Building Competencies that are critical for Future Success: Interview with Professor Rhoda Davidson

Founded in Lyon, France in 1872 by the local business community and is affiliated to the Lyon Chamber of Commerce and Industry, EMLYON Business School is a French leading business school aiming to be more focused on the professional and personal success of their participants by transforming their business model in line with their commitment to executive participant success. Harnessing both hard and soft skills of their students, letting them put knowledge immediately to work using experimentation and high-impact learning experiences, EMLYON is truly a catalyst in boosting the careers and growth of their participants. To understand more about what makes EMLYON a triple accredited institution, abiding to their “Early Makers” motto and approach, we sat down with their Director of MBA Programmes, Professor Rhoda Davidson.

 

Good day, Professor Davidson! Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. Let’s start this interview by giving us a glimpse of what a day looks like for an academic and business leader like yourself?

My role as EMLYON MBA Programme Director falls at a focal point between many different activities – formulating and promoting great programmes, working with faculty to deliver impactful courses, ensuring participant satisfaction, guaranteeing accreditation, and pursuing gains in the rankings. The perimeter of my responsibility covers both MBA and EMBA programmes, delivered in both English and French, in Lyon and Paris, as well as overseeing programmes delivered in China and Morocco.

The biggest endeavour that we have underway are projects related to our commitment to executive participant success. We are moving rapidly away from merely conveying knowledge to focus on capability building and measurement, which better serves our participants.

My top priority is making sure that our participants are well-served. At the same time, I fundamentally believe that management is a service job and that motivated staff will create satisfied customers. So, my days are typically packed with meetings to ensure that my team and our support services are engaged and possess the resources they need to get their jobs done to a high standard.

That said, within the broader context, executive education is an industry in transition facing rapidly changing technology and increasingly tough competition. In my opinion, business schools need to be transforming their business model to be more focused on the professional and personal success of our participants. This needs to come in addition to the high quality of our research. Leading this shift within the business school is a difficult and challenging change management opportunity which takes up much of my time. 

 

As the Director of MBA Programmes at EMLYON Business School, what excites you most or what do you eagerly anticipate in terms of the school’s present and future endeavours? What are some of the strongest executive programmes that EMLYON offers in the coming year? 

The biggest endeavour that we have underway are projects related to our commitment to executive participant success. We are moving rapidly away from merely conveying knowledge to focus on capability building and measurement, which better serves our participants. Capability building consists of three things; gaining knowledge, demonstrating the ability to use this knowledge, and generating confidence to reuse it in the workplace. Managers are looking for more than gaining an understanding of finance, strategy, marketing, and operations. They want to know how to “get stuff done”. Moving beyond knowledge to building capabilities demands a focus on experiential learning or “learning by doing”. This is a huge change. The transition at EMLYON is by no means completed but is already well underway. Through our partnerships with companies such as IBM we are also harnessing digital approaches that allow our participants to set their own learning agendas according to their professional goals and to measure their own progress.  With all of this transformation, it’s an exciting time at the school.

 

EMLYON Business School has triple accreditation from EQUIS by the EFMD, AMBA, and AACSB. Can you tell us more about EMLYON’s distinct characteristics and how it lives up to its motto i.e. “Early makers”?

“Early Makers” is a natural extension of our belief that executives come to us to build competencies that are critical for their future success. As I just mentioned, this demands experiential learning. Researchers tell us that learning that “sticks” needs to be tightly connected to our emotions.  The Early Maker approach puts knowledge immediately to work using experimentation and high-impact learning experiences. This might include working in teams on projects with clients, playing serious games (real-world simulations), creating and testing prototypes, experiencing foreign business environments, or researching and writing case studies. All these types of experiences are designed to trigger the neural circuits of emotional memory. By creating salient learning events that leave a trace in our memories and by taking the time to reflect with each other on experiences, our managers can use learning to guide future thoughts and actions. This in turn provides our executives with the confidence to reapply knowledge and build long-lasting and relevant skills and competencies. This is the great strength of Early Makers.

 

Before working in executive education, you were a business consultant and established a boutique consulting company focused on strategic innovation partnering with large multinational companies. Can you tell us the most significant development you’ve witnessed in your expertise thus far?

Researchers tell us that learning that “sticks” needs to be tightly connected to our emotions.  The Early Maker approach puts knowledge immediately to work using experimentation and high-impact learning experiences.

