Dr Ian Broadbent: Aberdeen Business School's leadership week success

The last few months have brought the subject of leadership into sharp focus. From the extraordinary events of 2016's Brexit vote and the US Presidential race, to the 'strong and stable' versus 'weak and wobbly' narrative of the recent UK General Election, it seems that skilled leadership has rarely been in such demand, and yet its secrets remain as elusive as ever.

11th annual MBA Leadership Week at Aberdeen Business School
11th annual MBA Leadership Week at Aberdeen Business School

It is amongst this context that we held our 11th annual MBA Leadership Week at Aberdeen Business School, seeking to explore the characteristics and behaviours of leaders amongst the business community.

What is MBA Leadership Week? Well, for a start it’s more than a week – the event lasts for almost nine days, and it brings together more than 80 MBA students from all over the world onto RGU’s Garthdee campus for a programme of workshops, activities and lectures from a selection of highly experienced business leaders who share their insights and perspectives.

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In addition to tapping into this wealth of industry experience, the students also explored academic theories of leadership, and their strategy and leadership skills were put to the test in a business simulation exercise. We give the students a safe environment in which to test out their leadership styles, and encourage them to reflect actively upon their own leadership practices – this focus on the link between theory and its application in practice is one of the core aspects of the MBA programme.

We were joined by varied selection of high calibre speakers; for example, leadership in the context of large events and projects was discussed by Deloitte’s Graeme Sheils and Neil Wood (financial director of the London 2012 Olympics). Corporate social responsibility forms an important part of our MBA course, and this year’s Wood Foundation Philanthropy Lecture was given by Duncan Skinner, chairman of GlenCraft, on the subject of social enterprise.

As we’re based in the energy capital of Europe, the subject of leadership in the oil and gas industry featured heavily in our programme. Recent speakers at Leadership Week have included Sir Ian Wood, former CEO of Wood Group; Deirdre Michie, CEO of Oil and Gas UK; Gretchen Watkins, CEO, Maersk Oil; and arch-Brexiteer and former Minister of State for Trade and Investment, Lord Digby Jones.

This year, our programme included talks by Robin Watson, CEO of Wood Group; Anton Colella, CEO of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland; Mark Thomas, regional president, BP North Sea; and Ray Riddoch, UK MD and senior VP, Nexen.

The recent downturn in the oil and gas industry has necessitated a major shift in attitudes towards collaboration and innovation in the industry, in order to promote efficiency, reduce unnecessary costs and maximise the lifespan of the North Sea basin. These were themes that our industry speakers returned to time and time again; the need for leaders to address the paradox of competition versus collaboration, and the absolute requirement to embrace technology and innovative approaches in a time of extreme change and volatility in the business environment.

This was emphasised in a session by Davi Quintiere of Slalom Consulting and Luca Corradi of the newly-formed Oil and Gas Technology Centre; they described that the pace of technological change across society is accelerating, and that successful business leaders will need to assemble teams that understand and leverage innovation. This will also require learning from other industries such as the aviation, automotive and retail industries, identifying best practice and adapting solutions tailored for the oil and gas industry.

Leadership in such a dynamic ­context is clearly no longer about being the smartest person in the room – rather, it requires an understanding across functional and technical disciplines and the ability to foster a culture of innovation amongst all levels of an organisation.

However, this is far easier said than done! Many of our speakers mentioned the human factor and the ability of strong leaders to motivate and inspire, as well as value the opinions and talent of their staff.

In his address to the students, Anton Colella called for greater ­magnanimity in our business leaders, a characteristic that is often in short supply. Traditional models of autocratic, directorial or heroic leaders are increasingly giving way to more participative and inclusive styles of leadership, and if business leaders are to embrace innovation and adapt successfully to change, then a diversity of opinions (and not just in terms of gender, race or religious diversity) is surely required.

Indeed, several political commentators have noted the lack of inclusion in the development of the 2017 Conservative party manifesto and Theresa May’s over-reliance on an inner circle of (now ex-)advisers, amidst reports that she has been told by senior party figures to adapt a more participatory, consultative leadership style in future.

With this in mind, there’s perhaps an irony that Leadership Week will return next year at the end of May…..

Dr Ian Broadbent, senior lecturer and MBA director at Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon University.