Global crises offer lessons for leaders and students
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Just when the disruption of the pandemic seemed to be easing after two painful years, Vladimir Putin triggered a fresh existential threat to the world with his war against Ukraine. He also inadvertently delivered lessons for businesses and executive education providers everywhere.
The fighting has caused tragic loss of life, widespread damage to infrastructure and the displacement of people within and beyond Ukraine, pushing universities, alongside many other organisations and individuals, to mobilise for stranded citizens and newly arrived refugees alike.
The conflict threatens to herald another upset to hopes of “the end of history”, with renewed political instability, a deceleration of globalisation and international financial integration, and economic reverberations, including a rebalancing of energy supplies and the long-term implications of sanctions. Such issues should be central to executives’ thinking.
In our ranking report coverage of executive education, Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan points out that the conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the vulnerability of supply chains around information technology. It has also driven shifts in patterns of work as software engineers have migrated to the western regions or moved abroad, as have a large number of Russians, including IT specialists fleeing their country in recent weeks.
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More fundamentally, as our columnist Andrew Hill argues, the lessons for managers include a sobering reminder of how plans must be constantly revised to anticipate new realities. Big corporations such as BP have been forced to undertake course corrections such as divestment from the Russian energy sector, and Putin has revealed serious flaws in his leadership.
At the very least, the top-down style of Kremlin governance has demonstrated scant decentralisation, delegation or flexibility in military decision-making; weak logistics; poor engagement and motivation of soldiers; and a focus on fear and retribution for failure, which only further disincentivises officials’ willingness to tell truth to power. Putin’s approach feels more a relic of the Soviet — or even the imperial — era than something adapted to the current century.
While Russia has had considerable success with cyber warfare and counterpropaganda in recent years, it became clear that Ukraine’s president, Vladimir Zelensky, was winning the online battle of ideas and impressing the world with his leadership and communication skills.
Both men’s actions are a reminder of how important it is for today’s leaders and managers to understand technology and digital skills — something reflected throughout this FT executive education report. Our second annual survey of chief learning officers highlights digital transformation and an understanding of artificial intelligence and analytics as top priorities.
But alongside such “hard” skills, the survey also shows strong demand for empathy and emotional intelligence, which have emerged as key topics, alongside wellbeing, during the pandemic. And a tight labour market signalled by the “great resignation” has highlighted the importance of recruitment and retention of key staff.
Business school deans say that coaching is an area of rising focus, and we describe shifting attitudes to vulnerability as more of a strength than a weakness in managers. Diversity and inclusion, along with greater understanding of different generations in the workplace, also emerge as topics on which executives need fresh guidance.
While the pandemic has forced business schools to develop more hybrid teaching and offer online access, many report short-term demand for senior teams to meet off site again after so many months working remotely. Programme managers and their clients alike — based on our ranking survey — also signal a stronger overall appetite for a resumption of executive education of all types.
As a result, after a two-year pause, we have reintroduced our rankings of schools for open and custom programmes, with a methodology modified to reflect the new realities. We are very interested to hear feedback and introduce further changes to make our assessment as useful as possible to schools, participants and employers alike.
The performance of many business schools looks strong. Yet both companies and academics highlight growing competition from alternative providers — in other university faculties, in house at companies, among consultancy firms and notably from start-ups with online formats and significant venture capital backing.
Business schools argue that their reputation, academic depth and experience in teaching will hold them in good stead. But many potential clients believe that their emerging rivals offer greater flexibility and innovative formats. Partnerships are increasingly the norm as different types of providers seek to compete and survive.
A final theme is sustainability — a subject cited by chief learning officers, even if it may not be a top priority currently for many businesses seeking to adapt to post-pandemic recovery against the uncertain backdrop of the war in Ukraine and its potential spillovers. But the future of the planet remains pivotal, and efforts to reduce dependency on fossil fuels could even receive a fresh boost as debate increases about reducing dependency on Russia’s natural resources.
Andrew Jack is the FT’s global education editor