The need for courage and optimism..

Speech to ‘Brightest young minds” jam May 2013,

This is personal challenge to you, and to me to step up to being leader in our society and in business.   The challenge is to work to a sense of purpose and not just to a drive for profits.  Think of the greatest leaders we know either in business, politics or society – be they Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King or in business Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg – all are driven by purpose .  All the business leaders know the value of money and how to use it to drive their businesses even if some if them can’t read a balance sheet.

First I’d like to explore briefly why purpose drives profit and not the other way round and secondly why I believe this matters  to us in our time  as we build a positive, confident, transnational and skilled Africa.  We reinvest money to build the capability to support our purpose, not the other way round.  So we need to be purpose driven to create our business and profit focused to sustain and grow them, but for me, purpose comes first and that purpose needs to be managed as actively or more so that we mange the profit.  it’s not either/or, it’s and/both.  They live together, supporting each other and building better value through better businesses.  But it’s not just customer value we seek to create, it’s value for our people. the community that makes up our businesses/

Let’s think for a moment about what drives us.  Dan Pink who write a great book called Drive. He shows how money matters most when we are short of it, but that how when the issue of money is taken off the table, it’s other things that drive us.  He says that we are driven by a need for purpose, autonomy and for progress.  In fact he makes a great case for saying that, once we are paid enough, further financial incentives can actually reduce  higher order thinking and performance.

Let’s return to Africa again and think about our future and purpose.

We have major challenges, which are outlined in the National development plan.  They are :

  1. Creating jobs and livelihood
  2. Expanding infrastructure
  3. Transitioning to a low-carbon economy
  4. Transforming urban and rural spaces
  5. Improving education and training
  6. Providing quality health care
  7. Building a capable state
  8. Fighting corruption and enhancing accountability
  9. Transforming society and uniting the nation

And what great challenges they are.  For this is an extraordinary time in South Africa – a time of great danger but of enormous possibility too.  We mine South Africa, and perhaps Africa generally, for our mineral resources but our greatest resources are our people. People like you.  I believe we need to value and develop those resources with a passionate intensity, providing motivation, encouragement, quality education and good example.   And we need the courage to be optimistic.  Why optimism?

Firstly, for decades much of the world has been Afro-pessimistic, it became the dominant logic in working with Africa.  While we still have huge and often scary-looking challenges, the time for Afro-pessimism is over we needed to scrub the traces of it from our minds and attitudes.  The covers of Time Magazine and of the Economist within the last year have sung a different song; is “Africa Rising – It’s the world’s next dominant economic powerhouse”.  Our job is to believe in this, and believe that we have the intelligence, capacity to learn, skills, application and imagination to make that real, and to provide opportunity for all.

Soon, about a quarter of the world’s young people will be African and unless we do something about it they will mostly be unemployed.  We need to work to make sure it is Africa Rising and not Africa Uprising.  You have the fortunate position to have the skills, relative youth and intelligence to make a difference  - and a context in which you can make it happen.   There has never been a better time to be an African hero.  It’s about, as Martin Luther King said, the content of our characters, not the colour of our skins.

Why is it then Africa’s time?  Over the last ten years, 6 of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies have been Africa.  5 African countries have been growing faster than China, 21 growing faster than India and all except 2 of them have been growing faster that both Europe and the United States.   In the next few decades – and how few decades depend on us – hundreds of millions of African people will be lifted out of poverty, as in previous decades Asian people were in Asia.   Business is now the driving force in Africa.   For the first time ever, in 2006, investment in Africa outpaced Foreign Aid and it now doubles it. Africa’s GDP is about $1,6 trillion today but should double in 12 years.  There are more democratic governments, fewer rogue leaders, fewer conflicts. At the same time our education systems continue to be poor, with notable exceptions like Ghana, which has achieved 100% primary school enrollment and increasing high school enrollment and improvements in quality. It is because we live in a world where such great promise and great problems coexist that we need to be optimistic, and see through the challenges to the possibilities beyond them.  Often the newly emerging economies such as China and India seem better able to understand this dilemma and engage with it.  Africa is becoming increasingly important to the rest of the world, for its resources, agricultural land and for its rapidly growing markets.  In the future I predict it will become just as important for its talent. The world needs Africa and we now are having the opportunity to engage with the world from a position of strength, not of need.

