Sharmla Chetty. Picture: Supplied
Sharmla Chetty. Picture: Supplied

Businesspeople are desperate for personal interaction again, says Sharmla Chetty, new CEO of the global Duke Corporate Education (CE) group. After 20 months of online business meetings and networking, they say it’s time to resume-face-to-face relationships — both in the boardroom and classroom.

Chetty, Nedbank’s former head of human capital development who founded Duke’s Joburg subsidiary in 2007, was appointed group CEO on October 5. She succeeded American Michael Chavez.

Duke CE is a subsidiary of Fuqua School of Business, part of Duke University in the US state of North Carolina. It is rated one of the world’s top providers of executive education. Under Chetty, its Joburg operation became a significant player both in the SA and wider African markets, taking business from established schools.

In 2019, Chetty was appointed president of global markets, responsible for the alignment of regional activities in North America, Asia, Europe and Africa. Her term coincided with the Covid pandemic, which forced business education online and discouraged foreign business travel — situations that persist today.

But Chetty says the business community is now ready for change. While predicting that business education won’t return to whatever passes for normal in the future — probably a blend of online and classroom teaching — until at least 2023, she says pressure to get there is building.

"People want people. They want to rebuild networks and relationships," she says.

"A lot of corporate clients say they’ve had enough of virtual education through a computer screen. They want to go back to face-to-face teaching. Some want to do it in another country. It’s the same with business. Clients are telling me they want to be travelling next year."

Chetty knew she was in the running for the CEO job. "There was a clear succession plan and I was being groomed for some time. So though others were considered when Michael Chavez stepped down, the plan was for me to take his place."

Sharmla Chetty. Picture: Supplied
Sharmla Chetty. Picture: Supplied

Actually, Chavez didn’t so much step down as step sideways. He is now MD of Duke CE. Is there a clear distinction between the MD and CEO roles, or are the lines blurred? Chetty says it has been made clear she will run the show.

"I will give strategic direction and be responsible for running the company and taking it forward. I will be accountable for its performance."

She says Chavez "will continue to work with clients, providing the consistent thought leadership he has brought to companies around the world".

She adds: "I am looking forward to working with him to continue to increase our client impact."

Bill Boulding, dean of the Fuqua School of Business and Duke CE board chair, says Chetty "understands the transformational power of leadership and the role of leadership in driving positive societal change". He says she is "the right person at the right time" as the company enters a period "with an opportunity for substantial growth".

Covid has disrupted traditional business education — though some argue it simply accelerated an existing trend towards an online, virtual classroom. Before the pandemic, up to 90% of Duke CE education was face-to-face. Now the share is about 10%. That will recover, but not to previous levels.

Executive education providers that will flourish in the future will be those that not only provide the most relevant content, but also harness the power of technology to create an "immersive" experience, in which virtual teaching duplicates the immediacy and intimacy of the personal kind.

They must also teach client companies to thrive in this digital world. Says Chetty: "How do we help them build a business that will transform their sector? What do they need to shape the business?"

Chetty, who will be based in London, says her career has been building up to this point. "This is a moment in history when we have to set a course for new destinations, to radically look at the new skills that will be needed."

She is comfortable with the challenge. "I grew up knowing how to navigate complexity — how to turn purpose into practice," she says. "You have to understand the whole educational ecosystem, but also be agile and able to offer the right products quickly."

That was necessary in Joburg, where Duke CE’s success wasn’t guaranteed. "When you start in a market, as we did in Joburg, your first goal is survival. That’s not easy in Africa, particularly when you are up against established and respected business schools."

Her success and latest promotion are further evidence, if any is needed, that women can thrive in any business endeavour, says Chetty. "The world needs more women leaders. I have had some amazing mentors during my career. My appointment is a reflection of that. The Duke CE board is very comfortable with women in leadership. I am committed to gender inclusiveness."

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