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Connections at the Center of Business

A Conversation with Dil Sidhu, Associate Dean for Executive Education at Columbia Business School


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What is the role of business schools today? The answer is inevitably complex, but from the executive education perspective, making connections across siloed or separated sectors, whether that be within client organizations, across academic disciplines or global geographies, the role of ‘connector’ is an increasingly valuable one to enhance understanding and thinking.

Dil Sidhu is the new Associate Dean for Executive Education at Columbia Business School. He recently arrived there from a senior role at Alliance Manchester Business School in the UK, and before that at London Business School, but this recent history does little justice to Sidhu’s broad hinterland.

Though born in London, he largely grew up in Vancouver before returning to the UK, and an early career in retail and consultancy has seen him work across 36 different countries. Sidhu is rare as an Associate Dean at a major business school in that for most of his career he has worked outside academia, in corporate and government roles. One effect of taking that path has been to accumulate unusual amounts of experience as a participant in business school programs, and so understanding the ‘client side’ better than many of his peers may do. Armed with an MBA, an MSc in Operations Management, and an MA in Innovation and Change, Sidhu is a veteran of business school provision.

His transition to the delivery side of the classroom was unplanned however. While taking a short program at London Business School on corporate finance, Sidhu took over one day from his professor, who fell ill during a module on Working Capital Management and Cash Flow. “This just happened to be my day job at the time, so I offered to run the session for my 83 classmates. By mixing theory with real life practice it went over very well, and I was invited back to teach in other programs,” said Sidhu. This experience led to him join London Business School as director of Custom Corporate Programs in 2010, leveraging his experiences in both the corporate and government sectors.

Today, with the average tenure in a job decreasing and individuals having several different careers throughout their working lives, the ability to learn and relearn, combined with building on prior experiences, will be increasingly valuable – and the opportunity to meld executive education offerings to fit this changing career environment is part of the dynamic Sidhu is keen to play his part in shaping.

So what does he see as the standout differences between executive education in the U.S. and those in Europe?  Sidhu was immediately struck by the huge size of the business sector in the U.S. “The schools in terms of their revenue are many times larger than big schools in Europe. That is just the nature and the size of the economy here”, he notes, highlighting that Columbia Business School, located in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights area to the north of Central Park, has enormous business opportunity on its doorstep. “New York Tri-State area is home to 93 Fortune 500 head offices that represent over $2.6 trillion in revenues and nearly 2.6 million employees (globally). This is often where you’ll find the Chief Learning Officer or the Global Head of HR – which provides a great way for the school to connect with senior decision makers.”

In comparison to many large city business schools, the connection between Columbia and New York City is a particularly symbiotic one, drawing on the fast-moving pace and deal-making zeal of New York’s businesses and infusing back into them the latest in business thinking and research. The school also leverages the city’s energy, creativity and verve with experiential visits to jazz clubs and working with the NYC Fire Department and NYC Police Department to help illustrate learning concepts and create memorable emotional connections with participants in its programs. The school’s reputation and research operates at a premium level drawing from the broad reach of the whole of Columbia University as well as specific attractions of the Big Apple itself.

Sidhu is keen to build on the already well-established connections the business school has with the rest of the university. He sees that just as the business school has a role to play in connecting internationally, with its international research, participants, faculty, and global reach and experience, it can also bring the diverse elements and rich knowledge from across the wider university’s departments and research centres together to create additional value for its participants. This is a powerful role for a business school in a full-service university, to convene knowledge both globally and internally, across academic disciplines, geographies, and cultures.

It therefore makes perfect sense that the school is able to draw on the departments that already speak its language, to help illustrate and embed new knowledge and behaviours. Sidhu notes that “the common denominator between the scientists, lawyers, and engineers that attend our programs is business – so that is what brings them together,” and he recognises that it is also that diversity and specialist knowledge that allows them to create successful enterprises together. But it needs to be harnessed – and it can always be improved.

This is something Columbia Business School has experience in already with programs like Leveraging Neuroscience to Power Organizational and Individual Performance having been run since 2015, with senior faculty from Columbia’s departments of psychology, neuroscience, music, and Teacher’s College participating in the program. Or Strategic Storytelling: Maximum Impact in a Digital World that involves experts from Columbia’s School of the Arts as well as film-makers and a curator from the Smithsonian Design Museum.

Education needs to become a much more woven part of everyone’s lives, allowing adults to interact with new educational experiences throughout their careers and beyond

Given Sidhu’s past experience as a senior executive at a large London borough, it is perhaps not surprising that he is keen to work with Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. “I’m a big fan of politics; it is something that plays a big role in what business does. In terms of new legislation that is passed, changes to tax rates, or trading standards such as ‘we're not going to be trading with that country anymore’ edicts. Often business is left reacting, so one of the things I'm looking to do is get closer to our School of International and Public Affairs. Business leaders need to understand how policy is created and also how business can proactively affect policy, rather than thinking ‘an announcement's been made and what can I do?’”

