When a long-term business contact called and suggested I look into the Industry Leaders Fund, I freely admit the idea had never been on my radar. However, somewhere in the cob-webbed recesses of my memory, I recalled reading about SA business leaders who had undertaken various development programs funded by ILF grants. The curiosity bug bit, and I started to make enquiries.
The earliest decision to make was around how I could gain real benefit, both on personal and professional levels, and what I could undertake that would make a difference to what I was currently offering our business and the broader wine industry.
A quick checklist considered:
- What would be the most significant challenges facing our business over the next 3-5 years?
- What opportunities lay ahead over that period?
- Where were the gaps in my skill set to deliver on these?
- What did I need to develop as a leader to engage and bring my team along with me?
Thinking about the end result – i.e. what I wanted to be able to achieve – and working backwards, made the process easier. Considering the Vision of our business – to be the benchmark – crystallised my thinking. If I was going to seek assistance from the ILF, I was going to aim high and learn from the best.
The Harvard Business School Key Executives Program, seemed like an ideal fit, in context, relevance, reputation and the very fact that without an ILF Grant, it would remain a pipedream.
Significantly for me, the program was quite compressed – just two weeks away from the workplace and family. For someone who already has reasonable business travel commitments and is quite hands-on in the business, the time frame was important.
Aside from researching the program on-line, I spoke to other people whom I believed would have attended a similar program or known others that had. In all cases they recommended the HBS opportunity as one that would provide excellent learning opportunities and a diverse network of contacts.
The online application process for an ILF Grant is relatively straightforward and its brevity forces you to be quite clear and specific about what you want to achieve and why. In essence, working through the application helps to clarify thinking around whether the grant you are seeking is being put to best use for you and your business.
The interview process that makes up Stage 3 is a rewarding conversation with a diverse group of experienced business people that gives you the chance to expand on who you are, your business challenges and opportunities and the value you might derive from an ILF Grant.
Harvard Business School
As one might expect, the HBS is very professional in its communication, from the initial application to gain acceptance to their program (most are well over-subscribed), through to the lead up to commencement.
The Key Executive Program runs from Sunday to Friday over two weeks at the Boston campus, a site steeped in history and classic Massachusetts architecture. It covers the themes of leadership, strategy and marketing, financial ratios; innovation and control through faculty presentations, case studies, and group discussions.
As a live-in campus, the facilities, food and learning areas are first class and they need to be! The program is extremely intensive and loaded with preparation work.
Approximately 80% of the course materials are provided a few weeks beforehand in the guise of case studies and readings, however this doesn’t really prepare you for the on-campus workload. A typical daily schedule would start with a Discussion Group meeting from about 7.30-9 am to prepare for the day’s faculty presentations. Presentations would keep you busy until late afternoon, and following dinner most groups would reconvene from 8 pm until close to work on the following day’s case studies.
The Discussion Groups are pre-ordained by HBS, as they place you with around 6-7 other students with whom you will spend most of your waking hours over the fortnight. The cross-section of cultures and experience is quite interesting. Mexico, Korea, USA, Nigeria, the UAE, and of course Australia, were all represented within my group.
Across the broader program, students tended to be from Europe, Africa, Australia and the USA, and from a very broad range of businesses and industries. There were certainly a large number of entrepreneurs, and there is no doubt that HBS encourages and caters for this in the curriculum.
The calibre of professors was world class and resource materials supported them to a very high level.
The Pay Off
Aside from jetlag that never settles, and general mental exhaustion, what can you expect to take away from a concentrated fortnight of overseas education at the world’s leading business school?
It’s perhaps both a cliché and truism that the networking opportunities are significant and interesting because of the breadth of industries and nationalities represented. From talking to other students, the value of these can be dependent on the luck of the draw with the group HBS placed you in. Fortunately on-line forums, such as LinkedIn, make it very simple to set up ongoing discussion groups and to keep in touch with each others’ activities. It also provides a sounding board for questions about specific markets or business opportunities, with those better placed to provide input and feedback.
From a learning perspective, it will be very much dependent on the individual. The Key Executive Program focussed more heavily on the entrepreneurial aspects of business than many of us initially expected and as a life-long employee, I found this particularly interesting and energising. Those of us running businesses and in leadership roles could not help but be inspired by the stories of achievement around us, and the practical applications from the lessons of the self-starters were many and varied.
It is hard not to come away from such a program invigorated and ready to seek out new challenges and growth opportunities. It is not a course geared to individuals whose goal is to consolidate their business or bunker down for a period. It challenges you to chase growth and not accept a pedestrian environment, because HBS is all about creating value, a notion that will be welcomed by business shareholders everywhere!
A sincere thank you to the Industry Leaders Fund and Wirra Wirra for supporting my application, and to ILF CEO Geoff Vogt for his wise counsel during the application process.