Learning transformation

In his opening address at this year’s Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) Governance Summit, David Gonski said that, in his view, the best directors were business generalists, with a specialisation on top.

“I think this was a really interesting comment because, these days, many of the people who want to join a board, or who already sit on a board, are specialists, particularly in areas such as law, accounting or professional services,” says Kerryn Newton FAICD, managing director of Directors Australia and a director of Energex. “I specialised in law and my Masters of Business Administration (MBA) gave me a much broader range of skills and greater depth of knowledge than I could have accessed by any other means.”

Liesel Wett FAICD, chairman of Goodwin Aged Care Services and a director at the AICD and Osteoporosis Australia, also credits her MBA with playing a critical role in her career. “When I enrolled in the course I had no intention of joining a board, but the skills I gained, particularly in strategic decision-making and strategy development, have been very useful to me as a director,” she says. “I also learned how to ask the right questions of management and consultants even in areas where I have no specific expertise.”

Fiona Balfour FAICD, a professional non-executive director, also studied for an MBA to enhance her executive career. “I already had a degree from Monash University and a postgraduate diploma from the University of New South Wales in information management but it was clear to me that I also needed strong financial skills,” she says. “I believe that an outstanding executive career with leading companies is the best way to prepare for being a non-executive director but I can still draw a long line from the MBA to where I am today and how I operate.”

A changing curriculum

For over a century, MBAs focused on financial decision-making and management analytical skills. Then events such as the global financial crisis and highly publicised unethical business practices helped to shape a new breed of MBA that looks well beyond the bottom line.

“There is now a need to shift from content to action and innovation in a world full of opportunity,” says Professor Colin Clark FAICD, dean of the College of Business at Victoria University (VU). “An MBA is also about [an] individual’s professional and personal growth. Confidence, collaboration, cultural awareness, teamwork and communication are considered increasingly necessary in 21st century workplaces and communities. Industry experts have identified these skills as important for MBA graduates and we focus on enhancing them across our entire MBA program.”

Bob O’Connor, executive director of the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Graduate School of Business, is strongly of the opinion that quality MBAs are more relevant than ever.

“They acknowledge the impact of disruption and are asking what innovation, creative problem-solving and holistic decision-making mean in today’s global and interconnected business world,” he says. “Our MBAs have a framework of leadership and decision-making in complex, ambiguous, emergent environments.”

Some MBAs have added features that specifically target board members. For example, the University of South Australia (UniSA) has teamed up with the AICD to embed the Company Directors Course in its MBA program. “This elective enables you to gain the relevant specialist knowledge and accreditation for directorship and roles in the c-suite,” says Dr Colin Sharp, program director of UniSA Business School.

VU is also building close affiliations with professional associations. “MBA alumni network events and our link with the VU College of Law and Justice also grant opportunities for MBA students, past and present to hear from current ASX-listed chief executives and board members about how they rose to those roles, as well as strategic and governance challenges in the contemporary Australian business landscape,” says Clark.

Good MBAs keep pace with the rapidly changing business environment. “We are constantly reviewing the graduate attributes that are in demand, which is not an easy task in a market that is so disruptive, globalised, complex and hyper-connected,” says Dr Sarah Kelly, director of the MBA program at University of Queensland (UQ) Business School and a director of the Brisbane Lions football club. “We remain highly connected to both industry and the community so that we can keep our finger on the pulse of what is required and respond quickly to provide whatever is needed.”

When Balfour completed her MBA over 30 years ago she was one of just two women on the course. Since then, the numbers have improved but, with females accounting for just 30-35 per cent of enrolments, they still fail to reflect the number of women completing first degrees or the percentage of women in the workplace.

As part of their commitment to increasing diversity, UniSA has introduced scholarships in partnership with employers. “The Women in MBA Scholarship tackles leadership inequality head on by removing financial barriers and providing additional support to enable women with leadership potential to advance into senior management and executive roles,” says Sharp. “We are also pleased to be the first university in Australia to offer an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander MBA scholarship – again, in partnership with industry.”

Options in specialisation

Different programs have different approaches to topics such as governance, ethics and sustainability. Some teach them as separate modules, others weave them through the fabric of the course.

“Today’s boards are expected to focus on the broad concept of sustainability, from financial and reputational through to community engagement and how the company will evolve as markets change,” says O’Connor. “This is a strong theme through every element of our program because we consider sustainability to be more a philosophy than a discrete topic.”

For most organisations, globalisation has complicated ethical decision-making. “These days, it’s very rare to find a company that doesn’t have an offshore network of suppliers, manufacturers or customers even if they aren’t physically located offshore,” says Kelly.