Sidhu sees scarcity in this kind of knowledge in most businesses, where specialist consultants and lawyers are often brought in to fill the gap. In a fast-moving world, having people on the ground with an appreciation of political practices and processes is increasingly valuable. “Often, there is a Director of Corporate Affairs but there's not someone who represents what's going on in the political scene. If someone's ramping up to do big business with a country that was on yesterday’s embargoed list, then you need to know how to move quickly and what might happen. Iran's a great example. They were only recently brought back into the fold, and suddenly billions of dollars were unfrozen around the world. French and German organizations reentered the market very quickly, where others were still not sure, ’Should we. Shouldn't we?’ Or, ‘Is this going to come back to bite us.’"

The wider university not only offers this breadth of expertise and context for executive education participants, but Sidhu also sees it as offering new opportunities to reach new audiences. Particularly he wants to leverage the eight Global Centers the university operates in Santiago (Chile), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Nairobi (Kenya), Mumbai (India), Beijing (China), Amman (Jordan), Istanbul (Turkey) and Paris, with a ninth in Tunis on its way. “We currently run programs in New York City that attract participants from all over the world. That diversity of participant is a rich part of the program but having only one main location limits the number of managers that can attend. It would be ideal to use our Global Centers to offer these programs and add local insight to them. Could we take that to Rio? Or Istanbul? I'm pretty sure we could. Again, it's doing what business does.” This broad outward looking view is very New York of course – a truly international entrepot of a city and contrasts starkly with some American stereotypes.

This potential use of Columbia’s Global Centers not only allows delivery of programs closer to many of the executive education department’s international clientele, but Sidhu is pleased that it also allows those programs and the wider business research to be more tailored and reflective of these different environments. Sidhu reflects that they ‘act like a fresh pair of eyes’ enabling both faculty and staff to connect more strongly with local businesses, funders, and policy makers, and provide insights for research.

Sidhu is committed to the idea that education needs to become a much more woven part of everyone’s lives, allowing adults to interact with new educational experiences throughout their careers and beyond. To do this requires a new approach to acquiring and retaining custom clients. Sidhu sees that the education sector can learn a lot from its clients, for example from advisory services in terms of customer relationship management. He cites the McKinsey approach of staying close to former employees who go on to become ‘kings and queens of industry’ and notes that the same is true of their alumni. “I'm a big fan of reciprocity, in terms of what can I do for someone who has been a participant before. Even if it's sending them an article or inviting them to an event just to keep in contact. It's got to be about what they want first. Rather than ‘would you like to take this new program?’”

Sidhu sees this as a significant difference at Columbia. “I've interacted with 22 business schools around the world. In some cases they resemble an approach to government rather than an approach to the way the corporate world does it.” Referencing the new line-up of purely online programs – where there can be 500 or more participants enrolled in programs as varied as Digital Marketing, Globalization, Leader as Coach, or Leading Strategic Growth – Sidhu is pleased to see the school crunching the analytics for these in just the way their Business Analytics professors would like. “It’s great to see a school practicing what it preaches,” he notes.

Sidhu is excited by the opportunities online learning can bring to enhance the learning experience. “The key thing is to keep people's attention. Attention spans are getting shorter, and even if you're in class, you can often not be sure if a student is taking notes on their laptop or updating their status. Online allows you new mediums to keep people's attention with content that's lively, relevant, different, but also embraced by the participant.” Columbia was an early entrant into the online learning space, understanding the opportunities that online can provide executives, and has seen that it is often best to select the best technologies from the fast-expanding edtech sector rather than to try to develop platforms in-house. The executive education team is constantly road-testing new services and hardware so that they can offer the best available relevant and applicable technologies for their clients.

The benefits are twofold as Sidhu sees it. The online opportunity allows Columbia Business School to scale-up and scale-out its reach to new participants. “Online allows us to tap into markets that we've not ever touched before, to go global without going into every individual city, and it helps spread the brand and the thinking to new audiences,” he says. Columbia collaborates with the edtech leaders and start-ups in many regions; such as Singapore-based Emeritus that quickly accessed new populations in India and closer to home with ExecOnline. “These are mutually beneficial collaborations,” he notes. “We gain access to cutting-edge technology and constant innovation, and they get to leverage our world-class, Ivy League faculty and content.”

Maintaining premium level content is the most fundamental part of the online delivery, but it also clearly plays its part in enabling the business school’s role in connecting its knowledge to ever-wider audiences. Sidhu is focused on enhancing this power of connection, not just geographically but also through drawing the best of the rest of the university into its programs and spreading that knowledge through its client organizations. He is determined to continue delivering that excellence with Columbia’s particular New York flair, from and to the Very Center of Business.

Columbia Business School is the only Ivy League institution that delivers a learning experience where academic excellence meets real-time exposure to the pulse of business in New York City.

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