Get Ready for Disruption: WBS Prepares Executives for a Volatile Future

Interview with Tim Wray Director of Executive Education Warwick Business School

We live in turbulent times, and business leaders need to draw on a range of different skills as they plan their strategies, look for innovation, strive for sustainability and cope with digitalisation. Against this background, business educators are working hard to arm executives with the training they need in order to deal robustly with the issues. Warwick Business School (WBS) has an impressive suite of executive diplomas that aim to do just that. Director of Executive Education Tim Wray fills us in.


Hello, Tim! Thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to talk to us. Could we begin with a few words about your work day? What does a normal day look like for you?

It may be somewhat clichéd to say it, but no two days are the same! The variety in my role as Director of Executive Education at Warwick Business School is one of the great attractions for me. The job can take you anywhere. To start with, we have a base at Warwick University and also at The Shard in London. But I could just as easily wake up anywhere around the globe, as we have an international client base. One day might be spent with a client in a highly creative process as we put together a learning intervention; the next may be taken up navigating the procedures and committees that necessarily underpin life in a university setting. There will always be regular interaction with my team, either in person or virtually, as we are constantly managing multiple projects. It’s often fast-paced and pressurised and you need to thrive in that environment. Having said that, wherever I am, I like to get up early and have a couple of hours at my desk before the demands of the day really kick in. That’s an important time to ensure that I keep focused on the highest priorities.   


The executive diplomas are aimed at a senior executive audience who are interested in addressing a specific organisational challenge, like digital transformation, or plugging a capability gap, such as their own leadership skills and understanding.

Warwick Business School’s suite of executive diplomas are a key part of its executive education programme. Could you give us some background on what led the school to set up the programme in this format?

We recently conducted an extensive survey among our alumni, who are located all around the globe and are typically operating in senior executive roles. We asked them to identify the most pressing challenges they are facing today, both organisationally and individually as business leaders. We wanted to know how we could best add value as they seek to take on these challenges.

The key areas that surfaced in the survey were leadership, strategy execution and building digital capability. We have designed the suite of executive diplomas around these critical themes. The diplomas represent a deep dive into each subject area, in contrast to a more general management programme. They are delivered in a more concentrated format over one calendar year, and the modular format suits people working in high-pressured jobs who are time-poor.

The executive diplomas are aimed at a senior executive audience who are interested in addressing a specific organisational challenge, like digital transformation, or plugging a capability gap, such as their own leadership skills and understanding. Another key characteristic of the diplomas is the strong focus on application and impact, not just theory.

Warwick Business School at The Shard, London


The WBS Diploma in Strategic Leadership not only aims to highlight the link between leadership and strategy in today’s fast-changing business environment, but is also predicated on the notion that strategy is no longer a top-down activity in a business organisation. Could you enlarge on that idea?

We know in the world we’re operating in that leadership has changed dramatically, and the idea of hero leaders at the top of an organisation who know everything has long gone. We need distributed leadership right across the organisation, and very often the executives we work with are seeking to build that leadership strength at all levels of the organisation. If we look at companies who do that extremely well, such as the likes of GE, they will have a premium on their share prices as a result. So, there is a real, genuine recognition of not just the strength of the senior management team, which of course is critical, but also the strength of your leadership right down through the organisation.

In a rapidly changing business environment, it is people located at the boundaries of the organisation, close to the market and competitors, and directly interacting with customers, who see opportunities first. How you enable these people to respond and mobilise support across the business is a critical question for those at the top of an organisation and a key theme of the strategic leadership diploma.


The Diploma in Strategy and Innovation is another member of the WBS executive diploma suite. What led to the establishment of a diploma course that links these two concepts?

We all know that every sector of the global economy is facing exponential change. Technological innovation is disrupting whole industries and shortening product life cycles. Where there is high uncertainty about the future, the strategy paradigm shifts away from analysis and planning, towards experimentation and discovery. Essentially, we need to learn our way to the future, building a portfolio of projects from which we hope the business of the future emerges. All of this requires a fundamentally new mindset and is why the diploma also focuses on leadership and creating an organisational culture supportive of innovation. Increasingly, strategy is emergent rather than planned, and the diploma helps senior leaders think about the individual and organisational capabilities required to make this happen.


If there is one feature that characterises the world in which we are now living, it is change. Warwick Business School’s Diploma in Organisational Change would seem to be highly relevant to today’s business scene, but how can the course help executives who probably come from a range of different business sectors to cope with this challenge?

Our research among our alumni community, which is made up of senior executives from a wide range of global organisations, told us that strategy execution, that “knowing-doing” gap and how to bridge it, is of critical importance to them. We know that up to 80% of strategies sit on the shelf and the real challenge is about strategy implementation. I recall speaking to a very successful chief executive who remarked that he’d rather have a good strategy well implemented, than a brilliant strategy that didn’t go anywhere. So that “knowing-doing” gap and that execution is of critical importance, and that’s what the diploma in organisational change is focused on.

Strategy execution, that “knowing-doing” gap and how to bridge it, is of critical importance. We know that up to 80% of strategies sit on the shelf and the real challenge is about strategy implementation.

Of course, a “one size fits all” approach will not work when it comes to implementing change. Different contexts require different change strategies. In fact, you could argue that every change setting is different and requires a nuanced approach. This contextual awareness and intelligence is a key characteristic of successful change leadership and a major theme running through the programme. We challenge participants not to implement formulaic approaches to change slavishly, and that includes methods that are currently much in vogue, such as agile, but rather to look at the subtleties of the context – the stakeholder landscape, the dynamic of power in the organisation, the legacy of previous change initiatives, what needs to stay the same as well as what needs to change – and to think carefully about what all this means for the approach to change that’s adopted.

