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Training executives to face today's challenges

Published on Friday, 10 Aug 2012

Since the financial crisis, executives are facing a more challenging environment for doing business and much higher standards of accountability. For this reason, we need to rethink leadership and train people to be globally capable, yet who can recognise how difficult it can be to grasp everything that happens in the different parts of a large international enterprise.

Companies typically try to navigate mature markets with sluggish growth and limited potential, while at the same time piloting high-speed expansion in fast-developing markets such as China. This presents an incredible array of challenges and is having an impact on the whole notion of leadership and the culture of organisations.

In individual cases, it can mean that, one year, an executive might be working on plans to hire thousands of staff and set up new production plants in Brazil or a retail network in Asia. The next year, following a transfer to the United States or Europe, he or she could be in charge of the latest cost-cutting initiative or downsizing programme.

I saw that firsthand when I was working for a large finance company. In my business plan, I said we would need to think about an extra 3,000 staff to sustain expansion in China. Head office in Canada first asked if this was a typo and then said they could only tell me about downsizing, not scaling-up.

It's just one example, but it illustrates the scope and complexity of global business today. To determine what makes the best leaders in this environment, Ivey faculty members have carried out numerous interviews with C-suite executives, and we are steadily incorporating the findings in our EMBA and other programmes.

The key conclusions are that executives - at various levels but across industries - should be receptive to dissenting views and willing to consider ideas which challenge a perspective or strategy. It is also about having the courage to take action, even when counter to current wisdom and how the rest of the market performs.

More than ever, of course, good leadership in the global context is a matter of ethics and accountability. In China, as elsewhere, we see the government, media, public and employees looking to hold senior management responsible and realise how not doing so can affect the corporate brand. That has to be a positive development, even if the business world always throws up examples of human weakness.

In this respect, though, I still remember the advice given when I took the Ivey EMBA. We were told to think of any big decision we made being reported as headline news. If that happened, how would it affect the company and our family? Could we wear it as a badge of honour?

Janet De Silva, dean, Richard Ivey School of Business Asia
As told to John Cremer

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