• Showing the way

    Business schools in Africa need to remain relevant to the context in which they operate in order to produce effective, ethical and sustainable corporate leadership

    Showing the way

    Running a business in Lagos, Nairobi or Dar es Salaam poses different challenges from operating in London or New York. Therefore African business schools have to create leaders who can confidently manage global businesses and navigate the added complexities of the continent.

    ‘Mimicking a Western model of what a business school ought to be will be an egregious mistake,’ says Ali Elquammah, director of academic affairs at HEM Business School in Morocco. In October 2017, he was elected board chairperson of the African Association of Business Schools (AABS).

    ‘If business schools are to make strong headway in Africa, they cannot solely offer the same curricula as their US or European counterparts, whose case studies and teaching methods typically address the needs of larger local and multinational corporations. They must develop and use African case studies, business and leadership theories,’ he says.

    ‘African business schools have the duty to put the text – the content of the courses taught and the research produced – in context, [highlighting its] impact and relevance on/for the local environment. The idea is to take the best from all the world’s existing models and leave behind what does not fit into the business school’s own environment.’

    To encourage this concept of leadership education, the AABS has developed a unique African accreditation for business schools – underpinned by African values and context. It’s meant to provide a globally recognised benchmark, and enhance quality, collaboration and capacity building among the continent’s schools. The accreditation targets top institutions that are already making an impact on the continent, and offers advice on best practices in terms of developing business schools.

    ‘African business leaders do not necessarily require a different set of skills but rather an additional requirement to deal with the distinct African business landscape,’ according to Enase Okonedo, dean of Lagos Business School (LBS), which is part of Nigeria’s Pan-Atlantic University in Lekki.

    ‘The main thing that should set African business leaders apart from their counterparts elsewhere in the world is a thorough understanding of the landscape, challenges and practices of business [here].’

    She previously told Vanguard newspaper that case studies were the predominant means of delivery at LBS, combined with experiential learning activities, simulations and practical projects to keep participants in close touch with the reality of doing business on the continent. An increasing number of cases involve companies operating in Africa.

    Further south, near the tip of Africa, the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business is also reducing the reliance on international case studies, and has attracted global recognition for its high-quality local case studies. The school’s dedicated Case Writing Centre, jointly established with Harvard Business School Alumni Africa in 2016, produces teaching case studies that reflect the continent’s emerging market realities.

    When it comes to business research, Wits Business School (WBS) in Johannesburg also stands out. According to Christoph Maier, WBS senior lecturer in leadership, diversity, cross-cultural management and African management, its PhD candidates generate an extensive body of cutting-edge research on leadership and transformation that almost exclusively focuses on the continent.

    ‘The benefits of this development on African leadership are manifold. We generate articles and other publications. We’re able to provide corporates and other organisations with new insights. And we graduate world-class academics and leaders who will advance our continent and our people.’

    This reflects the growing understanding that business and society are deeply intertwined, and that any business school curriculum must include environmental, social and governance issues.

    ‘From a business school perspective, we believe social development in South Africa happens through empowering students to understand their role as responsible leaders when they go back into society,’ according to Piet Naudé, director of the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).

    The school has become known for its African-focused expertise in areas such as sustainable development, futures research, development finance, ethics and corporate governance, responsible leadership development, management coaching and emerging-country economics. The development finance cluster, for example, specifically addresses the issue of unlocking the continent’s growth potential. The programme focuses on the design and implementation of African-driven solutions, although the acquired knowledge can be applied in any developing country. Most of USB’s programmes include a business in society module, while the MBA also offers electives on ethics and sustainability.

    In line with the USB’s mission ‘to develop responsible leaders through well-grounded business education and research who lead by example’, students are expected to be accountable for their actions; align their behaviour with values such as integrity, inclusivity and sustainability; and display a sophisticated understanding of the multiple stakeholders to whom they are responsible.

    ‘USB must in itself become an example of responsible leadership,’ Naudé said in a 2017 public lecture. Speaking of integrity, accountability and transparency, he underlined the importance of being open to public scrutiny and becoming a role model for others.

    WBS’s Maier explains that, while ethics and good governance form part of the curriculum at Wits, these qualities should not be isolated in specific modules or only applied to the workplace. ‘It’s the DNA that runs through our business school and governs everything we do,’ he says. ‘We hope to instil core values such as honesty, respect and inclusiveness in our staff and students – in their personal and professional lives.’

    It’s crucial that business leaders have a moral compass to ensure the right decisions are made, says Owen Skae, director of Rhodes Business School in Grahamstown. He argues that, because Africa offers more opportunities than any other continent, leaders have more choices and sometimes choose to take a route that is not in the best long-term interests of their organisation. ‘As we always stress, it’s not about how much money is made, but how the money is made that’s important. Business brings prosperity, but it must be sustainable,’ says Skae.

    His counterpart at Henley Business School Africa, Jonathan Foster-Pedley, argues that whether it’s a moral compass, GPS or roadmap, a good leader needs to listen to the small voices and dissonant feelings that signal alternatives and a sense of conscience. ‘You can do a course and it can help. But it’s all about lived experience and practice in the end,’ he says. ‘You have to push people to understand the dilemmas [so they can] learn to make better choices.’ Intellectually, this can be taught – for example, through analysis of consequences; raising situational awareness; increasing consciousness; developing the ‘discipline of noticing’; self-policing; soliciting feedback; reflective journalling; and even developing empathy. Essentially, however, ‘being ethical’ is a way of living that needs to run through everything.

    ‘Principally, it’s learnt by example,’ he says. ‘Business school leaders need to embody this – not by taking a moral high ground but by showing people how to be aware of, and live through, these tough dilemmas where decisions have to be made and action taken. It’s not a philosophy. It’s a practice.’

    Foster-Pedley also cautions against being a selfish leader who doesn’t care about long-term sustainability. ‘In this age of transparency, short-term gains that cut across the boundaries of legality and legitimacy can rebound on you – destroying your reputation, your business, and destroying value for employees, clients, suppliers and all those who [trust] you.

    ‘Sociopaths do well in the short term and can build big businesses – but the collateral damage can be huge. Today this collateral damage is being made more and more visible and is less and less accepted.’

    Recent corporate failures, compromised institutional integrity and low trust levels in South Africa highlight the urgency of this issue.

    The Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) at Pretoria University has responded by forming the Ethics and Governance Think Tank, which has become a pre-eminent platform for a national conversation about how the country can follow a more ethical approach. The platform facilitates public forums with influential thought leaders, as well as private dialogue between senior leaders from business and diverse societal stakeholders.

    GIBS’ think tank was awarded recognition as one of just 30 global institutions, in the third annual Innovations That Inspire Challenge, organised by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. The institution features in the category ‘strengthening the understanding of effective leadership development’.

    These insights show how the continent’s business schools are striving to enable tomorrow’s business leaders to navigate rapid global change, so they can lead their organisations responsibly into the future – in Africa and beyond.

    By Silke Colquhoun
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images