I think a critical feature of a programme like this is also how participants evolve their own thinking and craft their own solutions from the many inputs. The expertise of faculty is one obvious source, but the diversity of experience and backgrounds in the room adds further richness to the discussion and encourages a participant to see their own situation through a different lens. A typical day on the executive diploma will involve a lot of break-out work, working in small groups, working on case-study material, making it a very interactive and dynamic learning setting that spans sectors and industries. That co-creation of learning is a critical aspect.


We’ve been talking about leadership, strategy, innovation and change. How can businesses cope with the extra dimension implied by digitalisation in connection with these concepts?

Digital disruption is washing across most sectors and industries. Our research has surfaced a real desire among executives at all levels to have a better understanding of the implications of digital transformation – both the opportunities this presents and the potential for a business to be disrupted if it does not keep pace. There is clearly a significant knowledge gap. The senior executives we work with have a lot of experience, but the pace of technological change is such that this experience can rapidly become redundant. Our digital leadership diploma provides a deep dive into topics like artificial intelligence, data analytics and platform strategy. It helps leaders identify the full potential of new technologies to add value to their own business, transforming the customer experience and growing value for shareholders. As with the other diplomas, Digital Leadership is all about application and the course work that participants engage in is intended to move forward the digital agenda tangibly within their own organisation.


These days, the notions of sustainability and defence of the environment are very much in people’s minds, in both the social and the business context. What do you think are the implications of these factors for today’s business leaders? How can business educators help?

A key research theme for WBS is understanding how companies respond to and integrate global sustainability challenges into their business strategies, management practices and corporate governance systems. In fact, our MBA programme has been declared the best in the world for sustainability and advancing environmental and social goals in business. Corporate Knights’ 2019 Better World MBA ranking focuses on the programmes that educate students on sustainability and responsible business, with WBS coming top out of nearly 150 of the best business schools in the world.

Research by colleagues in WBS has identified that a firm’s green credentials can insulate against the worst effects of an economic downturn. A business built on an ethical approach based on clear values can build a loyal customer base, making profits more stable and less correlated with economic cycles, reducing risk and increasing firm value. So not only is the approach better for the environment, it’s better for business.


As examples of the rapid changes taking place in the business environment, we may cast our thoughts to fintech and technologies such as AI, blockchain, mobile payments, cryptocurrencies and crowdfunding platforms. Can the school help executives to understand these kinds of developments and, if so, how?

Trends like these are a core part of our research and teaching agenda. It’s a key benefit of coming to somewhere like WBS, where our teaching is informed by groundbreaking research. In fact, the University recently received one of its largest donations from an individual to establish a new fintech research centre. The Gilmore Centre for Financial Technology will be housed at Warwick Business School and will bring together the school’s existing research in the area along with a host of new appointments. Developments in AI, blockchain, mobile payments, cryptocurrencies and crowdfunding platforms will be a key area of focus for the new centre and the insights generated will be immediately integrated into programmes such as the digital leadership diploma.


We’ve mentioned business involvement in wider issues, such as sustainability and the environment. Do you think that today’s business leaders have a role in terms of their responsibility to society as a whole? The concept of the inclusive society is one aspect that springs to mind.

Yes, I do. I remember looking at a survey that asked people who would they trust to tell them the truth. Business leaders came one place off the bottom, with only politicians ranked lower! So, we have a lot of work to do to restore trust and confidence. The first step is to understand that the public good is a key consideration, right alongside, if not ahead of, profitability and shareholder value. However, as I mentioned earlier, the mood of society around issues such as climate change and ethics means that responsible business practice and profitable business practices are no longer at odds. The biggest constraint on growth for most businesses is attracting and retaining the best talent. Increasingly, these people only want to work for organisations that share their values. So, the way to succeed is to fundamentally understand how your business fulfils a wider purpose in society.


The mood of society around issues such as climate change and ethics means that responsible business practice and profitable business practices are no longer at odds.

On a more personal note, most people seem to accept the idea that we all need to find a suitable equilibrium between our professional and private lives – in other words, a work-life balance. What, for you, is an ideal work-life balance?

A former colleague of mine used to rail against that phrase, arguing that what we need is life balance rather than work-life balance, and I think he had a point. Work is a big part of most people’s lives and we should not think that it competes in some way with everything else that then gets labelled “life”. It’s along the same lines as someone asking, “Do you work to live, or do you live to work?”! If you enjoy your work, if it is engaging, fulfilling and purposeful, it is an incredibly important part of life! Of course, that also requires the space for physical, mental and spiritual renewal, and that’s were the balance issue kicks in, alongside a perspective on what is most important in life, particularly time for family and friends.


Finally, the word “success” means many things to many people. How would you, personally, define success?

Without wanting to sound overly high-minded, I find that as I progress further into my career, the answer to that question becomes much more about impact and legacy than anything else. What difference have you made, what impact have you had on those around you, what have you built that will outlast your tenure in the job?


Thank you very much Mr. Tim Wray. It’s a pleasure speaking with you.  

Executive Profile

Tim Wray is Professor of Practice and the Director of Executive Education at Warwick Business School. He has more than 20 years’ experience as a practitioner, consultant and executive educator specialising in strategic change, leadership, organisational communication and employee engagement. He has successfully delivered executive development programmes at senior levels for leading international companies in a range of sectors.


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