We lead today in Africa within an international context.  It’s  a context where you are needed.  At Henley Africa  we support you and our job is to graduate people with the skills to build the organisations to build Africa. Our society needs people who are confident and capable – confident to innovate and try new ideas and capable of managing well, using their intelligence and their imagination, using resources effectively and creating new forms of value, new businesses, money for families to develop, to have good health and to educate their children.

Lets talk a little bit about what confidence is and is not, and how a sense of purpose and confidence make such a difference to our lives.

You have made extraordinary progress in South Africa in the last 17 years.  In many ways South Africa was an abused society and the deepest effect of abuse is on self-confidence and self-esteem.  I believe for a long time we have confused education with intelligence in South Africa, and now we are truly coming out of that.  South Africa has many, many highly intelligent but undereducated people – people who in the past were systematically deprived of education and now who fight for their sons and daughters to have the opportunities they did not.  This is an extraordinary time in South Africa – a time of great danger but enormous possibility too.  We mine South Africa for our mineral resources but our greatest resources are our people. People like you.  I believe we need to value and develop those resources with a passionate intensity, providing motivation, encouragement, quality education and good example.

Above all we need to build a proper confidence. South African people have all the talents, intelligence and capability of the Americans, Asians and Europeans and it’s about time we all really started to believe that.  For belief is more than rhetoric. Our best education institutions know this and are increasingly working together to build a positive South Africa.   Our universities and places of learning are not rules unto themselves; they serve the societies in which they are situated by providing the skills and foundations to build better quality of life.   In the end they serve both knowledge and society.

Corruption is not based in self-confidence but in self-weakness, in a lack of personal significance as.  The weakness that feeds the need to take short cuts and take from others, the weakness that says I can’t, not that I can.  Our society needs people who are confident and capable – confident to innovate and try new ideas and capable of managing well, using their intelligence and their imagination, using resources effectively and creating new forms of value, new businesses, money for families to develop, to have good health and to educate their children.

So how can you develop true confidence?  The first stage in true confidence is to know, really know, that you can learn your way through most things.   When you know that you don’t fear being ignorant ever again.  You don’t need to defend your ignorance or be scared of the new.   For it doesn’t matter how smart a person is, they aren’t smart in everything. They have to learn from the beginning again.  And you and I will never be smart in everything either, so let’s learn to love learning.  If we know that we can learn, we will relish the challenge of the new and know that we can grow and succeed.

The second stage in true confidence is to embrace optimism, even in the face of great difficulty.  When there is no hope, then hope is the only answer.  Research has shown that we are wired to think that cynical and negative people are smarter than optimists but it simply isn’t true. In fact they can suck all imagination and creativity from a situation. Cynics are just passionate people who have been disappointed once too often.  If we let ourselves become clever cynics like this, it will make us a nation of problem solvers rather than a nation of possibility seekers. And it’s purpose and possibility we need.

But not just any sort of optimism will do – it’s the type of optimism that matters.  Victor Frankl, a WWII concentration camp survivor and famous psychologist, noted that neither the pessimists nor the blind optimists survived long.  The ones who made it through were the ’tragic optimists’ – the ones who said ‘yes’ to life in spite of knowing the difficult reality of everything.  Cultivating this attitude turns pain into achievement, turns guilt to the possibility of improvement and turns the knowledge that our lives are not endless into taking responsible action.  There is no room for cynicism in leadership or in education. Optimism is a powerful force and we need to nourish and cultivate it.

The third stage of true confidence is to develop a sense of purpose and horizons.  Some unlucky people walk around staring just ahead of their feet – it’s hard to get a sense of possibility that way and to see much of anything in front of you. Others, perhaps most of us, see straight ahead and slightly down, and go through life managing well enough.  True leaders look up and ahead, lift their eyes and see the possibilities – hold a vision.    When we manage purpose is when we achieve great things.  Our greatest leaders – in politics, government and business – are those who lift us up to a purpose; and you can be one of those leaders.  If you maintain a sense of purpose before a sense of profit you have the chance of building truly great organisations that will make a difference to people and make money too.

