Leadership development — timely and impactful conditioning

To have an intensive immersion in a world class business school environment, in a timely manner for the aspiring top executive, is a useful intervention to ensure impactful and effective leadership. Timely, in the sense that the requisite conditioning has to be done just before the appointment to a critical position.

In that way, the knowledge gained, the live experience of the business school environment, and the useful linkages made, will still be fresh in the mind of candidate, and which could immediately be brought to bear in the new assignment. It’s akin to the idea of the final fine tuning and conditioning session that top athletes and sportsmen undergo before the actual international-level competition.

Petronas used to such have a structured leadership and people management programme, and I hope they still retain the programme to this day because investing in human resources capabilities has immense and lasting benefits. 

I was fortunate to have been identified for one of these programmes.  I still value the experience and the lessons learnt from my attendance at the Senior Management Program at Wharton Business School, University of Pennsylvania, USA. 

Of course, the highlight of the programme for me was receiving my certificate at the end of six weeks of the intensive Wharton Senior Management Program in 2007. It was like receiving a well-earned scroll upon graduation at the university all over again. A token validation of an intensive but useful experience.

I must say that I have learned a lot (or is it learnt?) [both are acceptable, where the first one is American and second one is English] from the different modules offered. Equally useful was the experience and social learning through the interaction and having endless discussions with the other attendees who, like me, were just on the verge of taking the next big step of being made responsible for running a multimillion or billion dollars business organisation. 

And in my case, the Malaysia LNG Group, the organisation that I was to helm, was a billion-ringgit (RM) enterprise which contributed some 4 percent of the Malaysian GDP at that time, and one of the Crown Jewels for Petronas.

Being trained in law and practising as a corporate lawyer, I really needed the intensive training on business management aspects. Actually, I have attended other management programmes prior to this, including the INSEAD management programme.

In my class, there were people from the largest, most successful corporations and organisations from all over the world, not just from the usual oil and gas giants like Shell, Exxon, BP and Aramco but other industries such as from the aerospace industry (Boeing), power and utilities, manufacturing and retails (Nestle and Bata of Switzerland), financial institutions (many participants) and from many other industries and enterprises.

It was a truly invaluable and unforgettable experience, and for me it was at the negotiation module where I created a sensation of sorts when, contrary to the exercise instructions given, I refused to conclude and close the negotiation exercise in our group because the counter parties, our opponents, were acting rather selfishly and unreasonably, in violation of the “win-win” principle advocated by the lecturer. 

At the end of the allotted time given for the breakout sessions to conduct and conclude the negotiation, all the groups successfully and amicably “closed” their negotiations except for my group. So, at the debriefing session, after every group reported how “well” they did in the exercise, and all smiling and laughing away, the lecturer asked me, “So why didn’t you close the negotiation in your group?” 

Before that, he had asked the whole class how many groups had successfully concluded their negotiation amicably. Everyone put up their hands except for the four of us — me and my partner and our two opponents.  We were the odd ones, the black sheep in the whole flock of white sheep.

This was how I replied: “Sir, of course, we have tried very hard to follow the directive to achieve closure and to complete the negotiation, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen that way.

“For example, one side may be too rigid, self-centred and unreasonable, while the other side will be left with a difficult choice, a Hobson’s choice, whether to compromise and lose the deal or not to compromise! 

“So, realising this, and in all good conscience, I refused to compromise!  Well sir, that’s how it is in real life.  In fact, I have experienced this in an actual work environment.

“This is the real world we are talking about, sir. I am sorry we could not conclude the negotiations within the allotted time.”

There was a momentary silence after I made my remarks. And then someone started clapping, and soon everyone was clapping their hands in appreciation and affirmation of the truth of what I had said.  

After the impromptu applause quietened down, the lecturer proceeded to elaborate and use our case as a good example of what indeed could happen in reality! He acknowledged things could indeed be different in the real world and in the world of theory, and that while being useful as a guide, the theory might not be applicable in all circumstances or might need to be adapted to suit particular circumstances!

So that was how it came to be demonstrated that whilst it’s fine to study the theory part, there was more to be learned from real life.

The bronze statue of Benjamin Franklin reading The Pennsylvania Gazette, also known as Ben on the Bench, near the McNeil building and Wharton Business School, is famous among visitors for photographs with Ben.

Talking about real life, one of the modules arranged for the participants was a regatta rowing competition. The whole class was divided into groups for the regatta. My group won a medal at this module, thanks in part to the impactful contribution of the Jungle Boy from Borneo, who was in his element!

We need both the Ivy Leagues and Ivory Towers of the world, but we also need the jungle classroom or nature’s theatre, and especially the schools of hard knocks.

Useful Footnotes:

•       The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania is the oldest school of business in the world.

•       The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School is widely renowned as one of the top institutions of its kind in the world.

•       Established by Joseph Wharton in 1881, MBA programs offered by Wharton are at the first position in the United States according to Forbes and the 2020 US News & World Report rankings.

•       Graduates from the Wharton School have attained success in diverse fields such as academia, finance, journalism, media, law, politics, business, sports and music.

•       Notable alumni of Wharton School of The University Of Pennsylvania, include people like Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Sundar Pichai, Warren Buffett and Ivanka Trump.

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