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Impact: Shaping Executive Education in the 4IR - Part Four

Impressions, insights and takeaways from Day Four of UNICON’s Team Development Conference 2020 hosted by Thunderbird School of Global Management


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This is Part Four in a four-article series documenting UNICON’s Team Development Conference 2020, with Parts One, Two, and Three found here.

The first three days of UNICON’s team development conference represented an exploration of the journey that executive education finds itself on, and in particular a crossroads on that journey, looking back on 2020 and ahead to 2021.

Much was surveyed, analysed, unpacked, and deliberated on; around identifying the best ways forward for the community—through inclusions of various kinds; around forging new pathways—with innovations of various kinds; and around equipping ourselves for the onward journey—with new intelligences of various kinds.

It follows that the fourth and final day of conference draws into focus the range of possible destinations of that journey—the various impacts that executive education has and can have on the world. Impact locally, nationally, internationally; from individual participants attending programs—and how we can measure that; to addressing the multiple global crises facing the planet today, and effecting big, societal change through executive education.

“This decade is probably the most consequential decade in the history of humanity,” says Kumi Naidoo, former International Executive Director of Greenpeace International, and former Secretary General of Amnesty International. “It is in this decade that humanity will figure out whether we can rise to the imminent challenge of catastrophic climate change, or whether in fact we are going to be on an irreversible path towards it.” As a clarion call for business leaders, and executive educators by close association, it does not get any clearer than that.

Climate change is one crisis amongst multiple crises facing us today in a “confluence”, as Pardis Mahdavi, Dean of Social Sciences at The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Arizona State University, explains. “I would argue we are in a triple pandemic. We have this raging viral pandemic, which is a public health crisis, we have the re-rearing of a social pandemic of racism, and we are in this climate emergency—and all three are interconnected.”

Bryan Brayboy, President’s Professor in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University, supports this diagnosis, adding, “As an anthropologist I think about Gillian Tett [Journalist and US Managing Editor at the Financial Times] who is also an anthropologist. In 2006 Tett started saying something bad was going to happen in real estate in London, and more globally. She said, ‘My skills as an anthropologist, to listen and be able to hear both the noise and the silences, allowed me to see there were problems starting to happen. The triple pandemic is not new. It has come to the surface in 2020. In the US, the larger racial pandemic has been around since our founding as a country. There has been noise and silences around this for a long time. How do we begin to listen to the noises and the silences—and what is it about executive education that might encourage us to do that?”

Nikoly Ivanov, who is Manager at the UN-supported Principles for Responsible Management Education Initiative (PRME), notes that there is some good news, in the form of increased awareness. “In the business world there has been a very recognizable shift in the business landscape when it comes to sustainability, when you compare five to ten years ago to now. In some respects, it is ‘job done’ in terms of raising awareness—the big challenge for all of us now, for the ten years ahead, is in implementation. The positive is that business is now asking: how do we do this?”

Providing answers to those questions presents a key role for executive education providers to fill. On what is the nature of those answers, Kumi Naidoo offers this insight, “Right now in civil society, in all its diversities, there is a deep sense that what is needed post-Covid is not the approach we saw post the global financial crisis. There it was all about system recovery, system protection, system maintenance. What is needed now is system innovation, system transformation, and system redesign.”

For Nikolay Ivanov the UN’s set of seventeen sustainable development goals, as adopted by all UN member states in 2015, provides a useful framework to follow. “I think in customizing corporate programs, executive education could tailor to the needs of the client, but through the prism of the SDGs,” he suggests. “I think executive education has the potential to enable current and future business leaders to rethink the way they are operating and conducting their business—and executive education is really the place where these things can be accelerated.”

Another framework at our disposal is ‘JEDI’, as introduced by Pardis Mahdavi. “JEDI is a really useful framework that we have developed at the college. It stands for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and we can add Sustainability to that too. What is unique about this framework is that by foregrounding ‘Justice’, we are foregrounding action. It is a call to action and an invitation to join us in systemic change. We know higher-ed, and all facets of education, play a hugely important role in social transformation. We are looking at JEDI as a way to educate people, not just students, but people around the world, about what does it mean to have a justice informed approach to equity, diversity, inclusion, sustainability.”

Bryan Brayboy describes an initiative started in 2015 between ASU and Starbucks to illustrate how providers can start to implement some of these frameworks, and start to measure the impact. “The ‘To Be Welcoming’ initiative was built around JEDI-like principles. Fundamentally it was an invitation for individuals to begin to learn about things they may not know about—race, class, gender, sexuality, disabilities, age, nationality—all of those things.”

The initiative has been a huge success by all accounts but measuring the impact in these soft skill areas has proved notoriously difficult for the learning and development sector in the past. For Brayboy the answer is in the take-up. “Starbucks have looked at how many people have taken the course, which is over 50,000 individual users. They look at employee partners who are asking for new modules, and we are looking ahead to version 2.0. So really it is that internal response that is the best measure of impact. Corporate partners outside of Starbucks are now asking to use it too and Starbucks are saying, ‘this thing is starting to be taken up by our peers, but also by other sectors in the world.”