Over the last twenty years, I was lucky enough to experience at first-hand how the power of search and the transition to a world of ubiquitous knowledge has fundamentally changed the way in which we conduct business. As business consultants we coined the term “knowledge brokering” to describe using search to find answers to business problems rather than inventing solutions. We developed processes to decompose problems into manageable pieces and to search for answers that already exist in other industries and professions. This development was enormously powerful for strategic innovation and up to ten times more effective than conventional problem-solving approaches.

It’s these processes that are now taught in our MBA programmes to assist student teams working on business challenges for external clients. For instance, these skills are practiced in our Entrepreneurial Leadership Project, where student teams work on a company’s business challenge for six months.

 

Your work over the last ten years has focused on creating and testing action learning techniques based on open innovation and design thinking. Can you tell us more about this?   How do you cultivate a unique design for your executive programmes?

Open innovation is another way of describing knowledge brokering because it involves looking outside the company, bringing in ideas, and overcoming the not-invented-here syndrome. Design thinking also plays a key role in allowing teams to recombine answers found through knowledge brokering with internal ideas in new ways that uniquely serves the company with the business challenge.

Another key finding from many years of action learning is that when working with real projects, both the individuals and the company need directly benefit from the experience. This may sound obvious, but it can be easily forgotten in the rush to “fix the problem”. This is why at EMLYON we are totally focused on developing leadership and teaming skills in parallel to problem solving and also why we pay as much attention to building client relationship skills as we do to making smart recommendations.

 

How do you make sure that the results will be worthwhile for participants and their organisations in terms of knowledge acquisition, career advancement, long-term profitability for business, and other measures of ROI for an executive education?

It’s exactly that. We have to be ruthlessly focused on the value created for both the participants and, if they are taking a part-time EMBA, on the value for the companies where they are working.

At EMLYON we work one-on-one with our participants to boost their careers, whether this is being promoted, or moving industry, or relocating to another part of the World.

Business schools in the past have mostly focused on research, which was driving the reputation of the school, and in which participants would share  as a kind of “halo effect”. Measures of educational success focused on input measures such as number of hours in the classroom, or the number of published papers of professors, or the number of faculty nationalities. Now we need to move to output measures, such as what our participants can actually do when they leave us, the success they can expect, and the value that they are creating for their companies and for society. This is a big change and challenges the assumptions on which most business schools operate. At EMLYON we are seeking to align all of our activities with these ROI goals. And we must not forget that some elements of the ROI, such as the amazing network that you get from an MBA or EMBA, can be rather hard to measure!

 

What’s the most challenging when addressing the needs of your participants? How do you meet their expectations and have them better prepared upon returning to their respective workplaces?

We spend a lot of time in our MBA programmes focusing on the skills and capabilities that are the most highly requested in the workplace. Employers require hard skills such as strategic thinking, finance, and the ability to solve complex problems. But it’s the soft skills that are the ones which typically differentiate managers; drive and resilience, ability to influence others, ability to work in teams with a wide variety of people.  These skills are harder to develop but are also a natural by-product of experiential learning and the “Early Maker” approach. Developing these more generic capabilities is challenging but manageable.

It’s harder for us to tailor our MBA programmes to everybody’s personal learning agenda. For instance, in our International MBA, we offer around thirty different electives and participants can choose ten to fourteen of these. Some of these electives offer further technical skills such as advanced financial management, supply chain, or digital marketing. Other electives address the business impact of new technologies such as IoT, blockchain, AI. We also provide more in-depth soft skills electives such as people management or negotiations. But with the ever-widening waterfront of business topics, its not possible to offer everything.

At EMLYON we work one-on-one with our participants to boost their careers, whether this is being promoted, or moving industry, or relocating to another part of the World. For instance, on our EMBA programme, participants complete an individual dissertation supported by project skill-building and faculty tutoring. These projects are typically focused on a company business challenge within the organisation where the participant is employed. As a result of this project, we expect each of our executives to be promoted.

 

Over the years, your executive education has created positive impact on leadership development and bottom lines results. What have been the remarkable achievements and best feedback that you have received?

Maybe it’s truer to say that we need more leaders than ever because of the ever-expanding population of our planet and the more systemic nature of our business challenges in an increasingly interconnected world.

Over the years many remarkable executives have passed through the MBA programmes. There were those who were leading hugely ambitious transformational projects in their multinational companies or in smaller private enterprises, and for whom the EMBA was a vital toolset for their success; Or graduates that have built their own businesses from ideas that originated during our programmes. We receive, of course, news from many graduates sharing their personal successes, promotions, and achievements.

