John Dore, Programme Director, Senior Executive Programme
In March last year the neat throwaway term “disruption” suddenly became something that felt deeply personal and unsettling.
I had spent much of the past two decades running interactive, high-touch leadership events, which encourage close collaboration with strangers from every corner of the world. If the government needed a poster boy for corona super-spreading then, short of running a sweaty nightclub, or an all-comers’ wrestling venue, it seemed I was their man. In a world of mask-wearing, social distancing and travel quarantines, return to the halcyon days of running Executive Education programmes at first seemed not only to be impossible, but, depending on the various regulations, probably illegal.
Having survived the initial seismic shock, like many others, I have invested in the green screen, key lights and HD webcam and moved into a radically different mode of working, learning delivery and facilitation. Back on campus this autumn, our transition to “hybrid” classrooms (simultaneously mixing in-person and online cohorts) looks likely to be the default learning environment for some time to come. Our migration of some existing programmes has been relatively smooth and we have also launched some innovative short “live online” offerings as well. The feedback has been encouragingly strong, and we have learnt much.
Looking further ahead, the challenge is to do more than survive, but to thrive. Without an immediate return to the business travel, hospitality and social distancing norms of 2019, we will need to continue to closely focus on serving participants wherever they are. Increasingly, we need to recognise that half the world has lived through much of another day by midday GMT, so we may need to radically rethink our schedules, timetables and programme formats.
As more participants attend major business schools without flying and residing, how can we enable them to have that sense of attending, not just observing? Getting participants into a deeper space of observational feedback, or emotional engagement is more difficult online. Now we are beyond the technological hurdles of hybrid teaching, the focus in the future will have to be on making the experience deeper and more impactful.
As the world shifts back onto a steadier familiar axis in 2021, then the temptation is to hope for a rapid return to face to face programmes as the default format. Some predict that like the cinema and high-street retail, things have shifted so profoundly in the past year, that real growth, if it is ever found again, is still more likely to come from virtual learning. But then again, perhaps the post-disruption outcome might not just be different from today but improved.
We recently had four very different CEOs from four market sectors speak on our SEP programme at LBS. It was a thrill to hear a sense of the future articulated as not just as different, but better. The theatre impresario is still investing in modern hi-tech venues; the sports administrator is still prepping stadia for the safe return of crowds, the medical sector entrepreneur is looking to better serve the developing world, and the global food producer is focused on sustainable purpose, as well as profit.
Even on my own doorstep, a local business is launching a smart-looking co-working space. Thinking of WeWork, it seemed to me wrongheaded. But maybe the counterintuitive route is right? Most of us have spent too long this year staring at the same four walls and we need other voices and distractions than our partners, children and pets. We may well long to return to working collaboratively elsewhere, but without having to commute amidst the crush.
Aleksandra Makarova GMiM2021, Global Masters in Management student
I’m from Moscow, Russia. I’ve lived in London for six years, so virtual reality isn’t new for me. Having gone to an international boarding school, and having experience keeping in touch with friends and family in different time zones, has helped me, in terms of planning, being able to adapt and being comfortable with the technology.
Saying that, I’d never experienced a fully virtual interview before the pandemic struck. Before Covid, there were phone calls and video calls for first rounds, but there’d always be a face-to-face element. When you meet someone in person during an interview, there’s a certain energy – you talk to a person, you connect. It’s not just visual clues. When that part is missing, it’s much more difficult to convince someone to hire you.
This is where LBS really helped. They led workshops in helping us identify our stories, for example. They taught us to practise these answers and come across as naturally as possible. Now I don’t overprepare, in order to come across authentically. It’s about being genuine.
This term at LBS, we learnt in a “hybrid classroom” – some people were in the room, some on Zoom. When we met our classmates, we had to introduce ourselves and convey our persona not just to our professors, but to our peers. You figure out how different people are coming across by what they do – so I learnt very quickly from that. When you meet someone in person, it’s more difficult to sound rehearsed, but online, via a webcam, you can almost see people reading from the screen. You don’t want to convey that impression.
I won a scholarship to LBS. I’m studying for a GMiM to enter the world of finance. Before, I was at UCL, where I studied History, Politics and Economics. My final year got disrupted by Covid. All of our seminars got cancelled and there was a question about whether our exams would go online. I had to make a snap decision about whether or not to go home to Moscow. I did go, which ended up being a good decision as all our exams turned out to be online. I didn’t take many clothes with me as I thought I’d be back in a few weeks. I ended up stuck in Moscow with one pair of jeans – and then the world stopped for months.
Have my goals changed? I want a career that’s exciting and challenging, but the pandemic has taught me I also want stability. Coming from Russia, always being on a visa and having to renew it, I look for companies that promise stability and treat their employees well. I look carefully at the history of a company, at how they treated their staff during the pandemic, whether a bank laid people off in the past, even before Covid. It’s not feasible for me to apply to those kinds of companies, even if they offer seemingly fantastic opportunities.
This year has shown me that your life is made better by the people who are in it. It’s not just your network or your family, but the people you interact with day to day, and the quality of those interactions matter so much. I’d go to parties before Covid, and I’d be a bit bored. I’d be revising GMAT formulas in my head while talking to one person, or thinking about texting someone or liking pictures on Instagram, rather than giving someone my full attention. In the future, I intend to be more present, and not shift to multitasking in my head.
This year I’m hoping the pandemic will ease and people will be able to start resuming something more like normal life, even if it never goes back to exactly how it was. I hope people will remember what they’ve learned, especially when it comes to hygiene.
When it comes to work, in any career, at any age, people appreciate flexibility. Even before the pandemic, the world had become so digitalised that there is no reason for us all to get up at 6am and be on the Central line in a packed Tube carriage, hating our existence. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we should abandon preset notions and have a more flexible approach to work.