Career Advice HR Focus

Creativity in chaos

A joint Manulife-Ivey finance conference has thrashed out ideas on coping with a volatile world economy

For several years, the world economy has been faced with continuing volatility, which makes planning and decision-making difficult. As one problem is solved by world leaders, another pops up, which has made uncertainty the order of the day.

The financial industry is particularly exposed to this lack of economic and financial stability, prompting Manulife to organise a conference for its staff and regional partners in co-operation with the Richard Ivey School of Business (Ivey) to discuss related issues.

The two-day Manulife-Ivey Leadership Programme in Asia followed a  conference held the year before which, in turn, was based on the business school’s extensive research on leadership in the global financial crisis, which was published in 2010.

Manulife president and chief executive Robert Cook, who was familiar with the research, concluded that many business leaders in the region’s financial industry – including his company’s employees – would benefit from a follow-up conference. It is, in a way, a mutually beneficial HR initiative for Manulife, benefiting both its partners and its own people.

This year’s topic was changed slightly to leadership in a volatile environment, discussing political, social and technological volatility and how it is having an impact on financial markets.

“The original idea for the first conference was to give back to our industry in financial services,” says Robert Cook, president and chief executive of Manulife Asia. “Apart from our own staff, we invited some regional partners from regulatory bodies, distribution, supply services, accounting, audit and banks. The decision to repeat it [this year] was largely driven by the feedback.”

The two-day event, which was held by two Ivey professors, featured outstanding guest speakers during lunch and an off-site dinner, including senior executives from a leading bank, an international research institute and a global computing technology firm.

“We worked very hard on using a variety of presentation methods, as people can get restless. We had different kinds of learning experiences built in, such as lectures, discussion panels, case studies, guest speakers, and break-out sessions with five to six people in a room,” Cook says.

The total of 40 participants was kept low enough to allow for interaction and sharing.

“Our objective was to sensitise people to the volatility they can expect to see in the next few years,” says Dr Jeffrey Gandz, professor of business, economics and public policy at Ivey.

The programme featured an overview of the major forces shaping business worldwide, accompanied by ideas on improving organisational structure, such as a non-bureaucratic system with fewer layers where information travels faster. Participants considered their own personal approach, aware that, as leaders, they must be open to new information and that being defensive sparks negative reactions.

Best practices were also examined through once-great companies which declined, and others which used volatility to their advantage.

Gandz says that in the volatile new economy, organisations need a “good radar to spot what is coming” and to be able to forecast the impact of major events.

“While volatility can be a threat, it can also be a great opportunity. Slow, unresponsive organisations will be negatively affected. Quick and nimble ones will find the opportunities,” Gandz says, adding that many organisations have done well but the situation has definitely been a challenge for the leadership.

He says participants found the picture he painted relevant, somewhat scary but also encouraging. “Just like a good movie, it’s a little scary but you triumph at the end,” he says.

One of those who enjoyed the ‘movie’ is Michellina Triwardhany, consumer banking director at PT Bank Danamon Indonesia.

“The conference provided a rare opportunity to step back from the daily grind of managing a business,” she says. “It allowed the participants to think through issues and challenges that may impact our business and how to best strategise to adapt and capture opportunities presented by these challenges.”

Triwardhany appreciates that the conference was facilitated by experienced professors and featured interesting speakers and lively discussions. “The conference was attended by peers from our supporting finance industries, hence discussions or views shared in the forum provided relevant insights to the participants,” she says.

“The topics were relevant to issues most of us faced. Networking was also an important factor, as it may foster future collaboration and co-operation,” Triwardhany adds.