Mindful managers

One top UK business school is pioneering new ways of helping ambitious young professionals to act and think differently

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We live in a ‘VUCA’ world: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Today’s successful leaders steer their organisations on an uncharted course in an ever-changing ocean of opportunity and threat. Senior strategic leadership requires ‘mindful’ management that reconciles one’s own perceptions and motives with the perceptions and motives present across multiple stakeholders. Leadership in a VUCA world requires much more than specific function-based knowledge.

It comes from the premise that good leaders and managers are aware of how they think, how they learn, how they act in different situations

Traditionally, most business schools have  focused on equipping their MBAs with a solid grounding in all areas of business, together with frameworks needed for rigorous analysis. Yet some would argue that this vital business knowledge is not enough for the modern world. To develop insightful leaders who are truly capable of leading in dynamic environments, it is more important than ever to develop both their thinking capacity and their ability to act in purposeful ways with and through others.

Leading through knowledge
To deal with a VUCA world we need leaders who can learn their way through complex issues using both their experience and knowledge to make crucial decisions that will move businesses forward. For this to happen, we need leaders who have a keen awareness of exactly how they learn, and understand their own biases, preconceptions and assumptions. Such ideas are at the heart of a highly distinctive module at the Lancaster University Management School, one of Europe’s leading business schools.

The Mindful Manager has rapidly become a signature module of the Lancaster MBA, and highly popular with the School’s multinational MBA community. Unique to Lancaster, this module forms an integrative thread that influences participants’ personal and professional development as strategic managers and business leaders.

Chris Saunders, the director of the Lancaster full-time MBA notes “the Mindful Manager is very much about developing the potential of our students so that they are capable of taking on senior strategic roles. Developing ‘mindfulness’ means building reflexivity,self-awareness and the practical skills of judgement and decision-making-exactly the kind of skills required to be effective at the most senior levels. At the same time it helps them appreciate what it really takes to be an effective leader in a complex world.”

Key to this is developing students’ awareness of two specific types of behaviour that affect their own leadership practice: how they interact with others (their ‘collaborative conduct’, their behaviours visible to others), and how they think in different situations, which form their opinions (‘cognitive conduct’, which processes are far less likely to be observed, possibly not even by the individual concerned).

“It comes from the premise that good leaders and managers are aware of how they think, how they learn, how they act in different situations. This helps senior leaders to make good judgements and decisions for the organisation,” says Saunders.

He adds that what we learn, and how we think, is inevitably shaped by and filtered through our past experience, which can at times be as disabling as it can be enabling. “Sometimes as a manager you will be acting almost on instinct. You need to be aware of that instinct, where it comes from and what has influenced it.”

Building awareness
At the very start of the Lancaster MBA, students undertake a series of psychometric tests run by the leading executive training company Human Factors International, which helps them begin to assess their own cognitive conduct. Team building exercises are used to hone the strong teamwork skills they will need for the consulting projects they undertake for client companies throughout the year.

The module then continues with a series of workshops, integrated into the other functional modules on the programme, plus an online course on critical thinking skills, and students also keep a regular reflective blog throughout the programme. Through this the students not only capture their learning from the various experiences on the MBA, but they can also revisit it, using the reflections as a learning resource by which they can observe their own shifts in perspective.

Applying skills to practice
The module, like the Lancaster MBA overall, is geared to develop practical skills of managerial judgement, which are tightly tied to leadership practice. There are three action-learning projects spanning the programme, which fully utilise the various sizes and types of a particular given company.

This not only provides vital experiences for learning about the processes of managing and leading, but requires students to apply their skills to live strategic business issues. Senior leaders from various organisations are also brought in throughout the MBA, discussing how they lead successfully, making critical business decisions every day.

One senior leader who works with Lancaster University is Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi, who runs a series of workshops throughout the year where students engage first hand with real-time strategic decision-making within his company. By privileging students with boardroom data, Roberts challenges them to identify strategic priorities for the company, then to reassess their recommendations in the face of changing circumstances. It’s exposure to senior decision-making that few of the programme participants will have previously experienced.

The Mindful Manager has been so successful that the approach is now being extended to the School’s Executive MBA, as part of an extensive redesign. Executive MBA Director Dr Marian Iszatt-White explains, “we have seen from our full-time students just what powerful learning this type of approach can deliver. That’s why we wanted to give our EMBA students the same opportunities to reassess how they lead and manage, in a more formal way than we have done previously.”

“The Mindful Manager provides an excellent structure for doing this, and will help them to look hard and critically at what they need to develop in themselves to perform effectively as managers at the very highest levels. We’re very much looking forward to what it can offer our executive participants and the companies they work for.”

For more information on the full time, executive and global Lancaster University MBA, visit lums.lancs.ac.uk/mba