Jon Foster-Pedley. Picture: SUPPLIED
Jon Foster-Pedley. Picture: SUPPLIED

Jon Foster-Pedley describes himself as an impresario. Actually, he’s dean of the Johannesburg-based Henley Africa business school; but his meaning is clear. The days when dry, dusty classrooms were the preserve of dry, dusty business academics dictating dry, dusty facts to executive education and MBA students, who religiously took it all down as gospel, are gone.

These days, students expect to be engaged, challenged and even entertained. Schools, says Foster-Pedley, must create an environment where people not only want to learn about business and leadership but also about themselves. Students are not there just to take in facts but also to grow as individuals and leaders. It’s the impresario’s job to bring all the players together.

When it’s done right, the teachers also learn. Students come from diverse backgrounds and levels of seniority, with different life and business experiences. Even the most experienced academic or lecturer can learn something new. When programmes turn to new technology and digitalisation, some students know far more than those running the class.

That’s not a bad thing, says Foster-Pedley. "We should never assume we have the best insights on everything," he says. "Education should never end for anyone, including teachers. My advice is: "Teach what you most wish to learn."

What business school lecturers do have to excel at is getting students to learn. "Our ethos is not to teach but to educate," Foster-Pedley says. "You must know how people learn. You need to be able to get them to talk, to open up, to have opinions and to defend them. We want our students to have strong opinions, strongly held. But we want them to recognise that these are opinions, not necessarily truths."

Business schools also need to modernise their goal-driven attitudes, says Foster-Pedley. Traditionally, academic institutions have measured themselves by exam success. Business schools have other measures: the careers and earning trajectories of their alumni, particularly those with MBAs.

But there’s also a third measure, probably the most important, says Foster-Pedley: "It’s about the sort of person we are sending out into the world." Business schools should not be turning out cookie-cutter graduates with identical skills and a corporate view of the world.

"We need people who will contribute to the development of SA and Africa, and who will do so in a way to be admired," he says. "That means taking each student as an individual, considering what difference we want in that person at the end of the process, and then creating a programme to make it happen. We want people who will change the world for the better."