The two final stages in true confidence are firstly courage and secondly to have fun.  Strangely they go hand-in-hand.  We can never get anywhere without the determination and raw courage to act.  We also need the discipline to continue acting until we develop skills.  If a thing is worth doing it’s worth doing badly to begin with. None of us start perfect. It’s no good going to gym once, that’s how the gyms make all their money.  You have to stick with it.

If you are brave you will get hurt sometimes.  Courage is acting when we fear, not when we are fearless.   We generally find that life shrinks or expands in proportion to our courage.

The final point in true confidence, fun, is critical.  For fun and play and experimentation and crazy exploration are where we express our most subversive and radical capabilities – our capabilities of imagination and creativity.  Here you will face challenge and ridicule and opposition, for it is here that you become agents of change…. and the establishment doesn’t like change, but it needs it to stay fresh and relevant.  Those older ones here – remember when we were young and anti-establishment – we are the establishment today so let’s keep it vibrant, growing with a sense of purpose and listening to the voices of change.

We are all trying to achieve.  Let’s not think that that achievement is about profits alone and make money now, important though that is.  We are really going to make a nation, and a world worth living in, and the major engine for that is in business and in the ways we work.  and we all need you to succeed and we are all behind you.

Thanks so much for listening. South Africa is truly blessed to have such talent as you in the world of work.  For all our sakes, be brave, be confident and make a difference.  Nothing reduces the odds against you like ignoring them.  Good luck, you can do it.

You are leaving now with a great achievement.  Good luck with your careers, your families and in making a difference.  We all need you to succeed and we are all behind you.  Africa is truly fortunate to have such talent as you.

Remember that nothing reduces the odds against you like ignoring them.  Thank you.

Graduation speech on the need for confidence, courage and optimism

self-confidenceThe Chancellor, The Vice-Chancellor & Deputy Vice-Chancellors, The Registrar & Deputy Registrars, The Executive, Members of Academic & Support Staff, Parents and friends of the graduates, The most valued guests of the day, the Graduates: It is a privilege for me today to congratulate you on this graduation.

Before I start – I do apologise for my rather startling appearance today, I had an accident on Saturday in that most dangerous of places in the world, the family home, by falling over a chair.  A rather embarrassing event for a former stunt pilot and flying instructor and one that my children are delighted to tease me about – not only do I have an IPhone, iPod and an Ipad, but I’m now an eye-sore who needs an eye-patch.

But that is so much how life works out – “life is what happens when you are making other plans”.  And you planned to be here today and have made it.  I salute you, your families and the wonderful institution that have together achieved this.  I recognise your success, your hard work, and your discipline and above all the courage and confidence you have shown.   Your parents and communities have believed in you, your teachers have believed in you and you have believed in yourselves.  You have had to face critics and people who would put you down – but I am sure you have begun to learn to not pay any attention to the critics – no-one has ever erected a statue to a critic.  On the contrary, statues get erected to people who used the bricks critics throw at them, to lay the foundations to a better life.

Today I want to talk a little bit about what confidence is and is not, and how a sense of purpose and confidence make such a difference to our lives.

You have made extraordinary progress in South Africa in the last 17 years.  In many ways South Africa was an abused society and the deepest effect of abuse is on self-confidence and self-esteem.  “Colonization of the mind “ as Steve Biko called it.  And in education this effect was mainly felt on those excluded.  I believe for a long time we have confused education with intelligence in South Africa, and now we are truly coming out of that.  South Africa has many, many highly intelligent but undereducated people – people who in the past were systematically deprived of education and now who fight for their sons and daughters to have the opportunities they did not.  This is an extraordinary time in South Africa – a time of great danger but enormous possibility too.  We mine South Africa for our mineral resources but our greatest resources are our people. People like you.  I believe we need to value and develop those resources with a passionate intensity, providing motivation, encouragement, quality education and good example.

Above all we need to build a proper confidence. South African people have all the talents, intelligence and capability of the Americans, Asians and Europeans and it’s about time we all really started to believe that.  For belief is more than rhetoric. Our best education institutions know this and are increasingly working together to build a positive South Africa.   Our universities and places of learning are not rules unto themselves; they serve the societies in which they are situated by providing the skills and foundations to build better quality of life.   In the end they serve both knowledge and society.

