Vasie Papadopoulos and John Rocco are executive MBA students at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School in London, Ont. She is the communications and outreach manager for Philip Morris International in Canada. He is the vice-president of marketing and communications at Travelers.
The case methodology employed by Ivey and many top global schools is an often-debated method of learning. It requires us, as students, to read numerous business case studies at a time, analyze them, and then be prepared to openly discuss them in a classroom setting each month throughout the program. We can take this learning and methodology back to our businesses.
As business leaders, we often lack the ability to succinctly analyze and articulate the core of an issue, which often leads to confusion within the teams we lead. The ability to consume, digest and articulate a position effectively requires accuracy, precision and efficiency to be successful. Compounding this, we find ourselves in an era of widely saturated channels of information, where misinformation spreads rapidly.
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The case study method helps to build that understanding and skill. We are forced to draw conclusions and recommend action based on incomplete data sets and, often, ambiguity. Information, both empirical and subjective, must be distilled into a clear and defendable position.
In short, decisions need to be made based on incomplete facts requiring the individual to trust their experience and intuition in presenting their recommendation, and then being vulnerable to the adjudication of their views. It is an uncomfortable experience in the beginning, but the ability to develop that vulnerability and empathy opens us up to a level of personal growth that is critical to being an effective leader.
The case method also teaches us to build a better reference model. Each person comes to class with a personal model, informed by a unique and individual professional and personal view. The case study method challenges this professional and personal reference model by generating a deep level of provocative discussion.
Healthy conflicts arise and this dynamic helps one defend their reasoning and question it at the same time. Through this discipline you start to create and use a different reference model over time. The repetition of this process across a range of subject matter exercises the mind like cardiovascular activity builds the heart. It becomes stronger, more efficient and builds a capability that can be rapidly applied in business. It’s a skill set but it is also a muscle that can be flexed.
Business leaders must think critically about their organizations and the external factors that have an impact on them. We need to connect a deep understanding of socioeconomic and geopolitical challenges and align them with our business strategies.
This is where, regardless of your technical background or business strength, the case study method pushes you to look beyond the standard business lenses of finance, operations and governance, and gain a broader and more integrated understanding of the total environment of the living and constantly changing entity that exists within our organizations.
As we started to look at market forces that contributed to the failure of businesses in our cases when expanding internationally, the cause wasn’t necessarily the product, the company or their marketing, but their lack of understanding when it came to social, political, cultural and economic forces.
It is important to openly engage and discuss contentious issues such as religion, politics and class. These are topics that are often shied away from for fear of being misunderstood or causing offence.
However, in discomfort we find knowledge. And in discomfort, we find new ways of looking at the world. In the totality of discomfort we find a common understanding.
Over the past year and a half of our program, we have learned that only through vigorous engagement. By avoiding difficult conversations we become complicit on these issues. As business leaders this will not allow for progress and it will stifle our innovation long-term.
As leaders we have a duty to develop this thinking and dialogue in our teams. This will allow us to demonstrate true leadership and challenge the status quo of our businesses.