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Education

Growing tomorrow's executives

by Katie Lau

Yan Xu, associate dean, HKUST EMBA programme, executive education & China strategy, HKUST School of Business and Management, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Photo: Edde Ngan
New managerial skills crucial for business excellence

While some people believe leaders are born, academics at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) believe they can also be bred. "Babies inherit certain traits from their parents, but people can be trained to use their imagination and demonstrate their innovative streaks," says Yan Xu, associate dean, HKUST EMBA programme, executive education & China strategy, HKUST Business School.

The days of making decisions on a whim are gone, Professor Xu notes. "Managers must have detailed plans to help them make up their minds, including using tools such as decision-making trees and strategy maps. Research over the years has shown that leadership skills can be enhanced, using the appropriate methods."

With this in mind, the HKUST will be running its fifth 10-day consortium programme Leading for Success, which aims at developing business leaders and entrepreneurs, improving their managerial skills and imparting the latest management know-how. The programme is also designed to meet the growing demand for tailored, integrated programmes in this academic area, Professor Xu points out.

"Companies design their own programmes suiting their specific training needs and they often send staff to executive programmes. Such organisations understand the importance of having the right person in the right place at the right time. Good leaders make all the difference."

The HKUST plans to launch similar executive programmes in mainland China. With more than 10 years' experience in offering executive management programmes, the business school is capable of delivering a comprehensive and intensive curriculum, featuring four compulsory modules with 10 days' worth of classes over four months.

Interactive learning

The Leading for Success programme is highly popular and past participants have included business leaders and senior executives from as far afield as Australia, Thailand, Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Shanghai and Beijing. Applicants ranging from people in their late-thirties to their fifties, hail from backgrounds as diverse as banking, food and beverage, public service and the manufacturing industry. "We expect students to contribute to sessions by sharing their own experiences and learn from each other to maximise the learning results," Professor Xu says.

The classes stress interactive participation and are conducted in a U-shaped executive classroom. This creates a lively and dynamic atmosphere, which makes learning enjoyable and inspiring. The teaching faculty includes veteran HKUST business school professors, as well as academics from other reputable business schools, such as Harvard University in the US and Ashridge Management College in the UK.

Stiff competition in the business arena makes investing in leadership skills particularly important. "Company owners and senior executives must have the necessary skills to excel, and identifying potential leaders is vital. Organisations may have good strategies, but they need capable people to implement these," stresses Professor Xu, explaining that the rapidly changing business environment can make skills obsolete within five years. Companies must therefore keep staff updated on the latest tools.

Developing good communication skills and listening to others are key elements of effective leadership. "Managers with these qualities have the ability to make their employees feel comfortable about their roles and duties, as well as to motivate them to put in extra effort. Effective leaders appreciate people with high potential and provide them with incentives," adds Professor Xu. "It is crucial to establish a dynamic working environment where people are willing to share their ideas and are passionate about what they do."

Keeping up with changes

Effective leaders should be visionaries that can define their mission and goals, Professor Xu believes. Being over-ambitious can confuse rather than inspire, he notes, recalling a past student who wanted to become "the largest garment manufacturer in the world", but did not explain whether this was in terms of market share or revenue. "Such statements don't make sense. Team members need to know exactly where they're heading," he emphasises.

Building up a workforce is difficult because it involves self-interest, but it is possible to direct staff towards a common goal, he adds.

With product cycles becoming shorter, it is hard to know how long innovative technology such as the iPhone will last before it is replaced. It is therefore unrealistic for companies to rely on one single leader for a long period of time. "Even 10 years may be too long. All HR managers should know that it's vital to develop executives from the new generation to take over when the time is right," Professor Xu cautions.

Leadership succession can be a thorny issue in Asia, where family businesses have a strong presence, but it is common around the world for stubborn business owners to refrain from hiring professionals that can turn their companies around. "People that don't have the right training and know-how might not know how to talk to venture capitalists or read balance sheets. They might be passionate, but their businesses may fail because they refuse to change their mindset," says Professor Xu. "We want to use education to change people's thinking and thus influence society," he concludes.

Taken from Career Times 6 May 2011, A7

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