This week’s interview is with Professor Malcolm Kirkup, Dean of Westminster Business School. Malcolm discusses the purposes of business and business education, and explains what makes the Business School so vibrant and exciting.
Professor Malcolm Kirkup arrived at Westminster Business School from Edinburgh in September 2016. “Westminster is the dream location for business education,” he says. “We’re bang in the centre of London, surrounded by all different sorts of organisations that can benefit from our services. To have them within walking distance is fabulous.”
Location makes a huge difference. As do demographics and philosophy of education. “We have an incredibly diverse student community”, he says, proudly. “I’ve worked in universities before where many students were quite privileged. They came from wealthy backgrounds where they had all the opportunities in the world to excel academically. At Westminster, a significant proportion of our students don’t come from privileged backgrounds. Some are the first in their families to come to university. We have a fantastic multicultural, cosmopolitan community here. And students come with creative ideas, massive enthusiasm, and a real passion and hunger for learning.”
“That really excites me, because they can get a degree of similar status to other universities. So, when they graduate, they can compete on a much more level playing field.”
“And,” he adds, “not enough is made of the fact that Westminster was the first ever polytechnic. This means our teaching and research are applied, relevant and contemporary. We teach subjects and skills that businesses need right now and into the future.”
Businesses have social as well as financial purpose
Malcolm’s enthusiasm for diversity, inclusion and applied, rather than theoretical, business education, is entirely congruent with his beliefs about the purpose of business.
“Business shouldn’t be principally about satisfying shareholders,” he says. It should be about delivering to a whole range of stakeholders: employees and their interests; the communities that the businesses serve and draw their resources from. Businesses have a huge social as well as a financial purpose. They have an important responsibility to society.”
This, of course, has implications for leaders and for business education, especially given that the world is, as Malcolm points out, increasingly “VUCA”: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (if you haven’t come across the acronym before, the business world adopted it from the US military).
“In the future, business leaders need to be much more adaptable, flexible, and resilient to change. They need to be able to anticipate, but also respond when markets change suddenly, when regulations change, when situations change. The most effective leaders can manage that unpredictability, and lead strategy in very complex and uncertain and changing environments.”
How can business education best enable leaders to develop flexibility?
“But, if they stay in the same position for long periods of time,” Malcolm explains, “dealing with the same situations, the same people, the same type of context, day after day, they can become inflexible.” To avoid that, he says, you need to learn how to solve problems in different contexts. This means business schools need to put leaders and potential leaders into new – potentially uncomfortable –situations, and work with them so they understand the new contexts and think through various options and possible scenarios.
“If you move from one situation to another, and then another, the requirement to behave differently or to think about different things over time will build a bank of knowledge of different possibilities, a bank of experience of what happens when you respond in particular ways in particular contexts. By developing that bank of knowledge and experience you become more adaptable. You can call on different knowledge, different experiences, different problems you’ve experienced in the past, and use the learning to your advantage.”
“At Westminster,” he adds, “we have a particular approach to leadership development to help prepare leaders for this changing world.” As an example, he cites the new MBA where director Dr Kellie Vincent has introduced the concept of “board experiences”.
MBA board experiences
“All our participants will experience four different board contexts,” says Malcolm, “an international board, a not-for-profit board, a corporate board, and a start-up board. They’ll take a different director’s role in each context and – in partnership with a real organisation – they’ll work through some genuine issues or dilemmas in real-time, discussing and exploring different options, different scenarios and their collective response to the situation.”
Participants will also work in a new, boardroom environment. Malcolm explains:
“Around a boardroom table, you don’t always have the luxury of PowerPoint facilities, you don’t always have the luxury of a screen, or even the luxury to stand up and command attention. More often than not, decisions are made as a result of your impact during a discussion, sitting around a boardroom table with a dozen other people. You have to win the floor, capture attention, and gain influence. You have to communicate articulately and succinctly and quickly and persuasively. One aspect of our new MBA is designed to enable participants to practise and master such skills.”
Malcolm’s own career has taken him from retail into academia with each subsequent job change bringing new challenges. He has worked at Edinburgh, Exeter, Birmingham, Lancaster, Loughborough and Cranfield business schools, designing and directing innovative MBA and other postgraduate and undergraduate programmes. It’s clear that each of his career moves has been carefully considered, researched and planned. So, what are his top three career planning tips?
3 career planning questions to help you find the right role
“I research every single new role I take, and always move for specific reasons,” he says. “The most important thing for me has always been to make a difference. And each time I’ve moved I’ve found it helpful to ask myself these three questions.
1. What can I bring?
2. What difference can I make to the institution I join?
3. How can I move things – people, the organisation – forward?”
Being Dean and Pro Vice Chancellor of a higher education institution is, at the best of times, highly demanding. With funding uncertain, competition intensifying and Brexit looming, it’s trickier than ever. So what does Malcolm do to relax?
The joys of DIY
“DIY. Do It Yourself. It’s a fantastic antidote, the complete opposite to what I do during the day. Most of the role of being a Dean or a senior academic is about leading large teams of people and taking an objective and an institution forward. You’re subject to resource constraints, and need to negotiate constantly. People often disagree. You don’t get all the choices, you don’t have all the opportunities to change everything you’d like to change.
With DIY, I have total control”, he laughs. “I don’t compromise. I can be a total perfectionist. I get to decide what I do, how I do it and what colour it is. It’s an opportunity for me to get exactly what I want on my own terms.”
And what’s next for executive education at Westminster Business School? Malcolm is clear.
“Growth and shouting much more loudly about what we do. We’ve got fantastic expertise in HRM (human resource management), project management, finance and many other business disciplines. We have extensive business accreditations to prove it.”
“We also have a strong reputation for teaching leadership and we have a particular perspective here. Responsibility and sustainability are crucial to business ” Malcolm says. “This means that first and foremost, business leaders need to be effective ‘stewards’, not only of the organisation’s financial resources, but also of its human and social resources. Many of our courses and workshops are, therefore, designed and facilitated in ways that enable leaders to become effective, adaptive and resilient stewards of their organisation’s financial, human and natural capital.”