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Pandemic fuels demand for courses on remote leadership


As an IT project manager for the multinational aerospace business Airbus, Florent-Emmanuel Okalla is used to managing teams of people remotely. But he wanted a qualification that could prove his ability, so he signed up for the executive masters in innovation and entrepreneurship — an online degree programme run by HEC Paris.

He took modules in managing people and leading organisations remotely, both taught online through the Coursera education platform. Okalla then applied the techniques he was learning with the people he managed at Airbus.

“Leading people is one part of the soft skills I use in my job and I feel it is important to have a qualification to show this,” he says. “We were already working remotely and I was pleased we were studying online. If it had been campus-based, I wouldn’t have been able to do it or learn these skills in such a practical way.”

Leading teams remotely was part of the curriculum at many business school MBA programmes before the coronavirus pandemic, but it has gained new relevance in an age when teams can be working from home or from the office in the same city, meeting only via Zoom calls and WhatsApp messages.

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Research last year by business school accreditation body the Graduate Management Admission Council found that the subject now scored more highly than other areas of study for prospective MBA students — 57 per cent of those interviewed said leadership and change management training was a must-have in their ideal degree course, more than the 49 per cent who felt entrepreneurship teaching was essential.

Leading remotely is also the most searched-for course title on Highered, the careers service website run by EFMD Global, another business school accreditation body.

“There has been a huge demand from students, but also from careers departments within schools and from recruiters,” says Amber Wigmore Alvarez, chief talent officer for Highered.

“It is about being able to hit the ground running when you start a new job and you are managing global teams. Having these skills on your CV greatly increases your chances of getting past the job application tracking scans.”

Peter Kling is completing a full-time MBA at France’s Grenoble Ecole de Management, which he has studied both on campus and online due to pandemic restrictions. He says the remote leadership training he has gained from his classes has already helped him in consulting work he is undertaking for a company in Seattle.

“As leaders, we have to be there for our employees so, when working remotely, you have to make sure that the human element is not lost,” Kling says. “My tutors at Grenoble helped me learn how to remove that sense of distance between people through good communication.”

Grenoble’s teaching on digital leadership has evolved during the pandemic, from being a specific section of the MBA that dealt with leading globally dispersed teams to something that is incorporated into different parts of the course. Classes that used to be taught in person are now run over video conferencing services to help reflect real-life scenarios.

One of Kling’s assignments was to write a journal of his reflections on what kind of leader he wanted to be. He shared this with his tutor, Dima Louis, for a one-to-one discussion online.

“There were a couple of concepts in my journal, such as the Finnish term sisu, which means remaining calm in the heat of a fiery situation, that my tutor said she had not heard of before,” Kling says. “The fact that she made herself vulnerable in that way as my instructor immediately made me trust her more.”

There was also a practical lesson in remote leadership that Kling took as part of a specialism, in which he completed a consulting project with a team spread across France, the US, India and Germany.

“Learning how to manage and motivate team members to work together in that live business setting was quite challenging,” he says. “It is really easy to alienate a team member if they get dropped from an email message.”

Louis, whose role is assistant professor in coaching, leadership, personal development and organisational behaviour at Grenoble, says the experiences of the past couple of years have changed student attitudes to the kinds of leadership skills they want to develop.

“Students in the past were more interested, for example, in topics such as strategic leadership, power and influence in leadership, maximising performance,” she says.

“Due to the impact that remote learning and remote working has had on them over the past couple of years, skills such as building trusting virtual relationships, active listening in a digital space and empowering people are becoming much more important for them.”

Leadership experts in other schools also report changing demands from their students.

Brandi Pearce developed a remote leadership programme for the full-time MBA course at California’s Berkeley Haas School of Business back in 2012. It was quickly adopted across the school’s part-time and executive MBA courses because of the demand from students to know how to manage teams across continents and different departments within organisations.

The programme has evolved during the pandemic to help students manage teams that could be in the same location but split between people working from home and working in the office, says Pearce, who is director of high impact teams and research at Haas.

“One example we give is when you have all your software engineers sitting here in Silicon Valley and you have all your marketing team in Bangalore so, not only do you have a geographic dislocation, you have a functional divide,” she says.

“It means you have to be very intentional about building these bridges between different people and you have to have a very clear set of shared objectives,” Pearce adds.


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