Mindful Leadership: Trend or Transformation

By Belinda Coniglio, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

2014_02_28_BS_MBA_3980_30%What are the characteristics of effective leadership? – A question posed by Professor Mike Jenner, on the second weekend of the University of Sydney MBA’s world class Leadership Practice and Development unit. Influence, resilience, charisma, integrity, vision, honesty, communication, reliability, trust, energy, risk and inspiration were words used by me and my class mates to describe effective leadership qualities. Our initial list did not include a new trend that is distinguishing the success of leaders at the top end of town, the practice of mindfulness, which we would experience later that day.

Attributes of mindful leadership include ‘clarity, focus, creativity and compassion.’[1] The ultimate goal of mindfulness ‘is simply to give your attention fully to what you’re doing.’ According to the cover page article in Time Magazine (February 2014), mindfulness is gaining traction due to its common sense approach and scientific foundation; neuroplasticity that refers to our brain’s ability to adapt and rewire. Or as Goleman refers to it, the science of attention.

I recall the first Friday of the MBA, where I was confronted with countless scattered thoughts about my career direction and found myself less than present; my mind wandering, ‘was I in the right place and how I could apply my learning professionally?’  If only our mindfulness workshop had been held that first weekend! Guest presenter, Dr Martyn Newman, led a session on inner focus where we practiced a number of breathing techniques to clear our minds and centre our focus.

Learning ‘inner focus’, or self-management, and self-awareness demonstrated how mindfulness could help me to be totally engaged by learning to strengthen the mind muscle.

Mindfulness is more than de-stressing – it is a life changing approach that applies meditation (or sitting in silence), walking, practicing yoga, clean and mindful eating to improve engagement and performance; a shift in consciousness in business and consumer trends in transforming the approach of our leaders. By the end of the second weekend of the course I was aware of my progress in one month of my MBA and knew that by the end of the course, I too would be transformed.

[1] ‘The Mindful Revolution‘, Time Magazine.

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Critical Analysis and Thought Leadership

By Hugh Simpson, corporate advisor, digital entrepreneur and current student of the University of Sydney Business School’s MBA program 

Hugh SimpsonStanding out from the pack in this day and age is difficult when there is so much noise from all the various channels you can use to get your message out. The MBA unit, Critical Analysis and Thought Leadership, with Dr Kristine Dery, was a true cross-disciplinary course that put many out of their comfort zones and made you think about public discourse and the ability to develop clear and concise messages.

My academic background had avoided any study of philosophy, and the opening weekend of the unit, with Dr Luke Russel, was met with some trepidation as we delved into the murky waters of reasoning, rhetoric and fallacies. This was one of the most thought provoking courses I’ve done, really pushing me to examine the way I construct arguments. The ABC’s Q&A will never look the same again.

Leading in your field of expertise often requires you to engage with clients/customers, colleagues and industry through any number of channels. Associate Professor Michael Anderson led us through constructing an op-ed on a topic discussed by our assigned thought leaders. In my case, I had to critically analyse the issues facing our evolving knowledge economy as described by Jonathan Rubinsztein, CEO of UXC Red Rock Consulting.

This course gave us unprecedented access to senior business thought leaders with other groups engaging with Judi MacCormick, Partner, Heidrick and Struggles; Cassandra Kelly, Managing Director, Pottinger; and Adam Jacobs, Managing Director, The Iconic. We had a chance to hear from John Meacock, Managing Partner – NSW at Deloitte and visit the NSW Art Gallery with Jane Gavan from The University of Sydney College of Arts, where we discussed the how art and business are more similar than we think.

