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I’ve been very remiss in posting to the blog, so hardly practicing what I preach in the MBA classroom when it comes to writing, and in particular when it comes to the idea of keeping a journal.  Some hasty thoughts…

In my (rather feeble) defence, I would say that the current spring season of workshops for Henley (here and abroad) has been time and energy-consuming (and supplemented by the chance to work with non-MBA groups, as well). This non-MBA strand includes the Advanced Management Programme, with whom I will have a second crack tomorrow, at the end of their second intensive week. engaging a bunch of senior execs after lunch on a Friday with the idea of reflection is not easy, but it does force me to try and be innovative.

My latest news is the actual publication (for now, online, but next month on paper, too) of my first peer-reviewed journal article!  Yes, now I can now narcissistically search for my own name in the bibliographic databases at Henley (though I’m not sure we take the Journal of Critical Realism…). I’m going to aim for a second submission to a different type of journal before the end of the year.

Other writing lately has included the chance to let loose with the topic of PD in Marketing Magazine, also out next month. This will be the first of six, short monthly columns. And then there is the book…. which is the mammoth in the room, and which will no doubt occupy every waking moment once the MBA starter workshops are properly out of the way. Following that, there is the need to write material for the final (and all new) part of the PD course materials we use at the end of the MBA.

I’ve really enjoyed the last two starters (the next is this Saturday). Each group has been very different. We saw about 13 members of the new Henley-Based intake (of 58) stay on longer to complete their entire workshop input for the year – this is what we call the International Stream – and so I got to see them twice and work with them on their second PD workshop. It was one of the best workshops I’ve been a part of, I think. Full of insights and kept by them at just the right pace to balance heads full of concepts, models and theories with heads full of ideas and self-awareness. Working with a group that size (had a similarly enjoyable workshop with a Finnish group in Helsinki a few days before) allows a certain freedom to deviate from the script and improvise. This weekend there will be nearly 60 in the room, and in April another 70 or so in Johannesburg, and it will be more like ‘showtime’.  The trick, I guess, is for either end of the scale to feel personal and like an education.

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The boathouse

The boathouse

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Here are a few photos taken today at Greenlands. With the water still to peak here, those downstream toward London are yet to see the worst of their floods.

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Autumn is by no means truly here yet, but the warmest days of a warm summer are now behind us, and all the wheat and barley have been harvested. Gone too are my long days devoted to writing and to preparation (and, only in memory now, vacation).

In fact, as the air shifts in the south-east of England, it is just the precursor for the marking of a phase in a cycle of change ; a sign we’re about to see at Henley the busiest MBA period for new intake starts, new stage restarts and graduating ceremonies.

For me, these few weeks have been the calm before a storm of workshops, and there’ll be something happening just about every day now until the end of the first week in October. We have quite a few changes to the PD module and the curriculum to work into the routine, it’ll be a real test.

It has been a really great year professionally, and I still have several more goals I would like to achieve before it closes, so.. Deep breath…. Here we go…

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Cartoon All those in favour say aye

The statement above is meant as a provocation, of course, but not a frivolous one. Here’s my thinking…

At the top, management (or leadership, if you prefer) is a matter of awareness of the total process; the whole entity, as it were. However, a consciousness of the “whole” of business – or commerce, or trade, management, leadership, or organisation, etc. – cannot be found in a consciousness of any of its “parts”.

What happens is that businesses like to focus on particular “problems” and then managers are trained to solve these by ‘seeing’ things selectively, and to do so in bits rather than wholes. The whole of our economy is predicated not just on growth but on the idea that we’re working our way somehow toward some kind of desirable end state or goal, with obstacles to control that are problems. There’s no doubt that technologically, at least, a lot has been achieved this way. So why do we never quite seem to get there? Our attempts to fix things always, ultimately, send us back to the drawing board; our careful, analytical reasoning and planning redundant and our short-cuts themselves short-circuited by unintended events (often of our own doing).

Whether by tradition or design, the MBA curriculum is also built around a categorisation, a selective sampling and division into parts. The names of those parts change over time, reflecting fashion as well as purpose, and overlap rather than integrate. This energy and intellectual innovation in business schools has undoubtedly led to many advances and successes at reaching goals. But my question is whether these amount more to a bag of tricks than they do to real insight or wisdom. In fact, how much of MBA output is indicative of the same short-term thinking that pervades corporate thinking, and which pervades it increasingly so? And this at the expense of the awareness of the ecological system that actually provides the boundaries.

People’s thoughts are welcome. Counter-positions particularly so.

