Shaping the resilient leaders of the future

At the University of Ottawa, Canada, Telfer School of Management aims to provide an MBA programme that develops leaders who can go into any organisation and have an impact, says MBA Programme Director
Greg Richards. Interview by David Woods-Hale

What are the biggest challenges facing Business Schools today?

For me, there is a number of things going on. There’s significant change in organisations themselves. There’s always been a notion of frame-breaking changes going on, but what’s happening now is a confluence of forces – big data, analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics is one area – the other is the increase in diversity management practices towards inclusivity. Globalisation has moved to Globalisation 2. This has changed from ideas coming from North America towards to the rest of the world, to being much more of a two-way flow.

This has altered the competitive landscape significantly and has called for different leadership styles. The challenge for Business Schools is to respond quickly to what’s happened, in terms of curricula. Here, there is a fundamental issue that needs to be resolved: the tug of war between what we do in the classroom and our research. This has been around for a long time, but businesses look to Schools to be more relevant in the current world, so the challenge is to adjust quickly enough to maintain relevance. Those that can’t will face some challenging times. 

How do you think Business Schools should prepare MBAS for the future?

This is an important issue. We don’t have the exact right answer – and I know other Business Schools are thinking about this as well. 

One element is teaching skills and the other is teaching students how to learn. MBA programmes have been criticised, rightly or wrongly, for providing ‘cook books’. I teach a strategy course and there are 25 or 30 different models that you use. Sometimes, we get too focused on the model rather than what it’s supposed to do. It’s a tool for thinking. It’s not filling in a bunch of boxes and saying ‘I’ve done my job right’. 

One of the shifts we’re trying to make is ensuring students understand that every model we look at is a tool for thinking. 

The second issue is that students are on their phones and laptops in classrooms and some of our professors are saying ‘bring the laptop to class’, but we’re challenging them to find the answer outside the classroom and discuss it in class. How reliable are sources? Do they think it is biased in reporting? We’re teaching them reasoning and these are the pivots that need to happen. 

We want to instil in students a thirst for lifelong learning and this might be difficult for some professors because they need to rethink how they run their classrooms. Professors don’t have everything in their heads to be imparted to a class of students, so they are supposed to integrate knowledge from different sources and then allow students to learn how to learn from this. This is an important shift. 

The message to students is: ‘When you leave here, we’ve given you a bunch of tools but you need to continue to learn.’ Whatever we tell them now might be obsolete in two years. 

You teach on areas such as HR management and organisational behaviour but how to you strike the balance between core modules such as strategy and leadership, and more current trends like data, geopolitics, innovation, the ‘internet of things’ and AI?

There are a couple of ways this can be done. One is introducing new courses on a regular basis. A lot of other Schools do this, but getting a new course onto the curriculum is a very long process. It’s often said that when a topic becomes obsolete, all too often we make it a required course because of all the time constraints in getting approval. 

One thing we’ve done is to hold seminars, which cover new topics in management. We’ll introduce regular short courses, covering these topics, such as analytics. This is one way of adjusting quickly to what’s going on externally. One challenge is that seminars don’t necessarily show up in the curricula so it’s difficult for student to know what they’re getting until it becomes an approved course. It’s a temporary solution that helps with the length of time it takes to get courses onto the curriculum. 

Fundamentally, when we strip away the tools and think about the core concepts in marketing, HR and finance, those won’t change. In finance, we might get to a blockchain-enabled world in which transactions take place simultaneously, but the foundation of net rates of value and rates of return, won’t change. Many of our professors heavily emphasise the core concepts, but in the seminars new tools emerge and students are taught to use these. 

How do you, as an MBA director, find the perfect balance between research excellence and teaching excellence?

Essentially, it falls on the administration to provide a platform to support the major changes in terms of the new things that are going on. Regarding performance management, you have to create a system to be successful. Research informs teaching and in a lot of situations, teaching informs research.  

In institutions, professors believe they can either be a great teacher or a great researcher, but it’s hard to be both. We’ve heard the story that you can have a cheap car or a good car, but you can’t have both. But Japanese car companies said:  ‘We’ve figured out a way to have both.’ We need to have that revolution in universities and Business Schools. Both are important to our constituents and our students. We need to have more integration between the two and it’s up to the leadership network to make a system to allow this to happen. 