Corruption is not based in self-confidence but in self-weakness, in a lack of personal significance as Mamphela Ramphele calls it.  The weakness that feeds the need to take short cuts and take from others, the weakness that says I can’t, not that I can.  Our society needs people who are confident and capable – confident to innovate and try new ideas and capable of managing well, using their intelligence and their imagination, using resources effectively and creating new forms of value, new businesses, money for families to develop, to have good health and to educate their children.

So how can you develop true confidence?  The first stage in true confidence is to know, really know, that you can learn your way through most things.   When you know that you don’t fear being ignorant ever again.  You don’t need to defend your ignorance or be scared of the new.   For it doesn’t matter how smart a person is, they aren’t smart in everything.  Take any CEO, any professor and put them in a wet suit under the sea – there’s an interesting image – and they are just as much a beginner as you or I might be.   They have to learn from the beginning again.  And you and I will never be smart in everything either, so let’s learn to love learning.  If we know that we can learn, we will relish the challenge of the new and know that we can grow and succeed.

The second stage in true confidence is to embrace optimism, even in the face of great difficulty.  When there is no hope, then hope is the only answer.  Research has shown that we are wired to think that cynical and negative people are smarter than optimists but it simply isn’t true. In fact they can suck all imagination and creativity from a situation. Cynics are just passionate people who have been disappointed once too often.  If we let ourselves become clever cynics like this, it will make us a nation of problem solvers rather than a nation of possibility seekers. And it’s purpose and possibility we need.

But not just any sort of optimism will do – it’s the type of optimism that matters.  Victor Frankl, a WWII concentration camp survivor and famous psychologist, noted that neither the pessimists nor the blind optimists survived long.  The ones who made it through were the ’tragic optimists’ – the ones who said ‘yes’ to life in spite of knowing the difficult reality of everything.  Cultivating this attitude turns pain into achievement, turns guilt to the possibility of improvement and turns the knowledge that our lives are not endless into taking responsible action.  There is no room for cynicism in leadership or in education. Optimism is a powerful force and we need to nourish and cultivate it.

The third stage of true confidence is to develop a sense of purpose and horizons.  Some unlucky people walk around staring just ahead of their feet – it’s hard to get a sense of possibility that way and to see much of anything in front of you. Others, perhaps most of us, see straight ahead and slightly down, and go through life managing well enough.  True leaders look up and ahead, lift their eyes and see the possibilities – hold a vision.    When we manage purpose is when we achieve great things.  Our greatest leaders – in politics, government and business – are those who lift us up to a purpose; and you can be one of those leaders.  If you maintain a sense of purpose before a sense of profit you have the chance of building truly great organisations that will make a difference to people and make money too.

The two final stages in true confidence are firstly courage and secondly to have fun.  Strangely they go hand-in-hand.  We can never get anywhere without the determination and raw courage to act.  We also need the discipline to continue acting until we develop skills.  If a thing is worth doing it’s worth doing badly to begin with. None of us start perfect. It’s no good going to gym once, that’s how the gyms make all their money.  You have to stick with it.

If you are brave you will get hurt sometimes.  Courage is acting when we fear, not when we are fearless.   We generally find that life shrinks or expands in proportion to our courage.  But I don’t need to tell you this for you have all shown the courage and self-belief to take this first vital step on your path.

The final point in true confidence, fun, is critical.  For fun and play and experimentation and crazy exploration are where we express our most subversive and radical capabilities – our capabilities of imagination and creativity.  Here you will face challenge and ridicule and opposition, for it is here that you become agents of change…. and the establishment doesn’t like change, but it needs it to stay fresh and relevant.  And one day you will be the establishment, so remember this.

You are leaving now with a great achievement.  Please don’t think you are just going to get jobs and make money now, important though that is.  You are really going to make a nation and we all need you to succeed and we are all behind you.

Thanks so much for listening. South Africa is truly blessed to have such talent as you emerging into the world of work.  For all our sakes, be brave, be confident and make a difference.  Nothing reduces the odds against you like ignoring them.  Good luck, you can do it.

