Days after Donald Trump’s election and a few months after the Brexit vote, it was important to ask Vincent Bryant about the challenges business leaders face leading through uncertain times. And also to what extent he believed a lack of public trust in business had contributed to voters’ disillusionment.
Brexit creates huge uncertainty, Bryant stresses, not just because of the unknown long term outcome, but also around the short term political solutions and the unravelling of the UK’s relationship with Europe. Bryant, who took his MBA at Warwick Business School (WBS), became its Executive Director of Executive Education this year a month after the referendum and shortly after returning from Vancouver, where he had spent the previous five years consulting and teaching executive education programmes at UBC Sauder School of Business.
In fact, he does not believe the Brexit vote was an anti-big business protest. “It was far more emotional, based on a perception of things like healthcare costs, foreigners are taking our jobs, basic things that actually don't stand the test of critical reasoning.” The Trump election, in a sense, replicated what happened in the UK. It revealed a gap between the political establishment and the people on the ground, and a lack of understanding of the pent-up emotion within individuals, communities and regions.
Bryant’s key observation, one that underpins his attitude to education, was that the Brexit vote was largely based on a lack of understanding due to people’s inability to critically examine the information or misinformation in front of them. “I think the absence of critical reasoning is going to lead us in all sorts of directions. But it's something certainly education and executive education can help resolve.”
This failure to critically examine was revealed, during the debate on immigration, by the lack of appreciation of the importance of diversity. “Diversity is in my view very important to the quality of our lives, our organisations, and the quality of our thinking and decision making,” Bryant says. “It is too easy for people to become very polarized and follow their own cognitive biases and predetermined ways of thinking and making decisions not necessarily leading to an optimal outcome.” His positive experience of both Vancouver and London is of cities whose success is driven by their diversity.
During the referendum and the Presidential campaign, critical reasoning was also undermined by people’s reliance on social media soundbites, headlines without evidence, and even by ‘false news’. It is a regrettable macro trend that people form opinions very quickly without understanding. “Many people have lost the appetite, or where-with-all, to challenge some of the things they're reading and hearing,” says Bryant. “At all levels of education, there needs to be more emphasis on critical reasoning and making sure you understand the problem before you actually start developing solutions.”
This of course does translate into the corporate world where even very large corporates can make bad decisions if they don't actually fully understand the system they're operating in. The financial crash of 2007/8 provides a salutary example. Some of the senior leaders running the large financial institutions really did not fully understand the magnitude of the systemic and business risk arising from their use of exotic instruments, collateral contracts and the degree of interconnection between firms.
Bryant’s personal appreciation of these failures of leadership, and of the potential for executive education to develop leaders able to do better in the future, comes from his own experience as a business leader. During a career, mainly spent at management consulting firms such as KPMG, he had a successful track record of achieving strategic transformations, merger integrations and operational and profitability improvements in a range of cross-sector organisations.
As the orchestrator of several successful turnarounds himself, he accepts that there is a place for command and control leadership, but only when organisations need to overcome an immediate crisis. To achieve sustainable growth in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, organisations must go beyond the more traditional command and control style as, in the long-term, it fails to recognise and release the enormous potential of people.
“Many organisations have adopted or are very much moving towards a model of leader as role model, leader as facilitator, leader as sounding board, and leader as an enabler. Those organisations are reaping the benefits.
Crucially leaders need to be strong on values; strong on the ‘Why’ and the ‘What’ but flexible on the ‘How’’ “The role of leader is to enable the ‘how’ and provide a supportive environment in which to work, in which to question, in which to challenge”, he says. “Enable people to actually add their various opinions… arising from diversity or something that's worked for them in a different part of their lives.” Leaders need to listen, take account of what they hear and aim for their people to leave the room fully fired-up to achieve what’s expected of them.
Command and control leadership also flies in the face of another vital leadership role: the need to foster innovation. The charismatic leader who is the sole manufacturer of the company’s ideas can succeed for a while, but such leaders are few and far between. For new ideas to get to market and innovative business models to be developed, leaders need to create an innovation culture that values diverse opinions, and gives people the opportunity to question the status quo, try new ideas and be open to learning from failure.
Especially in uncertain and fast changing times organisations should place far more emphasis on scenarios as opposed to finding fixed solutions. “Whatever we're planning as a leadership team we need to be thinking of worst case, best case, most likely case, and on building a real agility within the organisation. We know, when we embark on a particular strategy, an unforeseen event tomorrow could require a fundamental shift in our strategic priorities.” The important thing is to be very clear on corporate values, on strategic objectives, but flexible in terms of how we actually achieve these.
