Journey to Success
While many of the world’s developed economies continue to stutter in the wake of the global recession, Africa finds itself on the threshold of strong economic growth. To take advantage of this opportunity the continent will not only need physical resources, but strong business leaders who are equipped with a high level of commercial acumen.
“There are certainly exciting times ahead for the African continent,” shares Professor Elmarie Sadler, acting Executive Director & CEO, Unisa Graduate School of Business Leadership (SBL). “Our expertise in distance learning is well-known and from that viewpoint alone I think we will have a role to play in developing business leadership skills on the continent.” With some 50 Doctor of Business Leadership (DBL) students in Ethiopia – who benefit from monthly contact sessions with SBL staff – and 26 senior Eritrean government officials waiting to kick off their studies with the business school next year, it is clear that Sadler does not simply wait for opportunities to arise – she goes out to find them.
She reveals that SBL has some 300 DBL students, of whom a fair proportion resides on the rest of the continent. “Not only do we have the largest complement of postgraduate business leadership students, we probably have one of the most diverse, and this is certainly one of our differentiators. Our students also benefit from the close working relationship we have with the Unisa College of Graduate Studies, who work with us to ensure our doctoral offering is one of the best available.” A Chartered Accountant by profession, Sadler felt the lure of the academic world from an early age. When she left KPMG to join Unisa at the age of 24, she became the youngest female professor in the history of the then Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences at the age of 27. “Aside from my passion for research, I am a firm believer in the power of mentoring students and young academics, particularly those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds. The work I have done in this space over the years has given me a unique perspective on some of the transformation challenges we face.” This knowledge has no doubt been one of the key factors in her appointment at the SBL. “I have been tasked with developing and implementing a new strategy for the SBL - the end goal being to establish it as the business school of choice,” she explains.
Her efforts at repositioning the school are taking place against the backdrop of shifting priorities amongst students and employers in the executive education field. Employment opportunities for skilled executives across the world have resulted in students placing a premium on the international recognition of their qualifications. “On the international business circuit one very often comes across executives that are working in countries that are far away from their land of birth – the impact of globalisation is becoming very apparent and it is understandable that students want to have their qualifications recognised in as many markets as possible,” Sadler observes. While the SBL is making good progress in building international relations and collaborations with institutions such as the Maastricht School of Management in the Netherlands to secure international recognition. Sadler is not convinced that all the current trends make sense in the long-term.
“There has been a sharp increase in the development of specialised MBAs. I acknowledge that in certain industries it can be beneficial. However, I believe that business is looking for a generalist who is able to adapt to the business environment. We have a proud history of producing these generalists and I have no doubt their skills will still be recognised as an important value proposition in the workplace.” The demand for executive education programmes has increased significantly in recent years. Many industry associations are seeking guidance from business schools with respect to the appropriate training and skills development mechanisms that can be utilised to afford their members a form of industry certification. The SBL has recently been appointed by the South African Police Service to provide management training to its middle and senior level officers. Several entry-level managers from the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department are currently enrolled on the SBL’s Fundamental Management Programme.
Sadler is a firm believer in the value of servant leadership. This approach is being advocated by Unisa’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mandla Makhanya, in an effort to restore perspective to leadership responsibilities at the university. “I think in many ways women are very good at servant leadership,” comments Sadler. “It is a role we seem to adopt naturally. I am however of the opinion that one should not make too much of a distinction between male and female approaches to leadership. Gender should not be a definitive factor in leadership.” She is also of the view that debates around a uniquely African approach to leadership, should be considered in the context of the global leadership paradigm. The basic principles of leadership remain the same, it is how you apply these principles and the context in which you operate that is the distinguishing aspect of individual leadership.
Looking ahead, Sadler notes that ensuring greater alignment between the SBL’s community involvement and its research work is going to be very important. Historically the business school has not had research focus areas, which directed the efforts of its students. “This disconnect needs to be addressed, we have an opportunity to play a greater leadership role in our communities and contribute to their development. If we know what the needs are in our communities, we can direct our research efforts towards understanding and resolving these needs.” Aside from pursuing mutually beneficial research objectives, she is also going to ensure that research ethics are appropriately addressed. In the past the vast body of knowledge produced by students could not be published because the business school did not aid students in undertaking ethical compliance – the establishment of a research clearance centre will resolve this dilemma. “We have all the ingredients we need to establish ourselves as a business school of choice - the challenge is pulling it all together and making it work,” she concludes.
NEWSLETTER | MOST INFLUENTIAL WOMEN
by Shalane van Rensburg