Let’s not confuse education with intelligence

confuse education with intelligenceby Jon Foster-Pedley

As the terrible neglect and damage caused by the apartheid education system gradually starts to subside, we are seeing the manifestation of the natural, real intelligence and capacity of South Africa’s people.
For far too long we’ve confused education with intelligence in South Africa. We have assumed education equals intelligence which, of course, is not true.
There are a lot of highly intelligent people in South Africa who weren’t educated properly, but who, now that they’re increasingly receiving the right education, are thriving.
The upshot is the emergence of a confident, capable group of people who are far more representative of the broader population than in days gone by when their talent was submerged and their confidence eroded.
This year at Henley Business School, we’ve observed two interesting developments. The first is an improvement in the quality of applicants across the board, in terms of their experience, qualifications, the standard of their written applications, their eloquence, numeracy and general business acumen.
Secondly, and within that, we’re seeing a steady increase in the number of black applicants as well as coloured and Indian people. We have about 15% more black applicants than last year and all of a high standard.
At 60% we’re still not demographically representative, but if you compare that figure to when I started teaching the MBA in South Africa in 1995, when about just 10% of the class was black people, it’s clear we’ve come a long way.
What we’re starting to see now is a real emergence of capable, confident, articulate and talented people coming into the marketplace who can hold their own anywhere in the world.
In fact, the international lecturers on our MBA – who teach in the UK, Germany, the US, Scandinavia and Asia – have remarked that of all the classes they teach around the world, they find the South African one the most intellectually stimulating.
As lecturers, they’re constantly kept on their toes by the way our students are engaged, the quality of their inquiries, and their questioning of assumptions.
Despite all the pessimism around the country’s education system, feedback like this, albeit anecdotal, should give us cause to be optimistic about the depth of talent we have in South Africa.
South Africa is known for its mineral resources. Our most important resource is our human talent, though. This is the future of the country and of our children. So what should we do about it? Our situation could be likened to a mining company that digs up minerals without beneficiating them.
Our responsibility now is not only to unearth but also to nurture that talent….. nurture it by using our keen intellects, our creativity and our good organisational skills.
And above all to nurture it with an activist passion, in the understanding that now is the time to make this happen, not tomorrow, and that there is no-one else to do this, just us.

Re-creating ourselves

rabbit-funny-pets-wallpapersI believe we are all born creative. The question is – how can we remain creative as we grow up? And how can we recapture it once we feel we have lost it? As we pass through a repressive education system we can count ourselves lucky if we emerge with much confidence in our own creativity, an intact imagination or a lively sense of questioning and experimentation. And all too often, creativity becomes a special case – a magic attribute of the “creatives” rather than being owned as a fundamental capability at the core of each of our identities.

Part of the problem is that the idea of creativity itself has been put into a box. Ken Robinson, in ‘Mind the Gap’, puts it like this: “Creativity has become hopelessly stereotyped. First, creativity is associated with particular types of activities, mainly the arts. For that reason, it is thought to be marginal to academic and economic success. Second, only certain sorts of people are thought to be creative. As a result, it’s often thought that creativity can’t be taught. Third, creativity is thought to involve free and spontaneous behaviour. In that respect, it’s sometimes thought to be the opposite of discipline and high standards. On all counts, promoting creativity seems to strike some people as at best irrelevant … and at worst positively disruptive.”

Creativity, to me, involves acts of imagination that add value. In the world we are in and the world to come, we’ll need to make sense, together, of social and technological complexities and challenges we can barely imagine, and come up with new answers and new ways of making life worthwhile, safe and inspiring. This is true of business, of government, of medicine, of science, of politics, of community, of family and of us individually.

But who and what are the creatives? Creativity is not locked into the creative industries. In fact, according to research done by London School of Business and Creative London, only about a third of creatives (and by this I mean those engaged in the arts, design, music, multimedia etc.) work in the creative industries rooted in those skills. The others work in the rest of industry and government. In addition, we talk now of a rising creative class independent of the creative industries. This “Creative Class” – which makes up 30% of the US workforce – has enjoyed job growth at three times the national average and higher incomes too. Richard Florida, author of three leading books on the topic, defines the core of the Creative Class as people whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology and/or new creative content. “In addition,” he says, “all members of the Creative Class – whether they are artists or engineers, musicians or computer scientists, writers or entrepreneurs – share a common creative ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference and merit.”