For most organisations, globalisation has complicated ethical decision-making. “These days, it’s very rare to find a company that doesn’t have an offshore network of suppliers, manufacturers or customers even if they aren’t physically located offshore,” says Kelly.

There are also different approaches to governing not-for-profit (NFP) organisations. “My MBA didn’t teach NFP governance as a separate subject and I don’t think I missed out because of that,” says Wett. “I believe that directors of for-profits and NFPs face very similar challenges.”

Sharp agrees that, while the companies, circumstances and contexts are very different between the public, private and NFP sectors, the role of a director is fundamentally the same. “This is especially true now that the main default position for charities is to set up a company limited by guarantee through the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission and register with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission,” he says. “That means NFP directors are bound by a similar regulatory environment and have basically the same responsibilities as the directors of any for-profit company.”

Rather than a specialist course, UQ Business School runs social engagement programs where students work pro bono for NFPs. “They do it because the want to, not for credit, yet about 60 per cent of students take part,” says Kelly. “I think that’s really impressive considering they’re such busy people.”

Innovation and entrepreneurship

Innovation and entrepreneurship is a strategic focus of the current federal government but, for decades, it has been a compulsory unit in VU’s MBA curriculum. “Many of our graduates have started up their own businesses or integrated innovative approaches into their workplace,” says Clark.

UQ Business School has been running an innovation leadership course for almost 10 years. “Our students learn how to persuade, how to pitch for venture capital funding, how to win a tender, how to win a sale – and it’s not just would-be entrepreneurs who benefit,” says Kelly.

“These are skills that can help anyone to build a personal brand or even to secure a seat on a board.”

UniSA has formed the Innovation & Collaboration Centre, a strategic venture with the South Australian government and anchor business partner Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which supports technology-based incubation and business growth. And, while QUT offers a module called Entrepreneurship, O’Connor has a slightly different view to some of his colleagues.

“I believe that most entrepreneurs who are very focused on driving their business don’t want to spend two years doing an MBA – they want to get on with the job,” he says. “Then, if the business becomes viable, an MBA is likely to be a very good investment because it can teach the skills required for sustainable growth.”

Online of face-to-face

As technology continues to reshape the business environment it is also changing the way some MBAs are taught. “I’m a psychologist so it follows that I prefer a face-to-face teaching environment,” says Sharp. “I also believe that many students appreciate that environment and the personal networks they can develop within a classroom. However, the reality is that we now have the technology to present courses online – and some people are doing as well, if not better, in an online environment. For example, it enables people to study who are unable to take time off work. And some online students are networking and doing group assignments with people all around the world, so they’re exposed to a much broader cultural environment than they might be on campus.”

Many schools use online teaching to complement traditional delivery methods rather than replace them. “Our students appreciate the opportunities that face-to-face contact provides and we leverage this with online communications,” says Clark.

“Many have commented on how they value a blended learning experience because classroom teachings, hearing the experiences of faculty and industry visitors, peer learning, sharing work experiences and cultural and networking opportunities are still very important to them.”

Currently, UQ Business School’s MBA is taught entirely face-to-face. “We see real value in the opportunity to network within the cohort and with other students and faculties,” says Kelly.

“We also have industry representatives and alumni come in to mentor and teach in the classroom. But, in the future, I expect we will introduce a hybrid or blended opportunity in response to growing demand for the convenience of online learning.

O’Connor urges online students to take every opportunity they can to engage in person. “We offer face-to-face, online and blended programs and I tell everyone who is studying online to come to workshops, seminars and any other event where they can broaden their network,” he says.

“An important aspect of an MBA is enhancing your ability to engage with a wide range of highly motivated people who are committed to creating business success. It’s the passion in the room that’s so hard to create at the end of a wire.”

For someone considering an MBA, Sharp stresses the importance of the cohort. “You could find you learn as much, if not more, from your engagement with your network than formal classes,” he says. “The ideal peer group will stimulate your thinking and broaden your awareness.”

MBAs and the boardroom

For would-be directors, an MBA can:
  • Arm specialists with a broad range of skills and a better understanding of how businesses operate in different environments
  • Teach the right questions to ask of management and consultants across all topics
  • Provide a sound governance background and an understanding of how the boardroom operates
  • Build a network of highly skilled and motivated people with the potential to provide introductions and recommendations
  • Teach ethical decision-making in complex and equivocal situations
For experienced directors

The business environment has changed significantly over the past 20 years. An MBA can ensure that directors’ skills are current and that they have a deep understanding of the potential risks and benefits associated with today’s globalised and disruptive environment. Executive MBAs in particular are attracting a growing number of candidates in their 40s and 50s with years of executive and boardroom experience.