During our final weekend of the course, we were set a challenge of delivering a message via video in a day and a half. This task required us to identify the message we wished to convey based on our thought leader workshop, define the audience and produce a video to be played at the end of the day. Some members of our cohort had never produced a video before, but the quality of finished products was outstanding. My team produced a video asking how hiring managers were viewing talent acquisition. Watch it here:

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Managing the human factor: Coaching & Performance Management

By John Shields, Professor and Associate Dean (Postgraduate), University of Sydney MBA program

John-Shields_2014-PG-Prospectus_LowResSo you think it can never happen again – the global financial crisis, I mean. Well, have I got news for you. Today’s senior management echelon – that is, the tribe to which most self-respecting MBAs aspire to belong – continues to display many of the fallibilities that were present prior to the last big melt-down: too much professional ‘will’ and too little personal ‘humility’; too little skin in the game (compared to shareholders); too many ‘hard’ professionals on boards (law, finance, maybe accounting) and too few ‘softies’ (marketing, HR, org psych).  The underlying problem, I’d suggest, is that too many top management team ‘players’ still think it is all JUST about ‘managing the business’ – about cash flow, NOPAT, first mover advantage, etc. What rubbish! Sustainable management practice is just as much about being able to (a) manage yourself and (b) manage others. Indeed, if you can’t manage (a) and (b), then you are deluding yourself if you think you can manage the business beyond the next reporting season.

This is precisely why we, in the Business School, believe that a genuinely transformative MBA should be built around the precept of ‘Me, first’. This definitely doesn’t mean you ‘uber alles’ – you above all other stakeholders. It does mean attending to your own chemistry and capabilities first, before you seek to lead from the front.

These days, by the time they hit their late ‘20s, virtually every early career professional is also a line manager with HR responsibilities; responsibilities for hiring, firing, developing and performance managing other staff.  These HR responsibilities don’t recede as you ascend the organisational hierarchy; they become deeper and more complex.  Yes, to be an effective and successful business leader you do need to be able to read a P&L and understand cash flow, ROA, ROI etc. etc. But you also need to understand and manage yourself and those around you.  And this is why we are offering our MBAs the opportunity to sharpen their self-awareness and others-awareness via core content in experiential leadership and the elective unit ‘Coaching and Performance Management’.

Now I know that our current students have already encountered coaching practice in the MBA core – and see its relevance to self-concept and self-management – so let me try to persuade you that a solid awareness of performance management best practice is also a career plus – in terms of being much better placed to manage others.

I’ll bet you’ve heard a thousand and one self-proclaimed experts contend that performance management is just not worth the trouble and that it can safely be shunted off to the ‘drones’ in HR.  “Damn it, I don’t expect HR to fix my business unit’s revenue problems so why should they expect me to waste my time on HR matters!” Anyway, performance management is a bureaucratic distraction and we all know that trying to measure staff performance is fraught with inaccuracy and causes discontent all around. Besides, we know that variation in individual performance is a chimera. Surely, staff performance is system-driven such that over time one-off variations in performance ‘regress to the mean’.

In my view, these are problematic propositions. It is true that performance measurement is difficult to get right. It is all too easy to focus just on what is easy to observe and measure. But it is also true that failure to monitor and measure staff performance is tantamount to ‘the blind leading the blind’. What you see is all there is. What isn’t seen doesn’t get measured and is forgotten.

The truth is that performance management is essential to organisational effectiveness: to validating hiring decisions, to role clarity, to meaningful feedback provision, to reducing the risk of adverse litigation outcomes. It is easy to do badly and hard to do well. It is also imperative that you know how to do it well – and, above all else, this means understanding and applying the principles of measurement validity and reliability and administrative fairness. These principles are simply too important to be left to the HR back office.

In order to manage themselves and others – and, hence, to manage the business – every aspiring organisational leader needs to be well versed in the precepts and practices of coaching and performance management. Managing the human factor is very, very different to managing other organisational resources. Sustainable business practice is as much about managing people as it is about managing profitability – and they are anything but mutually exclusive ends.

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Our MBA adventure begins

By Omar Khan, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

ImageSo, end of weekend 1, and we had drunk a whole lot ‘a MBA kool aid.