We all know we need discipline, coordination and intellect – with these in place, add initiative and you have a new level of competitiveness. Add creativity and then passion, and you are operating at a new level of ability. The first three you can probably buy, the last three you can’t – they are voluntary, and emerge from the conditions and encouragement you set up for them. So, how do we re-learn creativity? My own practice in education and a raft of research shows that it is remarkable how quickly, under the right conditions, we can “re-create” ourselves. I have found that in a bruised South Africa, learners often lack confidence in themselves as thinkers and creators. But, with appropriate encouragement and method, the intellectual and creative transformations are nothing short of astounding.

Skills we can learn to reclaim our creativity and practice include questioning, suspending judgement, keen observation, reflection and sense-making, experimentation and working with “fast forward failure”. When we practice open-minded, open-hearted questioning we allow ourselves to see beyond the everyday assumptions we hold. By suspending judgment we allow ourselves to accept the new. By observing well we gather more information to fuel our minds. By reflecting we allow our minds to change and see new patterns and possibilities. By experimenting courageously we test and learn quickly. “Fast forward failure” is simply trial-and- error supported by an acute focus on learning and risk management, achieved by capturing mistakes early while they are small, correcting them and moving forwards. Ambition and optimism are not easy in tough times, but survival and success demands it.

The first important step to building a more original and dynamic business, organisation, family, city or country is learning how to effectively become more innovative in one’s own work, life and strategies. Your first innovation needs to be on yourself.

Not speechless,but voiceless

Speak freelyby Jon Foster-Pedley, Dean, Henley Business School South Africa

What is the role of a business school when it comes to initiating or participating in public debate and dialogue about the pressing issues that challenge our young society? Should the business schools themselves take a stand on key issues? Or should they only offer a platform on which students and guests can debate such things??

I believe that not only should business schools help people think divergently and see multiple, complex perspectives, but also that we should encourage them to think convergently, to develop interpretations and clear insights, based on quality analysis and rich systemic sense-making. But we should go further. We should also lead them in the imperfect and sometimes scary art of taking a position and having a point of view. Which, when expressed and shared publically becomes an opinion.

Opinions have value. I would argue they are a high end-point of debate and learning – leading to action, or to avoiding knee-jerk reactions. Opinions are hard – they expose one to public scrutiny and challenge, be it well informed and well-intentioned or prejudiced and self-interested. After all we don’t know if our opinions are true or false – we believe they are, as I believe my opinion here is. The art of advocacy is that of both expressing our opinions and of revealing the reasoning by which we reached them, so that others may understand and if necessary challenge us, to enrich our learning. Reaching an opinion requires a sense of timing – neither prematurely ill-considered nor too late, leading to analysis paralysis. Opinions pin one’s colours to the mast. They can move people from monkish, cerebral detachment to the imperfect, messy world of management and action; the world where positive difference is made to real people’s lives in real time.

I wrote earlier that I believe “there is a deafening silence from the halls of business academe on issues like job creation, the role of trade unions, corruption, the structure of state-owned enterprises, the strength of the rand, import- and export-parity pricing, labour-broking, and even the very role of business in a developmental state. There are probably 15 or 20 more burning problems, desperate for well-considered solutions and well-argued systemic perspectives that could be added, but whatever the correct number, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single news release on any of them from the leader of a top South African business school. We are blessed with some exceptional business schools in South Africa, but why so strangely mute?”

It seems to me that we are not speechless, for we speak, debate and dialogue within ourselves and in public conferences with energy, skill and dedication. But we are voiceless, in taking a public position to challenge poor governance, poor ethics, or even our own role. Or at best, murmuring. And at a time when we can see the power of voice daily in the turmoil of Arab states as masses of individuals find a voice and act together against forms of government they judge tyrannical.

Is it deliberate or merely an oversight? Perhaps the business schools themselves are simply a reflection of a business community that is frequently criticized for failing to speak out or take a stand. It’s hard to believe that it’s an oversight, given the proud history of universities like Wits and UCT in the struggle against apartheid. There was no doubt at all in those dark days that a university was obliged to take a moral stand – so what’s changed now? Many of the issues confronting us today, like the fight against corruption, the sub-prime crisis, redressing the past and constructing quality education for all are also rooted in morality and are reflective of quality of character. “When the profit motive is unshackled from the purpose motive, bad things happen” as Dan Pink, author of Drive, says.