Brayboy raises one vital source of energy that can be channelled towards creating a positive impact. “Are we listening to our students?” he asks, “Young people are a driving force. They are generating these remarkable, imaginative ideas. Are we engaging in inter-generational conversation, really listening to that generation, and providing them with the tools they need to lead?”

Halla Tomasdottir, CEO and Chief Change Catalyst at The B Team, a global nonprofit initiative co-founded by Sir Richard Branson and Jochen Zeit, concurs, “We have found that inter-generational dialogues are profoundly transformative. One of our members, Allianz established an ESG board to work on environmental, social and governance issues. They’ve never found anything that has motivated their employees or driven growth so much. The profound, game-changing event for them is once a year the next generation are invited in to interview the ESG board. That’s where the good stuff happens, the hard questions get asked, and they are transformed.”

Another B Team member, IKEA, has committed to becoming ‘people and planet positive’ by 2030. “They’re not saying ‘let’s do no harm’, they’re saying, ‘we’re going to give back more than we take to people and planet’,” Tomasdottir explains. “They created an inter-generational dialogue together with us last year. We had global CEOs and climate kids, young activists together in conversation. It was uncomfortable at first but today IKEA has a sustainability council comprised solely of young people and they are innovating at speed and scale like never before.”

“The most innovative and courageous leaders I’ve worked with,” she adds, “have often had these very challenging questions from either their own children, or their next generation of employees, and that has moved them to do more.”

Tomasdottir turns this point around to executive education next, asking, “How do we blur the line between executive education for the people in existing power, and the emerging power coming up—all the grassroot activism and all the energy and innovation there?”

There is another benefit to the inclusion of younger generations in dialogues around these big, societal challenges, and one that directly pertains to the measurement aspect of impact. “One of the biggest problems with shareholder primacy,” explains Tomasdottir, “is that we measure financial profit by the quarter. Yet some of our challenges are a quarter century away. I think engaging the next generation much more can help us shift the time horizon.”

Kumi Naidoo recognizes the importance of the moment we find ourselves in, as an opportunity to be grasped, “The business community realizes their social license has been somewhat challenged. We need to look again at how we understand capital. In the past we solely spoke about conventional capital, actual money in the bank you can invest. Today business leaders need to understand—and invest more in understanding—that social capital and relational capital and reputational capital, is as important, as any form of capital if you are going to prosper and be around for the long-term.”

“We have come to the end of the shareholder primacy era,” Tomasdottir adds. “We are at this moment where the purpose of business is being questioned and the most progressive businesses, are going well beyond CSR activities, they are really trying to incorporate a stakeholder mindset into everything they do.”

For executive educators, Tomasdottir adds the following call to action, “Executive education is the part of universities best fit to innovate and change the way we do things, to better meet this moment and call for different leadership and different ways of doing business.”

Nikoly Ivanov echoes this call to action and suggests providers, “Get together with your key stakeholders and clients and try to reimagine the future in the direction that you want it to go in, and that you can provide through your offering. We are at a point in time where a number of companies must shift rather swiftly, otherwise they will be left behind.”

Tomasdottir shares that urgency, “The fact is we are in a paradigm shifting moment. There is going to be an old world. There will be companies, colleagues, leaders who are left behind. And there will be those who embrace an innovation mindset, and they will be the future.”

Tomasdottir recommends partnerships as an important part of what comes next. “Partnerships—radical partnerships—of the kind that are way out of what any of us have thought of before, these are going to be critical. The intersectionality of our crisis, the interdependence of the multiple stakeholders that need to come together—it’s going to take private sector, academic, public sector, local government. We are starting to engage in what we call ‘reset dialogues’, convening employees, multiple stakeholders from a company’s supply chain to their customers, to their shareholders, to their local communities. I think executive education is agile enough to help convene partnerships like that.”

Bryan Brayboy shares a final thought that serves as an apt conclusion for a conference dedicated to the exchange of different views, ideas, and perspectives. “I am going to draw on some of my own tribal knowledge as a Lumbee person,” he says. “If I am in a relation with you, I am necessarily responsible for you, and the fact that I see myself as responsible for you—and to you—changes the dynamic of how we engage. Our relationship is no longer transactional, it’s reciprocal. Think, in our industry, how do we move relationships from being transactional to being reciprocal? That happens through listening, that happens through a real sense of humility, and through the idea that we can learn a lot from lots of people.”

Knowledge sharing, listening, learning from one another—reciprocity. To view the week in the round, it is clear that reciprocity is absolutely at the heart of this conference and typifies the role UNICON plays within the executive education sector. It is noteworthy that 2020’s conference, hosted by the Thunderbird Global School of Management, has been the most global in make-up to date, the best attended and most inclusive—all of which serves to deepen and enrich the value of the reciprocal engagement taking place here—as does the diverse range of voices curated and included across the week. Finally, it has also been—by necessity at first, and then by careful design—the most digital UNICON conference to date, employing a variety of leading-edge delivery tools and techniques, as well as offering social and networking elements in a virtual reality setting—and offering a new high-water mark for the sector to draw ideas and inspiration from in their own virtual offerings, for 2021 and beyond.

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