Think at London Business School
Thursday 30 November 2023
Drawing on her passions and experiences, alumna Giselle Weybrecht is working with business schools around the world to be more sustainable
By Sophie Haydock
Revolution is in the air and it’s about time. The status quo is unjust, unhealthy and unsustainable. Job satisfaction is low. Insecurity is high. Inequality is rife. As the authors of the World Economic Forum and PwC Upskilling for Shared Prosperity report stated, “Our economies are no longer delivering what people need. By giving people opportunities to build the skills they will require, we can start to create more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies where no one is left behind.”
Acquiring new skills – and, even more importantly, a new mindset – is the answer. The report finds, “Upskilling can be more transformational when it leads to developing attitudes and aspirations that will equip people with the skills to continually adapt to and take part in the changing world of work… This includes critical thinking, creativity or even self-management. It is often these skills that make people more versatile, resilient and adaptable – and more able to participate fully in the Fourth Industrial Revolution economy, whether working for a business or starting one of their own…”
In his airy office overlooking Regent’s Park, where the trees are just starting to blossom, François Ortalo-Magné is musing on attitudes and aspirations in the rapidly evolving landscape of what’s still referred to as business education, when what we really mean isn’t education in the traditional “chalk and talk” sense; it’s learning. As the world turns ever faster, our only hope of riding the vortex without spinning off into the void is to move with it. This isn’t about acquiring a few shiny new tools – we’re talking personal and organisational transformation. Daunting? Exciting? Maybe both.
As Dean of LBS, Ortalo-Magné must continually reassess the School’s proposition. What do we give people that’s different? Why do they come, and why should they? The answer, informed by his conversations with MBA and other degree students, alumni, corporate clients and the wider community of business leaders, reflects external and internal shifts: changing demographics, as detailed by LBS professors Lynda Gratton and Andrew J Scott in their bestselling book The 100-Year-Life, and a renewed desire for meaningful work that has impact – closely allied to the realisation that business must play a key part in addressing the climate crisis and other global challenges.
And people are simply doing work differently. Professor Gratton’s new book, Redesigning Work: How to Transform Your Organisation and Make Hybrid Work for Everyone addresses how employers can best tackle the huge changes in the workplace wrought by Covid; notably the tricky task of making a combination of working from home and in offices work sensibly.
More than ever before, personal and professional development go hand in hand. “The simple fact is we live longer now, we have an inner desire to progress and we face a changing context throughout our lives,” says the Dean. “That progress is much more in our hands now, compared to when single-organisation careers were the norm. We used to be happy to delegate our growth to an employer because there was this implicit contract with them that as long as we performed well enough, they would support our career progression and we would stay with them. Now that is no longer on offer – and we want more control. People are taking ownership of their own journey and that means taking ownership of their own learning.”
Is this desire born out of necessity; a reaction to a lack of job security? The Dean shakes his head. “Today’s graduates are not necessarily interested. They want to move around. Many heads of recruitment and company leaders I speak to say they’re more worried about employees leaving than employees outstaying their welcome. Employers turn to us to provide learning opportunities as part of their retention strategy.”
Taking charge of your own development, rather than waiting for your company to notice your potential and send you on a course, is an empowering move. Naturally Dean Ortalo-Magné is keen to position LBS as the perfect petri dish for minds to come alive and potentially grow in new directions. “Who are you going to trust with your learning?” he asks. “The school that nurtures your alumni community is uniquely positioned as a trusted partner because its success is a direct consequence of the success of its alumni.”
Tansy Rothwell, Executive Director of Learning Innovation at LBS, admits: “Lifelong learning is a massive buzzword.” There’s a reason for that, though. “It’s no longer a luxury, it has become a necessity. In India, Sri Lanka and to some extent Korea and China, the culture of learning is so fundamental to the way that they approach their life, it’s baked in at an early stage for them, so they are constantly evolving. That hasn’t been the case for us in the UK, or in Europe.”
She points out the need for everyone to evolve their career, taking her own as a case in point. “I didn’t know anything about digital learning 20 years ago, or that I would be working in this space now. The world is moving so fast, you’re going to need to evolve your career. You’re going to need to take a ‘just-in-time’ approach to learning – or rather, just ahead of time – to engage with micro learning chunks as well as a more holistic and proactive view so you can pivot as you move through your career.
“Rather than being process-orientated and knowledge-rich, people’s skillsets need to change so they are analytical and creative. Problem-solving is a key skill identified in a World Economic Forum report in 2020 and we’re all experiencing much more ambiguity and complexity in our roles. So, when we’re thinking about what we do in the learning space, it’s not just that you need to know what AI or blockchain is – you also need to equip yourself with the skills to understand what they can do for you and your current challenge.
“There’s less need for retention. It isn’t about stuffing people’s heads with knowledge; it’s about giving them the skills and mindset to explore and use what they need when they need it. Learning brings with it an openness to be curious. Doing something new, whether at work or in your personal life, learning is the first aspect of that journey into how something works and diving into the new area.”
Outside work, Rothwell keeps bees. She tells me about some of her early efforts and how she applied this same curiosity to managing their swarming. “I tried every technique in the book. None of them computed with my bees! But now, I’ve got to know the bees in my own colonies and I can see when they’re about to swarm and I can handle it. If you tell a beekeeper my method, they’ll suck their teeth and tell you you’re doing it wrong. Experimentation is one of the key aspects to learning for me – being willing to fail and learn from that failure. What you learn on that journey of experimentation is just as important as the outcome. The techniques and theoretical knowledge I gained about swarm control gave me confidence to look at the evidence and apply unconventional approaches to my colonies.”