Much like the Gauls, in the French comic Asterix, except they drank magic potion. As a kid, I loved reading about the adventures of Asterix and Obelix, the lead characters. As the story goes, Obelix falls into a cauldron of magic potion when he is a little boy, and hence, is given the magical powers and strength he needs to fight the invading Romans.

I kind of feel the same, like Obelix, that is.

But this time, the story is a little different. Instead of one protagonist, we have a cohort of 44. And rather than just one in the cauldron, we have 44. So, at the end of week two, what magic powers do we have? Can we fight the Romans? Lead armies to battle and hunt wild boar I hear you ask?

Well, none of the above, and unfortunately, our new found skills don’t give us abilities to wave our wands and magically build that next killer app, and grow profits 10x while solving global warming and ending poverty. However, the first MBA weekend, which consisted of three full days, was much like a planned science experiment with grand results.

In came 44 little mice (that was us). We wrote about our goals, built straw towers, funnelled marbles through channels, helped team mates walk through minefields, and in all of this, not only learned a whole lot about ourselves and our team, but also about the broader MBA cohort. Each one of the experiments was designed to focus on a particular trait or skill, and as a result, our development took place at ‘mba time’ (a.k.a learning in hyper-speed).

I have since already used some of the new skills and knowledge, but most importantly, I am starting to see things in slow motion. I observe more. Sure, the experience and takeaways for most will be different, and to a large extent, dictated by life and work experience. But, the learning is relevant for all business executives.

Courses like Leadership Practice & Development, our weekend 1 course, should be compulsory at all organisations. Why do we focus so much on industry, product and “save my backside training”, and yet forget the basics about managing yourself and the people around you? This learning isn’t just for the “C suite”. If you lead more than yourself, this knowledge is a must.

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Beginning a new chapter: My decision to enrol in an MBA

By Nicholas Flood, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

Nicholas FloodIn September 2013, I found myself, for the first time in my professional career, in a situation where I began to question my capacity to truly add value to my organisation.

What was the catalyst for this thinking? An amendment to company strategy? A change in leadership? Competitive developments? It wasn’t any of these things, but rather, an occasion that is generally very positive. It was a promotion.

When speaking with my peers, I understand that my experience mirrors that of many young professionals who undertake the transition from individual contributor to a position of leading teams.

Faced with these concerns, I saw the need to seek out highly-relevant professional development opportunities which will allow both me, and those who I lead, to amplify our capacity to add value to the business. In tabling my objectives with my manager, key sponsors, mentors and business leaders, the pursuit of a Master Business Administration (MBA) at the University of Sydney Business School became the clear choice.

The credentials of the institution, the quality of the learning experience, the strength of the industry partnerships, graduate outcomes and calibre of the fellow candidates all spoke for themselves. I harboured concerns, however, about how I could ensure ongoing high performance at work, in parallel with the need to make the most of the incredible opportunity of being offered candidature within the 2014 intake.

In light of my early experiences so far as a student, I need not have worried. Right from the outset at the 2014 MBA Orientation Evening, the Business School has made available to me a team of incredibly talented, personable and dedicated program staff. The team has shouldered the administrative burden, patiently supported me to fully understand my responsibilities as a student and has guided me in identifying the units of study that align to my desired learning outcomes.

2014 Sem 1 MBA Cohort

Semester 1, 2014 MBA Cohort

The net outcome of this support is best manifested through the fact that, one week into the first unit of my MBA program, I am effectively applying leadership principles at work that I am just now learning about, and can now envisage a roadmap which will facilitate my development as an emerging business leader.

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Optimising your ‘Data Analytics and Modelling’ skills in today’s market

A61F7841By Associate Professor Tony Webber, University of Sydney MBA program

The economic and financial world is a much more volatile place than it was a decade ago. Before this volatility, companies could make do, almost exclusively, in their decision-making with the use of experience or gut feeling. Not anymore. Companies understand that their decision-making requires a more scientific, emotion-free approach if they are to cut through the difficulties associated with a more volatile world.