I agree with the opinion of Nitin Nohria, Dean of Harvard Business School when he states: “Business is an extraordinary force for good”. MBAs hold positions of great power, having huge impact over society. So there is a need to teach leaders to have public voices to advocate the path of good and challenge misuses of power. To teach this is not peripheral to the role of a business school, but at the heart of it.

I agree, too, with the opinion of Joel Podolny, ex-Harvard and Stanford professor, former Dean of Yale School of Management and now Dean of Apple University, when he says: “Until business schools make public gestures of disapproval (of unethical behaviour), society will never fully trust the MBA again”.

I do believe, as I mentioned in a previous article, that it is important to “create in our business schools the kind of atmosphere that flourished originally in universities. These were places of rhetoric and inquiry, debate and stimulation. Where brains were refreshed and encouraged to challenge and gain understanding via the process. Education is about lighting fires, not filling vessels.”

We know we need hard work, rigorous intellect, and good coordination to do well. These are foundations of excellence. But what great things can happen when to these are added, initiative, imagination and passion? It’s easy to imagine that being passionate means switching off intellectual and academic rigour. It doesn’t. Passion and intellect can be a synergistic and/both dance, not an either/or race. Much has been written by business academics about the role played by passion in the workplace. It’s what makes getting up and arriving at work a pleasure, not a chore. It’s what fuels visionaries. It’s what turns entrepreneurs into corporate titans. But do we have the passion in our business schools in our response to the problems and challenges of our society? And if the schools themselves are not passionate, and passionately prepared to take a stand, how can we expect our students to follow suit?

Silence is a vacuum that will be filled by other people’s voices and ideas. It’s time, it’s our duty, for our business schools to regain their voices.

MBAid – MBAs paying it forward around the world

HENLEY MBAid in South AfricaMBAid final logo-01 (2)

An MBA isn’t a badge, it’s a commitment – a commitment to work for better organisations, communities, nations and for a better life.

A unique learning initiative between South African NGOs, the Henley Business School in the UK and Henley Business School in South Africa has provided innovative business solutions for a range of Cape-based organisations. Karen Rutter reports:

This year (2011) will the see the sixth in a series of unique learning initiatives between South African NGOs and the Henley Business School at the University of Reading in the UK. Designed and implemented by the UK Henley faculty and by Jon Foster-Pedley, now dean and director of Henley Business School in South Africa, the programme links MBA students and Cape Town-based NGOs in a practical, collaborative partnership.

Each year, a group of 40-odd Henley MBA students tackle a range of needs-based business challenges posed by NGOs that work in a variety of fields, from housing to HIV/AIDS to education to providing children’s homes. NGOs that have participated in the project to date include the Tsiba Entrepreneurship Centre, NICRO, the Heart Foundation, James House, the Treatment Action Campaign, the Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture, SHINE child literacy programme, St Georges School for girls and Habitat for Humanity, amongst others. Their business needs have ranged from strategic marketing and fund-raising campaigns to organisational development.

“The idea behind the programme is to promote learnerships that have a practical impact for good,” explains Foster-Pedley. “It’s about doing real work for real people, moving away from an academic ivory tower approach and challenging students to use their intelligence and creativity. It’s learning on a very profound level, one which involves both an ethical and spiritual edge.”

To date, more than 150 Henley MBA students have participated in the programme in South Africa, representing about 1200 days of free expert middle and senior management time. That’s about £1million worth of free executive consulting. It’s social engagement that shows imagination and global commitment. For full article click here.

Masterful inactivity – the undertaught skill

PoisedLeading in uncertain times (when were they not?) needs confidence. But surely not the blind activist confidence of a red-in-tooth-and-claw A-type leader? ‘Don’t just sit there, DO something!’  Sometimes useful, but often the opposite is truer: ‘Don’t just do something, SIT there’.  It’s how we sit that matters, of course. Consciously, aware, patiently, selectively.  Irvin Yallom says that by managing the variables of meaning and care we create increasing engagement and motivation.

