As part of the Executive MBA and International MBA class curriculums at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands, students undertake an annual excursion to South Africa to complete one module at Stellenbosch University Business School (USB).
This endeavour has been designed to provide the students with a learning opportunity that allows for them to become better acquainted with the cultural and social dynamics of the country.
Through the insight gained during their stay, they develop an improved understanding of local business contexts and opportunities as well as the skills and knowledge required to work with emerging markets.
“South Africa is socio-economically ‘the world in one country’ and represents a blend of great cultural and ethnic diversity, inequality, poverty, class divides and development challenges that face all of the developing world,” says Christo Nel, programme director of International MBA and Executive MBA at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands. “It provides an excellent opportunity for students to gain first-hand experience of the multicultural dynamics and socio-economic challenges facing the majority of the world’s population and, specifically, developing countries.”
According to Nel, this is an essential learning tool and platform for the students to help them grasp the value of developing economies and how they are becoming increasingly important to the developed world.
Students embarking on careers that build upon their MBA qualifications are the business leaders and entrepreneurs of the future and this African experience offers them a rich framework and in-depth understanding that cannot be taught in the classroom.
All of the students are required to take this international module of study at Stellenbosch University and during their stay they attend lectures, get to know local students and often become involved in projects in the country.
Previous years saw the students working with the South African wine industry and meeting the former Robben Island prisoners. The students who attended the 2014 session met with local entrepreneurs in Kayelitsha to exchange ideas and explore an area dramatically different to their own.
“We have been working with USB for 15 years as they have developed particular capabilities related to leadership development, operating in multicultural environments, change leadership and developing economies,” says Nel. “This provides valuable learning opportunities for our students.”
The Netherlands is one of the most developed economies and societies in the world with a well-established democracy, well-functioning institutions, infrastructure and social support systems. This does beg the question — how could students from such an economy benefit from a programme here in South Africa and how does this translate into building better leaders?
Learning from different realities
“A course in South Africa provides insight into a reality that cannot be imagined or replicated in the Netherlands,” says Nel. “Good business leaders need to clearly comprehend the larger realities and challenges that are facing the world and, with the growing importance of developing economics, South Africa provides ideal opportunities to broaden the knowledge of our MBA participants.”
South Africa offers far more than just a cultural mixing pot that international students can use to gain insight into alternative cultures and corporate challenges. Nel believes that South Africa’s top business schools are on a par with the best that the world has to offer.
“There are three dominant international accreditation agencies: EQUIS in Europe, the British AMBA and the American AACSB,” says Nel. “These programmes run intense quality control processes that make it possible to accurately compare business schools across the globe. USB has the rare distinction of being awarded the ‘triple crown’, which is accreditation from all three of these major institutions.”
Only a tiny percentage of the world’s business schools have received this triple crown of awards, which places USB in the upper echelons of internationally respected business schools.
In addition, USB has developed significant and breakthrough processes for constructively growing the personal and authentic leadership of individuals and these have been refined for more than a decade and are a big draw for partner universities such as Nyenrode Business Universiteit.
There are two broad sets of skills that are essential for the personal and professional development of the students. The first consists of the building blocks of any MBA degree, which include the traditional business and managerial subjects of finance, economics, strategy, strategic HR and marketing. The second element focuses on the essential soft skills around personal leadership.
“The development of soft skills is often the hardest because it focuses on an individual’s character, attitude, self-image, interpersonal relationships and other such qualities that contribute to sustainable high-impact leadership,” says Nel.
“The capacity to cope with ongoing pressure requires mental and emotional resilience and the high-pressure environment when studying for an MBA is an excellent crucible to develop these capabilities.”
High performance leadership is a team activity and so the students must be able to engage with diverse people who have their own styles and perspectives. The introduction of these students to an environment as varied and contradictory as that presented by South Africa has the potential to create well-rounded leaders for the future.
Philippe La-Reine, a student who participated in the programme says: “Visiting South Africa was an eye-opening experience. It makes it so clear that doing business in a developing economy poses many different challenges. The exposure to multicultural environments and dynamics enabled me to recognise differences in perspectives that I wasn’t aware of, and has left me more sensitive to the views of others.”
Vartika Garg, another attendee from Nyenrode Business Universiteit, adds: “By going to South Africa we were able to learn about the challenges and struggles facing developing countries. It would not be possible to achieve this learning by remaining only in the Netherlands. The networking with the alumni from USB was also a valuable experience in true multi-cultural relationships. It was a one of the kind experience that transfers learning into practice.”
The experience takes students on an educational adventure that introduces them to local businesses as well as international brands located in the region. For Nel South Africa inspires qualities in future leaders that are invaluable.
“There are few environments in the world where an individual can be exposed to such a wide range of capabilities,” he adds. “They work with and learn to respect the views of diverse people, face the challenges of skill shortages in a developing economy, become increasingly aware of the larger socio-economic realities of the country you are operating in and not take it for granted, become aware of prejudice that can often be quite subtle, and learning to operate in a truly multicultural environment.”
The teachers, institutions and students find this exchange of ideas and learning a rich resource and one that will likely continue for some time to come.
“For my personal development it is essential I gain international experience,” says Roy Woltring, student at Nyenrode Business Universiteit. “South Africa has the rare mix of highly developed and very underdeveloped and the complex facets of society, such as education and healthcare, create challenges that are difficult to imagine from the perspective of a developed economy. The role of business and entrepreneurship become much more obvious in South Africa.”
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