The business case for better leadership

The business case for better leadership

As the new executive director of the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) executive education course, Caroline Trotman wants to bring a stronger commercial perspective to her company’s business education program. 

She also plans to run courses that will leave leaders convinced of the value of life-long learning for personal and career development. That’s different from most other business schools, which, she says, focus on technical training.

Trotman is not an academic. A former Westpac commercial lending manager, she has also worked in investment banking and professional services marketing, including a stint as global head of business development at law firm Minter Ellison. A non-executive director of publicly listed private education company, Redhill Education, Trotman has also served as deputy vice-chancellor, international and development, at Macquarie University.

AGSM executive education program is separate to its Masters of Business Administration (MBA) program; the courses are shorter and participants range from middle managers to chief executives. Its client base includes some of Australia’s biggest businesses. 

Individual benefits

The AGSM courses are designed to be ‘transformational’.  Managers should expect to be changed by the process. “If they haven’t changed, we haven’t done our job,’’ she says.

Under her direction, the AGSM will be accelerating courses aimed at developing lifelong learning.  

“We really have to get them to open their minds to that as an opportunity … that we’re never too old, or never too senior, and never too experienced in our organisations to learn something new and bring a fresh set of eyes and fresh approach to the way they lead and manage their organisations,’’ she says. “It’s about developing a ‘mindset’ for lifelong learning, developing a mindset that’s there is always something else you can learn – there is always an opportunity to benefit from engaging.”

Consortium problem-solving

One such course – Executive Consortium – will be expanding under Trotman’s leadership. It is a problem-solving exercise for business clients.

Most organisations try and solve their challenges internally. How do they market a particular product? What sort of growth strategy should they be pursuing?  What are our competitors doing?  The companies typically get a team together internally to brainstorm ideas and come up with a solutions.

“That has all kinds of dangers attached to it,’’ Trotman says. “There are issues like group-think, or unconscious bias or not seeking knowledge outside the organisation.”

The AGSM’s Executive Consortium model takes a different approach.  It gets five or six companies to send in a team of four to six people with a live challenge: the big issue that their business is now confronting.  Those people work together on those challenges with people from similar sized but non-competing organisations. It’s a collaborative model that allows people to find new ways to learn. Together they develop strategies to meet the challenge. In some ways, it’s almost a start-up mentality.

The program helps participants look for learning opportunities everywhere and in unexpected places.

“It generates really out-of-the-box ideas because you’re with people from other organisations, people of similar seniority, you have an issue that … you work with organisations [to solve] over a period of time.

“It’s generated some really different thinking. People come away from it saying: ‘Wow, we have approached something in a different way by learning from others’.”

She says the exercise is particularly important for mid-sized companies that don’t have the resources of the big end of town.

“We want people to think about developing themselves as a lifelong proposition,’’ she says. “You can never stop learning and with the post-MBA, post-other academic qualifications you might receive, there are still learning opportunities you might take advantage of.  Or you can create them during your career. It’s training people to think differently.”

Trotman was recruited because of her commercial know-how, as part of a wider leadership change at the relatively young AGSM, which started in 2006. In February, the AGSM appointed new dean, Professor Geoffrey Garrett, to replace Professor Alec Cameron, who had led the AGSM since its inception.

In part, Trotman’s role will be to establish deeper links with clients, to find out their drivers and challenges and see how the AGSM can help them, providing the right topics and delivering them in ways that they find most useful.

“This really is a professional services organisation,’’ Trotman says. “Effectively what we’re selling is a professional service – executive education – and we need to run it like a professional services organisation.

“That’s the skill I bring to the role. Rather than coming to it from an academic perspective, I come to it from a business perspective. How do you create a market and deliver the services we have on offer?

“The skill is about identifying prospective clients and working collaboratively with our faculty to glean what their clients’ needs are so that we can bring the right experience and insight to bear.

“I am not the designer or the deliverer of the product; I’m the person running the business to make sure we have the right target clients in our sights, that we tailor the right solutions for them and that we run this like a professional services firm.”

Trotman will spend much of her time talking to clients “not in a faculty way, but in a business development sense”. “It’s about having conversations with them about what their most pressing issues are,” she says.

The AGSM, which is on the University of New South Wales campus but is a separately run mix of classroom based and in-house courses, is an approach increasingly taken by leadership training organisations, such as the Australian Institute of Management.

Trotman says: “What we are seeing is organisations wanting to develop the leadership model that suits how they want to grow and what sort of organisation they want to be.’’ 

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