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Henley building in Jo'burgIt’s now  the end of a very busy Henley MBA “Starter Season”, a hectic period of a couple of months repeated twice a year, where the school inducts new members to the programme in their respective intakes around the world. Starters are different to other workshops because people come with all their hopes and uncertainties about what to expect and a certain kind of ignorance not just of whether they have chosen the right school, or will like and respect their classmates, but also whether they are “up to the task”. The organisation has to be slick, the sessions have to be the right mix of challenge and adventure mixed with support and reassurance. These are not green-behind-the-ears whippersnappers, either; most have had considerable management experience and have attended as many training and development events as they have had hot, expense-account dinners.

Many of these events are in the UK because with Henley a sense of place is part of the sense of purpose and it is good to inculcate and communicate the “Henley Experience” (how tricky it is to define that!), but we also like to bottle that experience for parts of the world that make coming to the UK too impractical. That’s what brings me, willingly, back to South Africa.

Over the last three weeks or so, the admin teams in Johannesburg and at Henley, alongside myself and Marc Day as tutors, have successfully (we trust!) inducted 200 new managers onto the Henley MBA in two intakes (with a third due to start here in late June, which really says something about being in the right place at the right time with the right product and the right “shout” in marketing and PR). Marc and I divided each group of 100 in two smaller groups and worked in parallel over the three days of each Starter. It’s a very efficient way of working from the point of view of the participants as it provides more time for getting to know each other and is easier to facilitate discussions, but it doesn’t half take it out of the tutor and their voice! For that reason, I think both Marc and I were more than happy to accept an unsolicited invitation from our hotel to attend a Macallan whisky tasting session in the bar one evening (see pic).

Arms twisted, Marc and I agree to taste some single malts...

Arms twisted, Marc and I agree to taste some single malts…

Marc is a real expert in Scotch whiskies, and so was able to verify afterwards that the (rather attractive) Macallan brand ambassador really knew her stuff during her information-packed presentation of the three products we got to try.

Back to the main point, which is, I suppose, an expression of amazement that we pulled it off! Since the beginning of the year, nearly 350 people have started with the MBA and there is another starter season in September/October that will probably take that number to nearly 600. The trick, though, is not to worry that this is too many or too few, but to see how each individual can feel personally engaged and enthused about putting the time and effort into themselves over the coming years, as well as setting up an emotional bond with their School that will result in them feeling they owe something to the world around them to give back later on.

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With great sadness, over the weekend we received the news that the former director of the Henley office in South Africa, Fran Connaway, has died of pancreatic cancer. Fran had been ill for some years, and to those who knew her it is perhaps little surprise that she had defied the prognosis of a few months to live that was given to her by the doctors at the beginning. Fran being Fran, she found a way not just to exceed that prediction but benefit from various sorts of ground-breaking treatments that, while they may not have restored her to a very active lifestyle, at least made sure that no-one should forget that she was still around.

Fran was a founder member of the group that set up shop for Henley in South Africa (long before I joined the College), and was its heart as well as much of its character up until her illness. I first met her at Henley a day after I had been appointed to my job in 2005, about a month or so before I was officially to begin, at a clan gathering of the somewhat eclectic bunch of international partners and subsidiaries that the school then maintained. It was clear that she was a force of nature, a whirlwind of opinions (often forcefully put), ideas and a collector of ribald anecdotes.  She also had an encyclopedic knowledge of who was who and what was what in the education and business sector in South Africa, and I think she saw the wonderful potential in the place as being worth the constant hassles and worries.  Above all, she was dedicated to the success of the students; and woe-betide anyone who stood between them and their learning! She was particularly fond of taking aim at bureaucracy and nincompoops.

I’d say that Fran was utterly loyal to those she thought competent or like-minded, and completely dismissive of those she felt were in it for their own ego or simply just not up to the job; with Fran there were no half-measures. She didn’t suffer fools gladly, and was often right not to, but she had a big, big heart. She also loved to gossip, and always wanted to know the latest from the UK, and she made going down to Johannesburg a pleasure not a chore. I still recall on my first visit out there that she insisted on driving me (she drove like a southern-European in a hurry, and tended to talk non-stop while doing so, with ideas and opinions bursting out to the surface all the time) to a craft market to pick out some small souvenirs and gifts for my family.

It won’t be possible to replace her, but the good news is that the school she set the foundation for is now really blossoming into a major player in the market under the leadership of Jon Foster-Pedley and Frempong Acheampong, and the continued guidance of Vivien Spong, who was also Fran’s “right-hand” for many years.