It’s hard to know what to do at any given time when each of us has a partial view of an unfolding future. What’s needed is for us all to bring these  partial perspectives together and create a shared and bigger picture which holds more insight and truth  about what is happening – and this better picture allows us to act with more clarity.  But what do we need to manage in order to make this sharing of insight happen well?  Sharing, is at heart, voluntary and nuanced, so managing meaning and offering a robust care can create better circumstances for the opening up of sharing than compulsive activism.

There’s a wonderful crazy Monty Python sketch about cricket where the commentators talk of ‘supreme display of inertia’ – ‘extremely well not played’ and there is something to say for masterful inactivity.  If the conditions have been set and the game needs to play out, what we may need is the discipline of self-control to allow the time to be right, the constellations to align and the events to unpack. And sometimes, like a heron silently patient, the lightning-fast and perfectly-timed strike.

Can you spend your time better than on doing business plans?

Yes you can- according to David Kirsh and Brent Goldfarb of the University of Maryland after studying 700 start-ups – see the short video. “Spending time and energy tweaking your business plan is a waste of resources. It’s a limited-use document that will in no way substitute for the hard work of actually building a business. You’re better off investing in your idea, your social network, finding potential investors, potential customers – the intangibles around your business that are going to make it more likely you succeed. Invest your time in any other business-building activity but working on your business plan.”wastetime

They don’t teach business planning any more on their courses (‘easy to find and do on the internet’), but rather spend a lot of time helping people to think carefully about the fundamentals of the business.

I get Kirsch and Goldfarb. I used to run a business incubator and innovation centre in New Zealand, and I found business plans of some limited use – especially when talking to people like bankers and some VC’s who believe in them ;-) . They do provide an easy foundation for running courses on start ups as a sort of ready-made template for teaching, but generally i think your time is better spent elsewhere. This guy, Rodney Schrader does believe in them (see video) and so do many others.
Keep an open mind, then….

Strategy is about doing good…

What is strategy about? For me, it’s about doing good. Do good for your customers, improve the quality of their lives and you will have all the business you want. Do good for your employees and collaborators and you will attract talent, create energy, engagement and loyalty. Do good for humanity and the societies around you and you will build meaning into your life and work, energise commitment and networks, and build lifelong relationships, as well as lifting your vision and seeing the broader possibilities and opportunities.

Here’s an example about doing good, this time in an MBA strategy, design and creativity course I ran at the University of Cape Town last month, where 60 students stepped up to a class assignment to have an impact for good, and in the process learn about creative teamworking, by raising over $13000 and with their own hands building a house for a family in a South African Township. Here is the video, first the short version (3 mins) and then the long version (7 mins).

Find more videos like this on CREATEGY

Find more videos like this on CREATEGY

Bell curve, schmell curve

I can’t believe it but it’s true – we really do still use the bell curve to manage assessment at schools and universities. OK – I do get the logic about rigour and standards, but it is a dumb, old world logic in my view. My thing about bell-curving assessment is this – 1 standard deviation (1 sigma – 68% of the population) are deemed ‘average’ so only 16% can possibly be A’s… and isn’t it mainly the same driven few who obsess for the A’s? – so everyone else stops trying or believes they can’t do well… and any time there are more than 16% A’s they get ‘curved down’ to the 16% ‘cos the ‘assessor must obviously have made it too easy or got soft’.
bell curve
So it doesn’t matter how brilliantly you teach, or how motivated you make people to learn – only 16% of your students can be A’s. And because you know that it’s a zero-sum game (ie someone else can only win if you lose) you don’t share info and help other learners…
Amazingly (not) when there’s no bell curves and everyone knows that if they do good enough work, they can get A’s, they work harder – and lots do get A’s… and it incentives people to help each other as ‘to teach is to learn twice’ and we can all do better if we help each other.
Ergo the whole darn way everything is set up in most of academia is nuts as it stops people from helping each other learn, stops sharing of info, makes people work stupider and undermines people’s confidence .. hey please, make my day and prove my rant wrong…. i’d love it to be.. :-) .    (Here’s the REAL way a bell-curve approach to grading gets done).

Let’s do it the Ben Zander way – think of the art of possibility and help everyone rise to an A. In fact give yourself an A…….

“Weighing a pig doesn’t make it fatter” – thanks to Eddie Obeng for that.