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Change the perception of business, by dean Jon Foster-Pedley

When we look about us, we see the truth everywhere of the failure of any of the three metanarratives of the 20th century; capitalism, communism and fascism, each one of which has proven to be unsustainable in the end. In fact, if we were to be totally honest the world’s slavish adherence

When we look about us, we see the truth everywhere of the failure of any of the three metanarratives of the 20th century; capitalism, communism and fascism, each one of which has proven to be unsustainable in the end.

In fact, if we were to be totally honest the world’s slavish adherence to each has in some cases speeded up the inevitable descent to where we find ourselves, which in South Africa’s case, is the incredible inequality of the world’s worst Gini coefficient; the yawning gulf between those who have and those who haven’t.

In this particular case, we can firmly put the blame not just on capitalism but also the racial socialism that privileged one set of people at the expense of all others in the country. To escape this death spiral will mean breaking the entire geographical, spatial, economic, social and psychological structure of this system. But how do we do that?

The great 21 st century seer Noah Yuval Harari speaks of the need for us to find another narrative, another story around which to coalesce and find both meaning and purpose, while the former dean of the Oxford Said Business School Colin Mayer argues that businesses should create prosperity rather than chase profits, exploding the myopic genie that Milton Friedman let out of the box in 1970 when he argued that the entire purpose and meaning of business was to make returns on shareholders’ investment, rewarding them.

We see now just how toxic that injunction was. We see it in the wreckage of state capture and corporate collusion, we see it in competing for markets where we can no longer compete on our merits, we see it in the bending of the rules and the suborning of the entire system to win those advantages to keep feeding the maw of the bottom line. We see it in the unchanging poverty and dearth of either economic modernisation or diversification.

Which then begs the question, is our fixation on competition part of the problem? I think it is. It’s an illness that infects us all, business schools too. We compete for rankings, we chase accolades to be seen to be better than others, which inherently must mean that those on the lower rungs are worse than those above. We do it to keep our enrolments up, to remain viable because in the end we are all business units of an educational system that if not wholly subsidised by the state has now become totally corporatized to survive.

When we do this, we run the very same risks that have befallen the corporate sector that we seek both to guide and to provide with the next leaders and innovators. In short, we run the very real risk of becoming part of the institutional problem – not the solution. We should be creating leaders with foresight and depth which in some cases means bravely destroying the old as we create new and better value – value that is calibrated to the long-term wellbeing of all our people, rather than the narrow and short-term sectarian interests of the shareholders and banks. For business schools it means turning out graduates across the entire spectrum of learning who can go back onto shop floors, into boardrooms and into their creative workspaces girded against intellectual dishonesty, agile, empowered to lead and unafraid to experiment, keen to collaborate.

How do we do this? We do it as a business school by obsessing over our purpose not our competition. I often get people asking me “what’s your competitive advantage?” and “how do you position yourself against your competition”. And I’m always dumbstruck. It doesn’t compute.

The fact is at Henley Africa, we blithely, sublimely and calmly ignore the idea of competition, which exasperates our ad agencies who try to conceptualise our positioning strategies. But we are just not that interested. Why? Because the only thing that matters to us is fulfilling our purpose, doing a great job and perfecting our craft – which is that “we build the people who built the businesses that build Africa” and that right there is everything for us. It keeps us honest, grounded and endlessly improving. And it’s the fastest way to improve the value we offer.

That dog-eat-dog concept of competition just doesn’t exist. When anyone asks us about any of the other business schools or providers who are ostensibly our competitors we just say “They are great. Go and work with them”. It’s not a case of blind altruism, if anything it’s enlightened self-interest: the more great educators there are around, the better for all. We have a nation, a world, to build – and we will do that by building a new breed of business leaders not by changing the demographics of a shrinking existing elite in legacy industries. Within that broad positive purpose, we love worthy adversaries to force us to sharpen up, to joust with, stimulate and ignite each other – but we don’t want to destroy them.

As much as we have instilled disruption and evolution into our DNA, the final leg of that trifecta is collaboration. We collaborate not just because it’s much more fun, but because it provokes innovation, it stimulates creativity and the entrepreneurship that together help to create better outcomes all round for everyone involved – and it seems to bring us lots of business too!

Business though, is not at heart about competition. It has always about delivering and exchanging value. What we should be doing as business schools is evangelising the need for the toolboxes we all provide; for systems thinking that allows people to see the causality of what they do and prevent the consequences of bad decision-making from morphing into unethical and then downright illegal criminality in the form of corruption. It’s about ensuring that we work together to ensure that businesses, big and small, and government departments truly see the value of what we do in helping them always create value.

That way we make the pie bigger for all of us, instead of trying to cut out each other’s legs for slices of a pie that we are actually making smaller by not working together – and when we get it right, we will have the best chance yet of changing the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.

The only question worth asking then is who’s in?

  • Jon foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa and deputy chair of the South African Business Schools Association.

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