Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Sending Consultants Where They are Needed Most

Published By: The Independent - 19 Jan 2010

Business schools around the world are working out how to adapt their courses to the changed financial landscape. New ways of growing thoughtful, grounded business leaders are clearly needed. But at one small British school the head of its MBA programmes is already developing a clear vision of how this might be done. Bringing together her extensive international experience and some eye-opening learning from Harvard she is hoping to shape a whole new direction for her students.

“It’s simply no longer enough just to teach ethics and to hope to develop responsible managers. I don’t believe you can successfully teach ethics without the opportunity to apply it and to deliver on it,” says Sonia el Kahal Maclean, MBA director at the school of management at the University of Surrey. “Students need to work with local communities and give back to society They need the chance to practise what they are learning, and to go out into the world and develop a sense of social responsibility. Because if they do this while they are still students they are going to learn from it and change while they are doing it.”

She hopes that her full-time MBA students will soon no longer write up a theoretical 20,000-word dissertation as part of their course but go out and work as consultants to charities and not-for-profit organisations. “I would like to see them, instead of sitting in the library, going to somewhere like, say, Ethiopia and picking up a project there. Maybe they would help set up a craft business, something like that. They would have to work on it and implant it, and see their recommendations being implemented, and work out how to make them work if they find that they don’t.”

This sits, she points out, squarely within today’s rapidly-changing business school landscape. The Association of MBAs last autumn signed up to the principles of responsible management, as outlined in the UN Global Compact, the international corporate citizenship and sustainability initiative, and any AMBA-accredited school – as Surrey University’s school of management has been for the past three years -- now has to meet its ten principles. In this new climate she would love to develop an international “MBA sans frontiere”, modelled on the famous French medical charity, which could fly business students in as consultants wherever such help is needed. Interest for this, she says, is already be shown in Canada and elsewhere.

She also believes that today’s students need to know more about strategic negotiation. This follows a recent short study experience at Harvard, where she focussed on negotiating across international borders. “Most business schools only concentrate on developing management skills, but you can’t be a good leader without being good negotiator. You need to know how to hold a table, how to work a deal, and this isn’t as easy as it looks, because there are many stages to negotiations -- before you get to the table, at the table, and afterwards as well.

“I studied all this at Harvard, and was very impressed by how they teach. There are no lectures. Instead you are given a pile of readings, and you discuss a case. This really encourages debate and I found it stimulating and thought-provoking. And we were taught that in negotiating you should never go for a win/lose situation, but always look to find a situation where both sides are winning. The skill is in how to reach that compromise.”

For Sonia el Kahal Maclean this is a skill sadly lacking on the world stage and and she would like to see “much more international relations input on UK business school programmes. There is no course that I know of that looks at all these global-political-economic issues together.”

Her personal background has also shaped this interest. She was born in Syria, studied at the American University of Beirut, and worked for eight years in banking in Saudi Arabia, first for City Bank and then for the Arab Investment Bank, after her husband took a job in that country. In those years she bumped up hard against the local cultural restrictions on women. She had to be fully veiled, and although she was at one time secretary to the board of the bank she was then working for, “I could not be in the same room as them. It was ridiculous!” She spent time setting up segregated banking services for women, but in the end she could stand it no longer and fled to England with her two young children to do an Msc and then a PhD in international relations at Sussex University. “I had plenty of workplace experience, and I knew I needed the academic and theoretical side to build my career. But it was a very big step to take. I left my husband. And then, when I arrived at Heathrow, I knew no-one at all. All I had was this piece of paper saying I had a place on this course, so I got into a taxi with my two small children and said: take me to this university in Brighton.”

Grit saw her through and she launched her career teaching on the MBA programme at Coventry University, still seared by her experiences in Saudi Arabia. “I can picture it even now. There were all these students on the executive MBA programme, mainly men, many of them engineers in their mid-forties, and I was standing up in front of them, no veil or anything, and I thought ‘Oh, I’m teaching you now!’”

From there she went to teach in Sheffield, then to Kingston, where she directed the post-graduate programme, before arriving at Surrey four years ago. “And I am very happy here. The school is well resourced and very supportive of its staff. Anything you want to do, if you make your case for it, you can do it.”

It has a relatively small MBA programme in the UK but also runs satellite programmes in Mauritius and the Caribbean, giving it a good foundation for any international plans.

“These ideas are all still things I am working on, “ she stresses, “but I am very excited about them because I think the time for them is right.”

Also, she points out, like the skilled negotiator she now is, these are plans where everybody wins. Good work can be done for those who need it, while students will get the kind of hands-on international experience which will help them win jobs and succeed in them.