The feedback which perhaps gives me the most pleasure is when participants say that taking an MBA at EMLYON allowed them to better understand themselves as a leader and to take better career decisions that have led to a much higher level of personal fulfilment. To quote one of our Lebanese participants, Elie Maaloui, who now works for Nissan in Paris, “What you gain from the program is not only monetary; it is a network, a new way of thinking, tools to better yourself, and the confidence to take risks in life and your career.”

 

As the world and businesses rapidly evolve, leadership becomes more challenging. What do you think are the important qualities a business leader must have in order to drive business functions successfully into the future?

I’m not sure that I agree with the question. In my mind leadership has been largely the same for the last 10,000 years. Leadership is about coordinating a group to deal with the challenges that the group faces, while at the same time serving the needs and aspirations of the individuals within the group. Leadership is a human thing and our DNA has not changed that much.

While it’s true that the World’s knowledge is growing, but at the same time the world is a less threatening place. We don’t worry about the Mongol hoards or about being eaten by a dinosaur. And do you think that things were changing rapidly during previous industrial revolutions? Of course. Maybe it’s truer to say that we need more leaders than ever because of the ever-expanding population of our planet and the more systemic nature of our business challenges in an increasingly interconnected world.

 

One of the global advocacies we have nowadays is to empower women for leadership roles across all industries. As a female leader yourself, how could we progress in such an endeavour?

Our future highly interconnected business world is one where knowledge brokering, collective intelligence, and collaboration are all critical skills. This future is well suited to female leadership styles; rugged self-reliance is much less of an asset. We are at the beginning of the transition to these new ways of working, but we are already seeing the change and evolution as more women put themselves forward for political office and gain a voice though vehicles such as the #MeToo Movement.

In terms of pushing this forward, I’m a big fan of mentorship, where mentors can be women or men. I was mentored by an amazing business leader who made a significant difference to my leadership style and my view of the role of management. In turn, I am more than happy to mentor others. Perhaps the largest contribution of business schools is to help our female managers to find the right mentor and identify the best role models. As more women are mentored and subsequently become mentors then this will be a great viral accelerator of female empowerment in leadership roles.

 

With your long-established career working on strategic innovation and change management, can you tell us in three words how we can ensure the success of a strategic initiative?

Service to stakeholders – Teamwork – Innovation. You will notice that it’s mostly about the people.

 

People in the upper echelons naturally have a lot on their plate. How do you make sure that you maintain a healthy lifestyle, both in your professional and personal life? What are your favourite routines?

Perhaps the largest contribution of business schools is to help our female managers to find the right mentor and identify the best role models. As more women are mentored and subsequently become mentors then this will be a great viral accelerator of female empowerment in leadership roles.

I have not done as good a job as I would have liked. I believe you have to put in place structure and process to make sure you take care of the three key elements of health; self, family and friends, professional. The saying goes, “work flows to the competent until they drown”. It’s important to put boundaries around the amount of professional opportunity you are given, matched against the resources that you can access. In situations where the three factors are out of balance, the first element to suffer is paying attention to “self”. And of course, with too little time for physical exercise or inner reflection then the other two elements of your life suffer. The only solution is to find more resources, or to place strict boundaries around professional work. Patrolling those boundaries must be an on-going activity because organisations will take everything you can give. It’s tough to find the right balance!

 

What does success mean to you? Any message you wish to share with our readers?

For me, during this phase of my life, its about giving back and about the service I can perform in creating tomorrow’s leaders. Our World has lots of challenges and opportunities ahead. It’s a time of enormous change in business and we also need to work together to keep our planet healthy. Forming our best and brightest leaders from every country, is an essential job that adds meaning and purpose to my life. I can only encourage others to step-up to these leadership challenges, find a voice, and join in.

 

Thank you very much, Professor Davidson. It was a real pleasure speaking with you. 

About the Interviewee

Rhoda Davidson is an experienced educator, business consultant and entrepreneur. She has worked in executive education for over twenty years at top global institutions such as IMD, Duke CE, and EMLYON. She leads strategic innovation and corporate entrepreneurship programmes with large multinational companies. As a pioneer in business-driven action learning, her focus with MBA participants is on skill development through hands-on experience. Her research has appeared in practitioner journals including MIT Sloan Management Review and the McKinsey Quarterly.

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