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A refresher at London Business School: Diversity of thought is at the heart of innovatio

The recent London Business School (LBS) Sloan Reunion Summit, an enlightening day of panels and presentations from leading business thinkers, was a reminder of just how enriching it is to learn from the brightest and the best. The Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy, which I completed in 2001, was aptly described by colleagues as like trying to sip water from a fire hydrant. Being exposed to a huge volume of knowledge was a daunting experience and you could quite easily be submerged by it. The Summit was a welcome opportunity for a refresher and to meet other Sloan alumni from LBS, Stanford and MIT Business Schools to celebrate the programme’s 50 year anniversary.

On the basis that gratitude leads to happiness, the new Dean of LBS, Professor Francois Ortalo-Magne introduced the day by instructing us to think carefully about what we were grateful for from our time on the Sloan. It’s difficult to know where to begin but some of the comments below indicate how far reaching the learning has been.

Deputy Dean Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, a familiar face from my time at LBS, talked to us about reinventing capitalism for the digital age. He reminded us of the Jeff Bezos quote: “be willing to be misunderstood if you’re going to innovate“. Firms, he said, need contrarianism, human judgement and emotional connection which robots don’t yet have – and arguably may never have. He questioned the type of new institutional structures, ownership and employment models we will need for our new digital age. A number of speakers referenced the book ‘The 100 Year Life’ written by LBS Professors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott. It serves as a timely wake-up call to individuals, politicians, firms and governments on the repercussions of increased longevity.

The Sloan Programme’s point of differentiation is that it is intended to be transformational and most use it as an opportunity to change their lives and career direction. Unusually I remained a partner at Mishcon de Reya and was able to come back, bursting with new ideas, and use the learning for the benefit of the firm. We heard from Gillian Keegan MP who had used the Sloan as a stepping stone from a business career to parliament and is now MP for Chichester. “Never underestimate the power of randomness” she said as she explained how she had “stumbled upon” her chosen path. She also told us how her career journey has changed the way she views failure. “One more try after failing is success.” She concludes from this that failure isn’t something to be avoided. The Sloan, she added, makes you more willing to try something different.

Valeria Vescina spoke about her career change via the Sloan Programme from management to becoming an author, literary critic and teacher. Her novel ‘That Summer in Puglia’ has just debuted at the prestigious FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival (I was delighted to receive a signed copy).  As Valeria says, “we all hold the potential for several directions in our lives, but a given choice may become more obvious or feasible at a later stage”. In her view, it’s about aptitude and what you are passionate about.

We heard from LBS Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Dr Tammy Erickson, an authority on leadership, the changing workforce and, one of my favourite topics, collaboration! She is a force of nature, leaping energetically onto the stage to give us 10 Predictions for Future Leaders. She said, “we have the opportunity to decide on how to lead in this digital world” and “it’s about inventing something new“. In future, he believes, we will need to be better at motivating our people as they will have to choose to work for us. The stand out companies will have fewer assets and fewer employees. Already, seven out of the top 10 companies in value are platform based and they have much higher returns. Differentiation – as always – continues to be key, but an interesting message was the need to plan less and experiment more. In order to do this Erickson suggests eliminating HIPPOs (highest paid person’s opinions). Experimentation needs to proliferate and you have to be able to respond to change and new opportunities. To reinforce this she gave us another quote from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: “Our success at Amazon is a function of how many experiments we do per year, per month, per week, per day“.

In terms of rewarding your teams, she recommended creating project based work options with pay tied to outcomes. Companies will need to learn to “behave like a talent agency“, mobilising their most talented employees for the appropriate projects.  “Diverse thought“, she said, “is at the heart of innovation“. This is a message the real estate sector is now starting to absorb.

Erikson talked about the need for successful businesses to create a unique employee experience and to develop skills with measurable and incremental ROI. “Meaning is the new money“, she said. I was struck by Erickson’s advice – to create an environment where talented people want to work is what we strive for at Mishcon de Reya through the Academy, our in-house place of learning, which provides a platform for new thinking. It enables us to bring together societal issues and industry experts to encourage innovative thought leadership on issues that matter to us and to our clients. Erickson concluded by saying that leaders needs to disrupt and intrigue.

It was therefore fitting to hear next from Vice Admiral Paul Boissier, CEO of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and a graduate of the Sloan 2000 Programme. His talk, intriguingly named ‘from Cold War to Cold Fingers’ reflected on practical leadership, starting with his time as a submarine commander during the Cold War. He describes his time on the Sloan programme as “one of the most important and empowering experiences” of his life and explained how the Sloan provided the skills and learning to enable him to perform his role. Like other speakers, he also reflected on the nature of failure and said, “the more ambitious you are, the more times you will fail“.

Last but not least, some thoughts from LBS Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Dr Niro Sivanathan, whose research focuses on how the psychology of self influences decision making. This was particularly relevant in the wake of the EU referendum, He said that people generally don’t know what it is they want so there is an opportunity to shape their choices. He continued by telling us that an argument is only as strong as its weakest elements, so the more reasons you give, the more you dilute your argument. This is worth noting as apparently it is one of the most common errors leaders make. Speaking as a lawyer, we do tend to marshal all the arguments at our disposal! But quality, it appears, trumps quantity. This also works in the negative: research in the pharmaceutical industry shows that if you list a drug’s less serious side effects alongside the more serious ones, it dilutes consumer concerns. His final point was on the vital importance of how you frame a question as it affects the answer. So you can shape preferences and nudge in the desired direction. For the recent Brexit referendum vote, the question wording finally agreed was, in his view, tilted towards a vote to leave.

If anyone was left in any doubt of the value of a Sloan MBA, Lord Terry Burns, Chairman of Ofcom who began his career at LBS, set the record straight. When questioned by the audience on the value of a business degree he said sagely, “it’s about how you put the jigsaw pieces together later in life“. A very good answer I thought. And with the 100 year life becoming a reality, there will be even more time to put those pieces in place.