A week at a business school should always prove illuminating for the executives who take up such opportunities. So it was for Arthur Francis - in spite of the fact that most of his weeks are spent the same way.
For Prof Francis, the dean of Bradford University School of Management in the UK, it was perhaps unusual to take part as a student in a course at Harvard Business School. But the experience has given him fresh insights into his profession, his institution and his own management skills.
The $11,000 course taken by Prof Francis at Harvard, entitled “leading change and organisational renewal”, is more the territory of corporate chiefs from American Express to Unilever.
But management schools need change and renewal, too. Bradford, where Prof Francis has been dean for nine years and where a new vice-chancellor of the university has taken over, is growing quickly.
Prof Francis says the lessons learned at Harvard will be an important constituent of his plans to develop the school. “This is grist to the mill in pushing the school forward,” he says.
As Prof Francis points out, he has been teaching MBA courses for many years without having one himself. “At my last appraisal, I was talking with the vice-
chancellor about my own development, and doing a leadership course was thought to be quite a good idea. Rather than doing one in educational leadership, I thought that a more general one – alongside more people who worked in business – would be rather better,” he says.
A recommendation for the Harvard course came to Sue Kershaw, Bradford University’s finance director, from a counterpart at another university. In March, Ms Kershaw and Prof Francis both attended the course. “We could bring back more of an impact if we had learnt something together,” Prof Francis says.
They were two among 91 students – the first surprise for Prof Francis, who was taken aback
at the large size of the group. Impressively, he says, Harvard’s teachers “made it work”, adding: “You felt it was a highly interactive experience.”
Seeing how another management school went about its work was one of the striking facets of attending for Prof Francis, who, through his own MBA teaching, was familiar with several of the business case studies given. “How they handle the pedagogy and the teaching was inspirational,” he says. “There were a number of tricks I made careful note of.”
It was also impressive, he says, to encounter Harvard professors who were “legends” of business and management education. Many gave the impression that they personally knew people involved in the business cases discussed.
Of course, Prof Francis’s background gave him a different perspective on the course from that of most other students. At the same time, Harvard’s faculty knew they had a fellow business school professor among their attendees. With teachers on both sides of
the classroom, there was bound
to be a certain knowingness
about any interaction. “They were not exactly nervous [about my presence] but they were aware,” Prof Francis believes. “I was very rarely called [to give my views] ... there was perhaps a degree of their not wanting me to impose my own particular view on the situation.”
But attending was not really about taking a peek at another school’s methods. “The fundamental reason was that I wanted to have my own skills improved
as a manager and leader,” Prof Francis says. “The course did what it said it would – we were both impressed.
“The opportunity of talking about it with 89 other senior executives who have depth and experience is part of what you are paying for – as is being led by someone who is highly experienced and can pull out all the nuances.”
Harvard, Prof Francis says, has developed and crystallised his thinking and given him greater confidence that his intuition about how and what to change were correct. “For me, one of the biggest, most striking insights is the importance of organisational culture. There was a phrase I found very striking, which Ford had pinned
up in the boardroom: ‘culture
eats strategy for breakfast’. It means that you can strategise all you like but, if you have not got hearts and minds, it is a complete waste of time.”
Yet the biggest lesson has been reinforced after the course: how difficult it is to put what has been learnt back into an organisation.
“We learnt some incredibly useful things but it is easier learning them than it is communicating them and creating change back at base ... finding a way of introducing them into the organisation is the trickier bit,” he says. “But we are now starting the next round of the university corporate strategy process and after our attendance at Harvard we are finding other people are ready to listen.”