 

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The title of this post is explained at the end, so read on to find out – or skip to the bottom.

After a sprint through several Personal Development workshops in January, both at Henley and in several European countries, it’s perhaps time for a breather to see what needs to be noticed. A while ago I might have just said “time to reflect”, as a lot us do, as if the act of reflection was somehow predicated on a deliberate switch from one mode or model of thinking to another. I’m now no longer sure this is a helpful way to look at it. And even less sure that it’s truly accurate. I’m using some of this post as a space for ideas to work themselves around each other, and so want to ask whether there are any things to do with reflection about which one can be sure. The short list below covers some of what has been occurring to me lately:

1. It struck me the other day that the senses are not five in number but actually one, in sum. Our demarcation of one sense from another in perception is artificial. This makes perfect sense to me, though I think the idea would need expansion to convince anyone else. This means that reflection, like all perception, is actually a systemic process, not a systematic one. Unless we understand how systems work, we will never understand the function that reflection has in our learning. I think that the ideas of many of the seminal originators of reflection, in their own ways acknowledge this. But those complex ideas tend to become worn smooth over time by constant reproduction, reinterpretation and simplification by others.

2. What we call reflection is just our punctuation of what is actually a constant flow of experience. We can’t easily prevent ourselves doing this since we hold very dearly to the idea that conscious purpose is, to borrow Sellar and Yeatman’s memorable phrase, “a good thing”. The need to know “to what end?” drives many different varieties of and purposes for reflection, but in every case the process we use is much the same. While helpful in the short-term and therefore essential in formal learning among adults, ultimately our attachment to and affection for conscious purpose in reflection may be counter-productive and in error (right now, this is just a hunch!).

3. Two common denominators seem to anchor everyone’s experience of reflection. The first is that it involves some form of noticing a difference, and the second is that the difference noticed will relate in some way to “unfinished business”. I hope I will be able to expand on this (even explain it…) in future blog postings.

So, that’s my current bedside thinking and my rehearsal of big ideas. The workshops this month have been really fantastic to run. They have, I think, really hit the spot with their place in the curriculum, and are in tune with the collective experience of the intakes at that point. I think this makes all the difference. There are just some things that would be pointless to say at the start (unless one was planning to dump an “I told you so” on people later) but which are liberating to play with later on. For example, I’m glad we don’t start the MBA with lots of goal setting, but with a challenge to how people behave, think and see themselves. If you don’t get that bit right, then the planning would probably resemble the shape of the past, not the future. Also, talking about what “career” means doesn’t make much sense too early in the MBA. Generally, people who are in mid-career don’t need to make any decisions about career steps and goals until they have a certain vocabulary, fluency and confidence which is attained through hard work by about the mid-point. That is actually when career things tend to happen anyway. So I’m glad that the thoughtful approach seems to be paying off. Still, there are always ways in which this could be better, and I’m aware that there is more that is needed in order for the MBA experience to be something remarkable.

This month I was also able to start playing with application of ideas and thinking from the PhD for the first time. This is to a group which was less restricted than in the context of the MBA, and therefore a good challenge because that particular audience was not a captive one (the venue, Gam3 in Copenhagen was unusual too, and it’s worth checking out their web site to see why).

It went pretty much as I had hoped, though I talked more than I let them talk. I was left also wondering whether I could do such a thing without having PowerPoint blazing away in the background. I do try to use it as a graphic guide or creative prompt, and not as just a horribly magnified set of speaker notes, but even so. The best speakers on TED seem to be the ones who just, well, speak, and who hold the audience with the power of imagination and the eloquence of their choice of words. Have I become so entrenched in believing that “it is done this way” (and the PD workshops are no different – the tyranny of the slide pack is also part of the expectation of the group) that I may be missing something here…?

So, the title of this blog is my understanding of the Laws of Jante (10 rules set out originally in the 1930s in a novel by Aksel Sandemose), which amount to a cultural explanation of the collective attitude in Danish society toward the delicate relationship between the individual success and the group identity. “You’re not to think you are anything special” is the first of these, and they are deliberately written in a rather negative overtone. I don’t think this is the same as the English sentiment of not “acting above your station” because that’s an affirmation of a society with rigid class divides and appropriate behaviours at each level. The Danes are very protective, it seems, of everyone’s right to object to the idea of anyone else telling them what to think or behaving as if they were better than anyone else. I’m not sure if this means they like to “cut people down to size” who are “too big for their boots” (see how metaphor gets us from one idea to another without Passing Go…).

Anyway, I quite liked the atmosphere in Copenhagen, so they must be doing something right.

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