Warwick Business School (WBS), which by the way, celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, shares the dynamism associated with its parent university – perhaps the most successful and prestigious of the ‘new’ universities established in the 1960s, in the era of Harold Wilson’s "White heat of the technological revolution”. This dynamism was exemplified, in 2015, by the School’s forward thinking move to open WBS London at The Shard and continues with the development of the Warwick in California Graduate School. Looking at the sensational view of the city from The Shard is a reminder that, whatever the outcome of Brexit, London is a mega-city of enormous international significance and the perfect location for a truly global business school.
Bryant believes that the greatest opportunities for WBS come from the school’s history and vision, and the trajectory it has been on for the past 50 years. He describes this as “Our totally international perspective, our leading faculty, and leading research, our world-class on-line and blended learning capability, and our complete understanding and belief that we need to innovate as fast as or faster than the marketplace to maintain our edge”.
He believes in the power of education at all levels, but specifically that through executive education business schools have an opportunity to shape the global, political and economic agenda. At WBS programmes on design-thinking or digitization, or seminars exploring the implications of Brexit can raise people’s awareness and identify new opportunities for development and growth and in general help shape the strategic agenda.
“One thing that differentiates WBS,” says Bryant, “is the ability to focus on not just strategy, but the process of execution and on the business as a system”. The end game for WBS executive education programmes is not just strategy in itself, but rather enabling successful execution and building sustainable and globally competitive organisations.
Executive education at WBS brings to bear very high quality research and faculty who have spent their lives not just as academics but also as practitioners and consultants. “We have a particular group called Professors of Practice within WBS. They are professors not just because they have real depth in their subject area, but because they've held senior positions in industry …and they can help people who are facing a comparable range of opportunities and challenges.”
WBS offers both open enrolment and custom programmes, about which Bryant says “I see these programmes as an important and highly beneficial investment in an organisations most important asset – their people”. The value add can be huge and sustainable because we are building organisational knowledge and self-sufficiency. This is different to the typical consulting model which is generally seen as most effective when focused on solving a specific problem; knowledge transfer may take place as a derivative benefit but it's not the central point. Whereas for us, sustainability, building knowledge and skills, self-sufficiency, and providing a catalyst for inspiration are central to the way we co-design our programmes and operate with our executive education clients”.
A key role educators have to play is to push back in order to influence outcomes and to say things to clients that are not necessarily popular. To change people's thinking if their thinking is likely to lead them down the wrong track. Executive education can transform organisations through people and through developing their knowledge, often the scope of our programme is to influence the behaviour and operating norms within the organisation - inevitably a long-term game plan that needs to be owned by the leadership team.
Bryant described one new Executive Education initiative at the school, an innovative approach to motivate SMEs to benefit from Executive education. SMEs are an important engine of entrepreneurship and growth and the more we can do to support their ability to thrive and compete in the global market the better. The idea here is that whereas an individual SME may not feel it can afford a programme, we believe it is possible to create affordable programmes at the SME industry or sector level and, when appropriate, do this in association with industry bodies. The sharing of development costs and some form of participation based pricing model may provide better access to our world-class programmes. While the take-up of business school custom programmes is still largely by big organisations this is a further way to spread executive education and skills deeper into the economy. As the recent CBI growth report summarises; the importance of education to our economy and well-being is huge – “Education is the single most important driver of productivity differences across the UK”.
Looking ahead Bryant is optimistic, the school is in a strong position and has great ambitions for the future. The main threats he sees are currently at the macro level and as an optimist, whose first degree was maths, he believes the challenges ahead are surmountable and the problems solvable.
“One of the biggest dangers we face is the lack of systems-thinking in the world.” He points out that in our complex world with so many things going on, people do actually need to pay attention to understanding the complexity of system impacts and of cause and effect. If not we will remain in an expensive and spiralling cycle of short-term inadequate solutions. We need critical reasoning, not to the point where we encounter paralysis through analysis, but to a point where political and business leaders understand, and anticipate, the unintended consequences as well as the intended consequences of the decisions we make.
“We are in uncharted territory, so it is important for people to stand back and learn and consider their options before embarking on a particular course. That's where the positive role for executive education lies”.
Bryant believes education to be the most important transformational mechanism for individuals, families, communities, regions and countries. It has a huge role to play in making the world a better place to live in. The role of business schools is to produce great research and ensure the findings are well communicated and acted on. “Business schools in themselves aren't empowered to change the way businesses operate directly. We achieve this indirectly through the process of education, the process of providing information, the process of doing research and by demonstrating what works well and what doesn't, and then presenting this to senior executives and their teams in a meaningful way that fits their context.