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A Refreshing ‘New Normal’ for Leadership Development

Saïd Business School’s Steve Mostyn considers the future of executive education with lessons learnt from the lockdown

Tuesday 09 June 2020


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As many parts of the world tentatively start to emerge from Coronavirus lockdown, there is a sense – stronger even than after the financial crash in 2008 – that there is a desire and an opportunity to change the world we come back into.

We do not want to lose (again) the blue waters in Venice or blue skies in China, the caring communities, the widespread appreciation of health-workers, or the new-found respect for schoolteachers. But we might want to question the permanent adoption of some new habits and behaviours.

For example, we know now that it is possible for many people to work from home. That does not mean that it is the optimum way of working, for everyone, all the time. What we might want to see is just more flexibility – employers being more laid back about allowing people to choose to work from home, and trusting staff to be able to do it without being surveilled or micro-managed, or losing out on career opportunities. Twitter has led the way with an announcement that ‘When we do decide to open offices, it … won’t be a snap back to the way it was before.’ They said that employees who wish to continue working remotely will be able to do so indefinitely.

In the education sector, some commentators have become so excited by the fact that university teachers have been able to finish the academic year by taking their courses online that they are suggesting that there will be no return – or a very limited one – to face-to-face teaching. But (as with home working), the fact that we have discovered that we can do something does not mean that it is the only thing we should now do.

In particular, there is a world of difference between switching to online delivery as an emergency response to a crisis, and teaching a whole new course virtually, especially to a group of students who have never met. As Sharon Parks observed in her book Leadership Can Be Taught, there is some important stuff going on in a live classroom:

‘It is easy for teachers to underestimate how much is taught about “how to be” that goes unexamined. Students unconsciously drink in, for example, the way the teacher models the resolution of conflicts in class, solves problems, handles the introduction of deviant, innovative and troubling points of view…’

However, there is third way, and that involves taking a leaf out of the book of developers of specialized online executive education.

As a long-term contributor to Saïd Business School’s on-campus open leadership programs I was once highly sceptical of the whole idea of online teaching. I was used to an approach based on the Oxford tutorial and the mutual learning that takes place between a student and tutor through constant questioning, exploration, and experimentation. I could not see how that experience, or the rich, creative conversations between diverse participants, could be recreated in any other environment.

But then Professor Tim Morris invited me to act as Head Tutor for the Oxford Executive Leadership Program (OELP), developed in partnership with specialist online course developers GetSmarter. I discovered that, while the experience is not the same as an on-campus program, a properly designed and facilitated online program can be equally effective.

OELP takes place over eight modules and each module features a combination of reading, video, class discussions and a weekly assignment. There is a subtle combination in the design that nudges participants to contribute, and the process is supported by an assessment team of around six professionals and six tutors, who keep the discussions relevant and focused. This ‘high touch’ approach helps participants to delve deeper into the content and contextualise the learning in the ‘real’ world (their role, their team, their organisation, their organisational strategy etc.). It also helps participants meet their weekly workload and strike the delicate balance between work, home, and learning. What if there is a family emergency? What if a very important work-based project is unceremoniously dumped on a professional at the last minute? The support of the success managers encourages participants to continue despite such setbacks – and the completion-rate for Oxford’s online programs is an impressive 93%. 

What is more – and this will be music to the ears of Learning and Development professionals – online programs such as these can absorb large numbers of participants, and at a much lower cost than on-campus programs in terms of fees, travel, and time out of the office. That is not to say that online programs will replace on-campus programs altogether: there is still a place for taking time out of the office for deep reflection and intensive learning. But L&D departments now have this additional tool that they can use flexibly to curate individual and organisation-wide development experiences.

In addition, our own experiences in running these programs during lockdown have made us better at building and maintaining alumni communities online, with follow-up webinars and discussions, and even a fledgling book group! The ‘new normal’ for leadership development looks better than ever.

Learn more about Online Programs at The Saïd Business School  

The Saïd Business School is Europe’s fastest growing business school. An integral part of the University of Oxford, it embodies the academic rigour and forward thinking that has made Oxford a world leader in education.

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