Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme
Q&A with Programme Director Tracey Camilleri
What is the difference between this programme and other leadership programmes for senior executives?
‘Is it a drug?!’ one of the tutors joked when he realised how much he loved working on the programme. There is an addictive intensity to the OSLP unlike any other. Something about the diversity of extraordinary people coming together from around the world, prepared to share their stories and to learn, coupled with a diverse faculty – this November for example we have a novelist, a philosopher, a complexity scientist, an Olympic silver medallist, a professor of psychology, a chef, a conductor, a historian, an innovation specialist, a neuroscientist, a digital strategist, a blogger, a theatre director, a business school professor, an improviser, a pianist, eight singers – takes the breath away.
With all this diversity, the spirit of a pop-up company develops. Busy, expert, smart, senior people open themselves up to learning and step outside their expertise into new territory, as do we. The learning is always two-way. I know of nothing else like it. It’s a 24 hour design, the spaces in between taught sessions are the gold where you get to sit down – maybe with a Bishop from London, a politician from El Salvador and a banker from Kenya and talk about the world in a way that is usually impossible. I think of the programme like an Oxford College when I design it. It has its reflective cloisters, its croquet lawns, Socratic tutorials, generalist talk over dinner, diverse perspectives, a history, architecture and a governing idea. But there is nothing stuffy, unfriendly or elitist about the programme - quite the reverse in fact.
How do leaders working in sectors or positions that do not lend itself towards the creative industry or practice benefit from this programme?
This is a programme for any leader who regards leadership primarily to be the business of engaging in the complex process of leading people through change. Yes, it does see leadership more in terms of an art than a technical science but it is definitely not designed for ’creatives’.
It draws upon the humanities because, in my view, these are the repositories of the great stories of leadership, the great contextual dilemmas, the holders of wisdom that has endured through centuries. We draw our case studies from history and literature as these immerse leaders in radically different worlds and modes of thinking. The real issues of leadership are consistent, however, down the ages and across continents. Why wouldn’t you use the best case studies of all through which to reflect on the dilemmas that leaders are facing now? Some of the greatest impact on the programme has been for those with engineering, finance and science backgrounds. One past participant described it as ‘a dance between the left and the right side of the brain’. There is, I hope, stimulus and food for thought for whatever discipline you are from. This is not a frivolous programme: it may move from complexity science through to poetry but none of it is irrelevant to leading an organisation today. We are able to draw on cutting edge research from the wider University and explore emerging trends and how they will impact leaders in the future.
How does this programme deliver benefits to myself and my organisation?
It is hard to answer this question with a list. In follow up tutorials with our alumni we hear stories of directions changed, new ways of working – from radical transformation through to more quotidian changes of habit. One CEO changed the whole company’s evaluation system as a result of a session with an Oxford philosopher, a corporate Board gradually sent everyone on the programme so that they could work better with a shared language, a shared frame of reference; we have heard of investments made, new strategies adopted, teams shifted, profits lifted. Overall however, if there is a single ‘takeaway’ on a programme that aims to individualise and bespoke the week for each person that comes on it, it is that people leave more confident in their ability to lead their people in their own way. For their organisation, this shift has incalculable value. ‘I came to the programme with the title of CEO, I left feeling like a leader’ was how one participant put it.
How can I convince my organisation that I need to go on this programme and to fund my place?
At a certain stage of seniority the challenges of leadership are such that they require time out to reflect and to re-frame one’s leadership identity. There comes a time where the giving out of energy, the recourse to expertise run-ragged and constant response to the drama of day to day urgencies leave the imagination of any leader at a low ebb. A programme like the OSLP addresses that moment. It is efficient for any company to invest in the human capability of its senior leaders. It is vital to give those who are charged with thinking through the strategy of an organisation time to step back, to re-evaluate, to calibrate against others who are leading under similar pressures but often in very different contexts. Lost days and opportunities, even the leaders lost to organisations who fail to honour this need for development and structured thinking are much more costly than a week in Oxford.
Why is the cost of this programme much higher than many other leadership programmes offered by other business schools?
This is not a training programme. Skills training is necessary but it is designed to make people more alike – equally competent. Leadership education – particularly the approach we adopt on the programme - focuses on difference, on amplifying the opportunities and talents of a senior individual in his or her context for the better. This philosophy needs a very bespoke, personal approach. We regard the individual stories of leaders who come to Oxford to be the heart of the programme. The OSLP is not one of the programmes that is taken down off the shelf and dusted off for the next iteration – we see it as an engine of innovation for the education of leaders throughout the business school. We invest heavily into this programme – the faculty to participant ratio is much higher than on any of our other programmes. We lavish individual attention on everyone who comes. Leaders have the benefit of multiple perspectives on their story – from peer coaches to Oxford tutors - in multiple settings. They encounter a powerful week long consulting group of global leaders.
Of all our programmes, this attracts the most senior leaders and the faculty, many of whom stay all week as host, fellow traveller, coach, provoker, adviser and friend. They see it as their role to understand the particular challenges of each person who comes and to help them to leave lighter, more confident in their leadership and with a global network of thought partners to call on in the future.
How has the programme evolved over the past 34 years to make it relevant and meet the demands of modern leaders?
When the programme was started by Sir Douglas Hague in 1982 it attracted largely white, male, middle aged corporate managers. They came to talk together about management theory and practice and to develop new strategies for leading their businesses. The participant profile is now very different. On this programme in November, we worked alongside men and women leading in 22 different countries in the private, not for profit and the public sectors.
However, our DNA stretches back to that original programme. We have always learned from our alumni in order to stay relevant. Over the years, the feedback gathered from past participants has largely fuelled our evolution in form and content. Some things have stayed the same however. The week is still structured around conversation and exchange. As befits a programme at Oxford University, we do not shy away from big ideas or difficulty. Our tone has remained personal, our ethos uncompetitive and exploratory as Sir Douglas first envisaged it.
If you are an experienced leader and wish to check your eligibility for this programme, please submit your CV here for review.