Interview

"The abnormal will probably
be the new normal - forever"

In these turbulent economic and societal times, most companies’ business model is under severe pressure. So, ┬áit is no coincidence that agility and resilience will play a prominent role in Take the Lead’s next edition. Vlerick and Mediafin’s digital leadership programme will start its fifth edition early next year. Vlerick Business School Stijn Viaene and Marion Debruyne will kick it off.

 

Due to the corona pandemic, Take the Lead will be fully digital for the first time. For a programme that also relies heavily on the added value of physical networking, it undoubtedly requires some adjustment.

Stijn Viaene: Needs must when the devil drives, of course. But, from the very first edition of TTL, we opted to push as much as possible the boundaries of what is digitally feasible for learning paths. Based on this principle, we searched for the most achievable and effective mix between the virtual and the maximally impactful physical. This is currently not possible, but in recent months we have investigated how we can translate that important social aspect of those physical moments into our virtual offer. Incidentally, we already have positive experiences in that field. During the previous TTL edition, we already had to digitally organize the hackathon – with over 150 participants in one session – and it turned out to be a great success.

In recent months, we have been working and learning online en masse. Offers for the most diverse webinars and online courses are countless. How can Take the Lead still stand out from the crowd?

Stijn Viaene: If you ask me, this learning programme is of a completely different order. It is a full-fledged learning path spread over many weeks, with a clear and constructive storyline.

Marion Debruyne: Right from the very first edition, we opted for an almost complete online learning programme. The programme revolves around digital leadership, so it would be strange not to fully believe in the enriching aspects of such a digital process – both in terms of form and content. When we talk about digital leadership, we are obviously not just looking for digital copy of the physical world. I think we can also expect digital leaders to fully focus on the digital world’s new opportunities. Therefore, participants in the programme must ask that question and translate the answers into their own organization.

 

Can you specify what extra added value a course like this can still offer, on top of the digital learning environment in which almost all of us operate today?

Stijn Viaene: We still systematically underestimate the impact of a digital context on the most diverse aspects of a learning environment. For example: how much content can a student handle if he must process it digitally? And how do you best present it? In other words, how do you cut up that learning content and how do you fulfil the need for much more variation in the way you present it. Or about the added value of peer learning, for example. You have much less control over the circumstances in which the student receives and processes the subject matter, so you must keep that in mind on the supply side.

 

That is precisely where our schools and universities did not do very well in recent months.

Marion Debruyne: We have to make a distinction between the extremely rapid transition that most classical educational institutions had to make in recent months, on the one hand, and a programme such as Take the Lead on the other. Take the Lead has been conceived digitally from the very beginning. But what Stijn says is of course correct: in a carefully constructed, fully digital concept you also have to take into account a number of other rules, and fortunately we have many years of experience in that field.

 

Can Take the Lead be seen as a kind of preliminary to a digital growth trajectory of which the broader business community can benefit?

Stijn Viaene: Absolutely, and that has already happened in the past. There are companies that, after a number of employees had completed the training, decided that they wanted to roll out something similar internally.

 

In the past editions you focused very strongly on the aspect of “agility”. But quite a few companies are more in survival mode than in a growth process: how do you try to translate this changed context into the training?

Stijn Viaene: It is true that a different wind is blowing through our business world because of this pandemic. But at the same time, the basic principles of this programme are still valid today. Not only do companies need to survive, but they also need to be able to win in rapidly changing circumstances. And we are living in very turbulent times. Of course, the emphasis in recent years has mainly been on agility – an offensive approach – while many companies are now also partly acting in a defensive mode. That is why, this year, we emphasize much more on the aspect of resilience: how do you bounce back again after being knocked down over and over again? But at the same time, we don’t want to sweep the agility under the carpet: first you have to bounce back, but then you also have to be able to jump further ahead. Both aspects are discussed extensively in the programme, in a beautiful, constructive storyline.

Marion Debruyne: I think that the combination of those two also perfectly indicates the direction we should take after this pandemic has ended. Companies should not have the ambition to return to the way it once was – so no back to normal. They have to dare to set the bar a lot higher and differently.

 

There is also some scepticism about that. Won’t the focus be back on business as usual very soon, even if only out of financial necessity?

Stijn Viaene: I would like to counter that vision: when exactly will we go back to normal? At first, the corona pandemic is far from being finished. And if we do look a little further ahead: how do we deal with the impact of Brexit? And what about the coming vital green revolution? I fear that we will never go back to times when each new year turned out to be more or less a copy of the previous one. The abnormal will have to be incorporated into the new normal, whereby companies must be continuously able to respond to new and sometimes very unexpected evolutions. Improvisation is becoming a fundamental part of leadership skills, and we will focus on that in this edition.

 

Do we also need a different kind of leadership in the coming years?

Marion Debruyne: The idea that basically anyone can take on that leadership role – regardless of his or her position in the hierarchy of an organization – has always been a starting point for TTL training. So, we definitely advocate shared leadership and we want to get rid of the stereotypical top-down model. Because then, especially in a context that changes extremely fast, you quickly meet your limits. Today in every organization you need people who come up with ideas from every position in the organization. People who dare to experiment or to question things.

 

Do you expect participants with different expectations to enter the programme?

Stijn Viaene: I suspect so. The demand for good case studies to successfully introduce that agility and resilience in an organization will probably increase even more, but we also count on the participants’ own input. In doing so, we remain faithful to the philosophy that we have been adhering to from the first edition on: this programme is not a free lunch, participants must be prepared to invest a lot of time in it themselves. And that is exactly what we expect from leaders in 2020: they must be willing to help build the future of their organization. Everyone, regardless of his or her position, can take up the gauntlet.

 

What distinguishes a digital leader from a classic manager?

Marion Debruyne: A true digital leader must above all recognize that the digital transformation goes far beyond the superficial conversion that most companies have been forced to implement in recent months. A digital strategy can no longer stand side by side with the general strategy of the company: the digital can simply no longer be ignored in any kind of business process.

Stijn Viaene: How can your company win using both technology and people? You have to be able to tell that story. The idea of only using bits of technology here and there to assist people – just if necessary – no longer makes any sense today. Real digital leaders outline a future process in which their organization will make a difference with and thanks to technology. Moreover, digital leaders really need to get into the field: for most people, technological change is still something that does not keep them busy. And so digital leaders must dare to experiment. In doing so, they will occasionally meet limits – for example because it turns out to be too early for a particular technology – but the main thing is to keep trying and pushing the limits.

In the past, technology was mainly seen as something that you should outsource or delegate as much as possible. But that can no longer be sustained today. Business leaders who dare to stick their necks out are the ones that will turn out to be winners in the long term. We consider it our role to put people like that on the right path.

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