important initiative was creating the family-friendly MBA. I sincerely hope that we lose this competitive advantage, because when we do, it will mean that all other Business Schools are following our lead. Capable educators shouldn’t be creating education that messes up families and damages children. We can do better.

Corporate activism is the final leg to MBAid. If we cannot speak the truth about corporate power, how can we speak the truth about government corruption? The only way we can avoid any repeat of the kleptocracy is for a brand new generation of corporate activists to speak out and act decisively when the cancer is first detected. We teach students using techniques borrowed from medicine and aviation. If we can stop toxic airline captains crashing their aircraft and killing their passengers, we can stop toxic captains of industry crashing other companies at huge human cost, losing billions in value.

We are activists. We work with hashtags before mission statements. #FamilyFriendlyMBA #CorporateActivism #NoMoreBribes #MBAid. They are on our billboards and social media. We aim to create movements, before policies. 

What are the biggest challenges facing global Business Schools today?

Without a doubt, relevance. If you cannot shape the society in which you operate, influence it positively, create a new generation of caring, committed, high-performance leaders who will build the world in which you would like your kids to grow up in, then there isn’t much point. When you read the original words of the founders of Harvard Business School, for example, you can feel their transformational passion, turning swords into ploughshares post-World War 2. Too many Schools have lost that purpose today. Personally, I refuse to pollute my mind with meaningless rote education just because someone else said I have to. Our work has to have a purpose.

Considering the African continent in particular, why is it still to vitally important to develop world-class business education? 

It’s a highly contested terrain; what we mean by world class is not necessarily something Harvard or Columbia would define as worldclass in the US, where they have their very own complex context. We have our own complexities in an Africa – of 54 different countries, often incorporating African traditions into western academic traditions. Why?

World-class education means creating education that touches people. It should be about making new forms of value-creating endeavours, which for us means giving people the capacity to escape the poverty trap and avoid the loss of their humanity. Instead to use the better side of themselves to create a society that works.

World-class business education, in the context of economies of emerging countries, must be to create a new form of economic growth that isn’t a surrogate for soft diplomacy or, even worse, a creeping neo-colonialism. We have to make a difference in a concrete way, not in abstraction.

What would your advice be to other Business School leaders launching international campuses?

You can come in with a whole bunch of research skills and capabilities at a high level to help people move up in a high-level economy. But you’re unlikely to land well. The better option would be to reverse the model and use all the academic capabilities that you have as a catalyst for change. Make academia the servant, not the master. In our context, that message is simple: if it hasn’t changed the Gini coefficient, what’s the point?  

Business Schools must provoke and must create opportunities, but we can’t be doing that in an ideologically abstract environment, which is why the MBA must be rooted in people’s lived experiences, their pain and the correction of it. Business education must embrace the crudity, the roughness, of action to create artefacts of change and of value.

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

I’m naturally confident. I’m optimistic in what Austrian neurologist Viktor Frankl would call a ‘tragic optimistic way’. Frankl was writing about the concentration camps and how the people who survived were the tragic optimists; the people who understood the full identity of death, suffering and pain, yet were somehow able to find the resilience to live through it because life was still worth it. 

And that’s the kind of optimist I am. As activists, perhaps all our efforts are doomed to failure, but that doesn’t release us from the obligation to keep trying. Unless you try you will never create the path for others behind you to tread, for them to succeed in what you started.

Our mission is simple: we’re creating a counterforce through education. And it will work in the end.

Jon Foster-Pedley is Dean and Director of Henley Business School, Africa, part of the University of Reading. For 15 years prior to joining Henley, he was the faculty member for strategy and creativity at the University of Cape Town, Graduate School of Business for the MBA and other programmes.  

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