What innovative teaching methods are you putting in place in your programmes?

We’re doing blended learning and we’re launching a fully online course in May. We have no intention of becoming a fully online MBA programme, but our logic is that you can strip out a lot of the knowledge components in any particular course and classes would become case studies, simulations, debates and so on. We’re moving towards a flipped classroom. This is probably where we’ll end up, with a few online courses for part-time students, but we’re moving the needle to make the class time less about lectures and more about work. This allows students to come in ready to
get going. 

You have experience working in the private and public sectors. Do you think there is a greater need for business students to enter public sector to share their knowledge and business nous? 

Traditionally, MBAs would stream graduates into consultancies or investment banks, so it was very heavy on the quantitative private sector side. But our view is that the MBA programme should develop managers and leaders that can go into any organisation and have an impact. To that end, we have the core courses and although, arguably, ‘marketing’ has no public sector- or not-for-profit elements, the cohort will do a marketing project for a not-for-profit organisation, so they can see that this can be applied to any organisation. 

Most professors try hard to develop core knowledge that can be applied in any direction students might want to go. In fact, with a little bit of background knowledge, some consultants can become great managers. They can apply these skills to management. 

Data and analysis for consulting will become much more important in the mainstream. We don’t position our MBA as developing only consultants or investment bankers. It’s about teaching students to manage well and decide, using the areas of focus we have, where they’d like to work. They can go to any organisation and have an impact. 

How important is sustainability and in what ways have Business Schools adapted this into their programmes? What do you think sustainable leadership looks like?

We’re right on the cusp of making changes. In the past, the question of sustainability has had an almost technical focus, around reducing packaging waste and so on. Now, one of our professors has a course focused on the history of management, and another talks on corporate governance and ethics. Putting these together we’re looking to develop a course on business and society. 

The historical view will allow students to see that business has actually driven the positive social change that we’ve seen; for example, Rowntree in the UK pushing for modern HR practices or business leaders in the industrial revolution who got together and demanded child labour laws be put in place. This concept isn’t there for a lot of folk who apply for MBA programmes. 

We’re urging students to take a step back from profit markets and think about the important role that business plays in society. This is the role business continues to need to play and while the technical aspects are important, people want to do business profitably but also send a positive message. 

We have a professor who teaches the history of business and another who is bringing this together with corporate social responsibility (CSR). At the end of these courses, we have no arguments from students. Then we can move forward. 

Can you talk a about how a Business School can add value to a corporate with which it’s working in partnership – especially in an international capacity? 

Three years ago, our School recognised that we needed to connect more with business partners. We’ve always been connected with businesses through research, but now there’s a belief that we need to understand the impact that we’re having on corporate partners. 

There have been surveys done, asking what business research does for business. The answer is ‘not very much’. The incentive structure at most universities is that researchers have to publish in journals in order to get tenure. Professors don’t necessarily see any reward for working with business leaders. This is changing. We have a long-term relationship with IBM and we’re building new relationships with Royal Bank of Canada and Deloitte as well as smaller businesses. We want to work a bit more collaboratively with the business community. It has research issues that we could help it to explore. It’s always difficult to draw the line between research and contract research because the latter is not publishable. 

We recognise the need for this collaborative relationship. Taking lessons from history, most of the studies quoted came out of deep collaboration between academics and business managers. We’re trying to replicate this by talking about the problems we’re seeing in organisations and research projects we could launch to help solve these. 

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

I’m 100% optimistic. I have great faith in the ability to adapt and I have great faith in the next generation. Students now are much more concerned with the social environment than previous generations. 

AI is becoming embedded in organisations and there is concern about job losses; however, humans are capable of understanding and adjusting almost infinitely. This is the message we’re trying to get into the MBA programme. Our students will be stepping into a very different world in 10-15 years, but faith in each other and faith in ourselves will carry us through. 

If we can control the fear of ‘losing this’ we could realise we are ‘gaining that’. We’ve launched a stream on entrepreneurship and we know there’s never been a better time to create something new. Through technology and the global village, you could launch a global business from your living room. We encourage students not to have fear but to look for opportunities. If this spirit is pervasive, we’ll see the next generation come out with ideas we’d never have thought about. 

It will be a different world of work, but that doesn’t mean people can’t do very well. 

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