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Charting the right leadership course

When Paul Thompson, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Radio New Zealand, realised he need to sharpen his leadership skills, he looked no further than the Cambridge Advanced Leadership Programme (ALP).

By Paul Thompson, CEO & Editor-in-Chief of RNZ

Arrow pointing out the right direction.

Leading an organisation is one of life’s most exhilarating experiences. It can also be one of the most gruelling. After a few years in any demanding job, people need a chance to recharge and reflect. To decide whether to keep going or to try something new. That is where I found myself earlier this year.

After five years as a CEO I still found the job exciting and endlessly challenging. With my excellent team I had enjoyed some success, but I had also taken a few knocks on the way. I was increasingly conscious that some of my go-to ideas and approaches were somehow not as successful as they had been earlier in my career. What was instinctive for me in my early days as a leader had become laboured. I realised I needed to sharpen my set of leadership tools.

I also had a growing sense that while I had learned many things in the leadership hot-seat, I had not yet found the time, space or guidance needed to capture and harness those lessons.

A change of chairman at my organisation provided further stimulus. Suddenly I was both expected and encouraged to develop my skills and expertise. So I scouted around for a leadership course that would challenge and stimulate.

The three-week Cambridge Advanced Leadership Programme (ALP) at Cambridge Judge Business School caught my eye immediately. I was drawn to the mix of intensive learning on a broad range of topics and the focus on organisational strategy development and implementation. The good amount of time set aside for leadership coaching – two whole days – was another appeal.

Undoubtedly, I was drawn to the lustre of University of Cambridge’s reputation. How could I resist getting a taste of the University’s intellectual heritage and architectural beauty?

The success of any leadership programme depends on an alchemy of effective teaching, efficient administrative and pastoral support, and constructive, collegial interaction with the other participants. The ALP delivered all three.

I found the professors and their teaching on the ALP consistently strong. We heard from experts in a range of fields who either expanded our thinking on a global scale or focused it more intimately on matters closer to home.

This is the cadence of the ALP. It provides context and insights around big picture issues, tackling subjects ranging from the rise of China, to quantum computing and restive global politics. It then shifts gears as the programme progresses to deal with more pragmatic concerns such as managing risk, dealing with uncertainly and building teams and a diverse workforce.

Every participant will have their favourite topics and sessions. For me it was Professor Mark de Rond dissecting what drives successful teams. Mark gave his talk in the trophy room at the Cambridge Rowing Club, an historic setting that underlined his insights into collaboration and mutual accountability.

I also enjoyed the session led by Professor Sucheta Nadkarni. She deftly overturned my thinking about workplace diversity with a clear explanation of what the research on this vexed topic reveals. In a nutshell, the data suggest that overtly focusing on diversity initiatives tends to close people’s minds rather than opening them. This was another example of what the ALP does so well: using leading-edge research to discredit group-think based on ill-informed assumptions.

The teaching on the ALP does not, however, only come from the professors. You quickly make friends on the programme and I found that some of the best insights and teaching moments came from my classmates. There was a wealth of global experience in the room.

For example, Rohit from Dubai shared his world-weary wisdom about the debilitating effects of poor management and Ang from Singapore’s clear explanation about alternative finance helped me grasp the topic. As we worked in groups we learned from each other; picking up ideas seeded by the lecturers and applying them to practical problems in our working lives.

The Academic Programme Director, Professor Stelios Kavadias, was a constant presence, either out in front teaching us about how to develop and implement strategy in an uncertain and complex world or quietly observing the class from the back of the room. Late in the programme he talked about his determination to encourage “thoughtful leadership” that keeps faith with the intellectual heritage of the university.

It is a disarmingly simple phrase, almost a cliché, but for me the concept of thoughtfulness captures the essence of ALP. Leadership is the job of charting the right course, simplifying complexity, and dealing effectively with uncertainty and risk. This requires a great deal of knowledge, consideration and reflection.

But leadership is also about understanding yourself and others and behaving in a way that encourages people to follow. The most singular moment on the programme for me came late in the last week. We broke into pairs to discuss a disarmingly simple question: What makes for a good day at work? I had never thought about this before. My answer surprised me, and will be a beacon for the next chapter of my career.