She tells me about an extraordinary institute in the Netherlands where there is no curriculum. Instead, students decide what they want to learn, and can even change that goal as they go along. What they learn is beside the point – they are learning how to learn. Rothwell harbours the same ambition for everyone who comes through LBS: to learn how to learn. She makes the point that, in order to tackle big challenges, you need to have the right conversations – and that means learning how to ask useful questions.
Photograph: Rob Greig
Discover fresh perspectives and research insights from LBS
‘The culture of people who adopt a mindset of learning will enable you to drive your organisation forward’
As for changing jobs in the context of the 100-year life, Rothwell again sees benefit from learning. “We all want to stay relevant and to feel challenged. Most people look for new jobs because they’re bored or unchallenged by the one they have. The learning you do will demonstrate your commitment and capability and it should support your next move. Learning activities also allow you to engage with new communities. That, too, is valuable as it allows you to assess your gaps and seek advice on how best to fill them.”
Rothwell believes that lifelong learners could be the greatest asset for organisations. “You need people who are going to challenge and who are going to bring fresh ideas. People who will ask, why are we doing it this way? The value, the confidence, the culture that people who adopt a mindset of learning have – people who are open to change – will enable you to drive your organisation forward more effectively.”
This is something LBS faculty teach, of course. As Dan Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, says most people who come on the Leading Change for Organisational Transformation programme think they are attending to gain an understanding of the specific tools and processes or the investments they have to make in order to create change. “And they will get all that. But perhaps the most important thing we’re doing is helping them reflect on how they personally view change and helping them shift their mindset.”
The Dean makes this point emphatically: “Crucially, with our researchers and the diversity of our community, we are changing how people see the world – it’s about seeing rather than knowing. Our researchers are amazing at asking questions and your classmates contribute to the conversation from such an amazing diversity of perspectives. It’s not about knowing stuff – you have Google for that. I tell our students they are not with us to memorise new things but to engage with our faculty and one another with openness and curiosity. At their level of seniority, learning is of a different nature. And that’s why we give them time and space to reflect – and to reflect on how they reflect. We help them learn and learn how they learn. We stretch people’s expectations and help them exceed their expectations.”
Dean Ortalo-Magné grew up in the south of France, where his grandparents had a farm. His father became an agricultural engineer and his mother went into teaching, but François, who learnt to drive a tractor at the age of six, was never happier than when he was mucking in.
He was determined to be a farmer himself. This longing lasted right through his first degree, his PhD in Economics at Minnesota University and his academic career from the London School of Economics (where he was Professor of Economics) to the real-estate department at the Wisconsin School of Business. Then, at the same time that colleagues nominated him to apply for the deanship, a farming opportunity became available.
Tough decision – stay in academia or go back to a life-long yearning for farming? Lots of sleepless nights until one night, watching Ken Robinson’s TED talk on how schools kill creativity, he had a revelation. “At the end of the talk Robinson urges his audience to get involved in revolutionising education, to ‘change from an industrial model to an agricultural model, where each school can be flourishing tomorrow.’
“I thought, forget farming crops or animals. I woke up my wife Sondra and told her, we have been farming all along, helping people flourish! Let’s stay in education.” And he applied for his first deanship.
Today, that is how he sees his role at the helm of London Business School: nurturing an environment, a community, where individuals and organisations flourish. He loves the School’s ability to attract outstanding talent to its campuses in London and Dubai and witness the fruit of their learning. “As Dean, I am so privileged that my responsibilities take me around the world to meet alumni and corporate partners and hear from them directly how we amplified their impact.”
How has he grown as a leader himself? “I always try to learn from faculty colleagues, from researchers and teachers of the craft,” he says. He cites three LBS professors whose insights have had a strong influence: “Rob Goffee’s book, Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? provided excellent foundations to then learn from Herminia Ibarra’s Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader and Nigel Nicholson’s The ‘I’ of Leadership: Strategies for Seeing, Being and Doing.
“I have been well-served by embracing a playful attitude to doing things differently and then taking the time to reflect on what comes out. I try to be myself more with skill, to read my context and usher in the solution that yearns to be birthed. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I do not. I always give myself a learning outcome and that guarantees I find positives in everything.”
This takes humility, a quality he greatly appreciates. When he interviews leaders for LBS, he always looks for curiosity in the interviewee. “Openness and curiosity – and not used in such a way that you’re taking advantage of others, but rather coupled with humility.”
What are his ambitions for the School? “It must be of value to our alumni and corporate partners. Let us be the first port of call for them when they want to think, to learn, to connect and bend the trajectory of their lives. How do we earn that? By offering learning experiences anchored in the research and insights of our faculty and enriched by the talent and diversity of our community. We do our best to foster an engaged community of learners who share the same openness and curiosity to be inspired to different perspectives on themselves, their organisations and the world. And together, we transform their lives.”
“My aim is for us to provide a clear offer to our community of global leaders in business: Enjoy life-changing learning experiences and transformational partnerships; become members of a diverse network energised by the vibrant spirit of London and Dubai; be inspired by our stories of impact; then go write your own story!
“I love how some of my LBS colleagues talk about the ‘100-year life’ and the opportunities that it brings. That’s why we all need a trusted learning partner with whom we can walk that journey. I invite you to make yours with LBS.”
François Ortalo-Magné is the Dean at London Business School.
Tansy Rothwell is Executive Director, Learning Innovation at London Business School