An important feed into this more scientific approach is data that is both internal and external to the firm. If companies are to implement this all important scientific approach to decision-making, they must invest in deeper and higher quality datasets. And they must also employ people with the necessary skills to work their magic on these datasets. People with these skills are imminently and increasingly employable and possess a competitive vocational edge over their peers.

One of the complexities that companies wish to unravel in the data is how the data is interrelated. How does the economy affect the companies demand? If the company raises prices to recover higher costs, how will this impact earnings? Why is the Australian dollar linked to commodity prices and how can the company use this information to save money? All these questions and more will be answered in the Data Analytics and Modelling (DA&M) module.

Data analytics will become an increasingly important part of the lives of companies as they build better and wider datasets and increasing volatility in the economic world requires greater scrutiny of the data. Students of DA&M in the MBA program at the University of Sydney Business School will therefore be in hotter demand tomorrow then they will be today.

To become an exceptional senior manager, simply understanding and applying these data concepts and tools is not enough. You need to be able to present and communicate your data ideas and findings to senior management in a way that clearly articulates how the organisation can take the theory and turn it into practical solutions. This is a key part of DA&M module.

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Looking back: The first year of the MBA

USBS090512-235By Richard Hall, Associate Dean, Management Education

What a year! An incredible cohort, some amazing learning experiences and so many outstanding achievements. The MBA is based on some distinctive key principles and aspirations: a commitment to experiential learning based on doing, developing practical skills and applying those skills in real business situations and in students’ professional work; generating a real cohort experience where students co-create learning with teaching faculty, industry experts, real clients and each other; developing personal and interpersonal skills as well as technical business skills; and extending students beyond the classroom with engagements and activities that emphasise the broader social context of business and management. I am really delighted that so many people have contributed to bringing those aspirations to life in the MBA this year.

Leadership Practice and Development, led by Mike Jenner and Will Harvey, exemplified so much of what we are about in this program – great practical learning and hands-on skill development in which everyone contributes and everyone benefits. In Data Analytics and Modelling, Tony Webber worked with students to find new practical ways to find data, analyse it, generate metrics and measures and, perhaps most importantly, interpret it to make better business and management decisions. Innovation in Strategic Marketing, led by Pennie Frow helped participants focus on cutting edge marketing strategies in an era of dynamism and change. Nigel Finch’s Financial Management used financial management tools and techniques to help students solve key business problems. And Strategies for Growth led by Nick Wailes and Suresh Cuganesan zeroed in on the key elements of strategy formulation and execution in the contemporary environment and engaged the whole class in tackling some especially challenging strategic issues for our valued partner, CSIRO.

The International Business Project unit, held in Shanghai, was one of the year’s highlights. The unit brought together immersion in the China business context, experience of one of China’s leading business schools, Shanghai Jiaotong’s Antai College, challenging work on a series of consulting projects for Chinese enterprises, and a deep appreciation of the scale and complexity of the contemporary China business environment. Hans Hendrischke and Bruce McKern did a tremendous job in pulling together such a complex program.

All this and more, much more, next year! Some incredible new electives, and two other very exciting core units – Critical Analysis and Thought Leadership, and Managing People and Organisations. We are also looking forward to introducing our new dedicated resource for Careers Advice and Advocacy, an extended range of business networking opportunities, Leadership Re-Imagined Seminars and boardroom lunches.

But for now, let me thank everyone for making it such a fabulous year. As I say at every opportunity I get: we are so proud of our students and I find your hard work, commitment, enthusiasm and support for each other and the program genuinely inspiring. Special congratulations to all our teaching team for their dedication, and to the Management Education team who made it all work: Nick Wailes, Taneka Lyford, Katy McEwen, Danny Shepherd, Claudia Kearns and Lucinda Crossley-Meates. And nothing at CBD would work without the incredible Chiara Giuliani!

Enjoy Christmas, recharge and get ready for a massive 2014!

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