Helena Pozniak
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On the right course to promotion

The Telegraph
Want to accelerate your career? Business schools are responding to demand with a plethora of courses

When she was invited to co-direct a women-only leadership course, Kathryn Bishop, who has more than 30 years of experience in the private and public sector, was sceptical. “I thought, ‘Why would you learn to swim on dry land and not in the water?’” she says.

But Women Transforming Leadership, created by Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, is now in its third year and Bishop — since accorded the position of associate fellow at Saïd — is a convert to all-female education. It’s an unusual course — participants might find themselves on a yoga mat recreating the world of a Shakespearian heroine or conducting a musical ensemble to understand how to lead.

For the 30 or so participants, the week begins with introspection in the form of psychometric testing and ends with an understanding of the bigger picture — how women can accelerate their own careers, and those of other women around them. “It made me change my view of how useful development of this kind can be,” says Bishop.

Academics and guest speakers at Saïd are frequently struck by how intense and open conversations quickly become in an all-women group, even if participants are from different backgrounds, cultures and age groups. “The insights and connections that were generated over the one-week period were much stronger and richer than those I’ve seen on mixed courses,” Bishop adds.

Business schools routinely offer short, sharp executive education, and a few more courses are cropping up that target women only. Cranfield School of Management has run a Women as Leaders course for years and Westminster Business School has recently launched a short Women for the Board course.

Over in the US, Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts, offers a well-established class with a pragmatic focus. Opinion is split over the merits of excluding men, but in view of the dismal numbers of women at the helm of FTSE-100 companies — they make up 21.6 per cent of directors and only 6.9pc of executive directors, according to professional boards forum BoardWatch — a new strategy is needed, says Bishop.

Just as an all-female cast in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar added a new dimension to the play staged at London’s Donmar Warehouse a couple of years back, she points out, so the women’s leadership week allows for a more intense experience and a more level playing field. “When you have a group of female actors, you’re not struck by ‘male versus female’ — instead you notice the granular differences. We have women from all over the world from the public, private and charitable sectors, and the similarities of the challenges they face when they begin to talk are evident,” comments Bishop.

In a nutshell, the course covers three areas — who you are, what you do, and what your context is — and deals with questions such as “Have you got a wide enough range of leadership responses?” and “Are you seeing and analysing problems clearly enough so you can lead better?” In 2013 Robyn Tingley, vice president, human resources, for Ingram Micro North America, chose the course for its broad focus, international mix and relevance to her daily challenges. A veteran of women-in-leadership workshops, she found the experience more comprehensive and well-targeted than anything she had previously attended. “The negotiation workshop went beyond the basics. It explored gender nuances, and pinpointed areas where women have specific advantages they should pursue — you don’t get these elements in a mixed classroom,” she says.

Eventually, women emerge with a strategic plan, a better knowledge of how to deploy and play to their strengths, and an understanding of common but complex barriers to women’s progress at work. “This is surely going to improve my vision and focus for my short and long-term goals, and clarify how to coach my team,” says Antonia Ashiedu, a government commissioner from Nigeria who took the course last year.

Participants, ranging in age from mid-30s to 50s, include chief executives and senior managers from around 17 different countries, and Saïd particularly encourages women from male-dominated industries. “It surprised me we got so much one-on-one coaching,” says Tingley. “It became such a journey of self-discovery that by the end of it my coach and I found we had plotted out a 10-year plan for a business idea.” In an exercise most participants find scary yet ultimately empowering, they are invited to conduct a musical ensemble — even if they have no musical knowledge. “Many people think you have to lead by being more expert than those around you — maybe that is true of your first leadership role, but by the time you’re senior it’s not the case,” says Bishop. “In that moment you take command it’s visceral — you’re watching and responding to the singers.”

Jenny Kalenderidis, a sales director at RSA, the Security Division of EMC, recalls being first to volunteer to conduct, although she knew nothing about it. She found it a powerful experience. “It made it clear that leading is not about the leader at all; it’s about the people — what do they want and need?” she says.

One by-product of the course is a supportive network. Attendees keep in touch with each other and teaching staff via social media, and continue to coach each other and share contacts; one woman recently found venture capitalists for her enterprise through the alumni network.

Largely, however, courses such as these offer a different perspective on an individual’s career progress. “I’m getting rid of that naïve view that if I just keep my head down and do good work, then people will notice me,” says Kalenderidis. “It doesn’t happen like that; we have to learn to advocate for ourselves as effectively as we do for the team.” She left the programme with a clearer overview of her company, which is focusing on recruiting more women. “No one is deliberately sexist but there’s an unconscious bias. Programmes like this really help us to see what we have to change.”

Senior leadership courses

The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) offers week-long Executive Summer School courses in June and July

HEC Paris holds a range of short leadership courses for executives and senior managers throughout the year

London Business School (LBS) has various leadership and management programmes, such as a week-long Essentials of Leadership in September

University of Manchester Business School (MBS) holds a two-week Programme for High-value Managers in autumn and spring

Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS) has a range of short leadership and management programmes in autumn and spring

Warwick Business School (WBS) offers a Postgraduate Award in Strategic Leadership

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