A globally-recognised model for leadership development – TELUS and Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria


How Canadian collaboration between industry and higher education became a globally recognised model for leadership development.

Early days

Flashback to 2013. TELUS, Canada’s fastest-growing telecommunications company, was facing a conundrum. Changes in the telecommunications industry and technology-driven advancements in education delivery were leading the company to reimagine its professional development strategy. It decided to create customised, master level training for its future leaders.

The question was who to partner with to facilitate the innovative, values-based and holistic professional development central to the company’s leadership philosophy. TELUS looked at 10 of Canada’s leading business schools, issuing a request for proposals for a masters programme built around the company’s existing strategic imperatives and award-winning culture.

The successful submission came from the Peter B Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, already a provider of executive education and other company-specific training programmes for TELUS.

Gustavson recommended a customised MBA, combining the rigour of its regular graduate business degree programmes with curriculum tailored specifically to the needs of TELUS, delivered through a mixture of in-class, online, group, experiential and international learning. Unique bookends and programme bridges were designed to facilitate integration, collaboration, innovation, elaboration and inspiration.

Working together, the telecommunications corporation and business school discovered a natural alignment and in October 2015, what would become the award-winning MBA for TELUS programme, housed at Gustavson’s Sardul S Gill Graduate School, was launched.

Designing and achieving excellence

TELUS knew it wanted to achieve synergy from a customised programme and identified specific qualities to cultivate in its participants. The company defined successful leaders at TELUS as those who drive growth and performance, enable and develop others, foster teamwork and collaboration, and embrace change and innovation while pursuing goal achievement. Acknowledging this, the MBA for TELUS programme was designed and organised around four key themes:

Delivering Results: Focused on goal setting, strategic thinking, financial management and managing growth

Designing Systems and Culture: Focused on measuring performance, evaluating processes and building a culture of excellence

Developing Self and the Team: Focused on coaching, managing conflict and building high-performance teams

Driving Change and Innovation: Focused on creative problem solving, understanding risk, and incorporating sustainability.

To achieve these programme goals, Gustavson developed a curriculum that integrated industry-specific case studies into course content, inserted real problems faced by TELUS and included interactions with senior TELUS executives-in-residence, specialisation courses in leadership and strategy, and a programme format that reinforced collaboration and self-reflection.

Participants meet for seven residencies lasting six to 10 days over the course of the two-year programme. Six of these residencies are conducted in Victoria and one is held outside Canada as an international integrative project. For the inaugural cohort, the international project took place in Bucharest, Romania, where TELUS International operates a large call centre and business process outsourcing facility.

The face-to-face instruction provided during the residencies is complemented with online learning. Webinars, discussion forums, virtual team meetings and teaching videos further illustrate and deliver course concepts, and a final layer of social learning occurs through students’ sharing of ideas, reflections and applications of course content. Also important to the programme design was the concept of social responsibility, one of Gustavson’s key pillars and a central commitment for TELUS.

As TELUS’ Chief Envisioner and programme champion Dan Pontefract explains: “At TELUS, we believe it’s not enough just to make money. Our corporate philosophy is ‘we give where we live,’ and by partnering with Gustavson it has allowed us to create a programme from scratch that ensures we are educating our team members with this notion in mind.” Prospective candidates for the programme are required to have significant management experience and score highly on TELUS performance measures. On Gustavson’s side, those interested in the MBA also have to meet the university’s rigorous graduate admissions requirements.

Through this process, the MBA for TELUS programme emerged as a skillfully engineered union of academic, experiential, real-world and reflective learning. The programme presents participants with authentic problems and equips them with the skills, competencies and knowledge to solve them; while simultaneously embedding them in the values and future of the company. And, as the figures below demonstrate, the impact has been huge.

Mutual beneficiaries

Working on real projects allows the programme participants to apply their learning in real time. In one case, an operations management assignment led to savings of more than $27 million in inventory turn costs. Overall, TELUS estimates that it will achieve more than $300 million (CDN) in savings and new net revenue opportunities from the first cohort alone – quite an achievement for an initial outlay of $2 million.

As in the rest of this collaborative arrangement, the benefits cross both ways. For Gustavson, the MBA for TELUS has provided a productive partnership with a leading-edge corporate client, opened new avenues for exploration in teaching, underlined its reputation as a top business school, and brought in additional revenue. Along with this EFMD Excellence in Practice Silver Award for outstanding and impactful learning and development partnership, the MBA for TELUS was also named in 2018 as one of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business’ 30 Innovations that Inspire, recognising institutions that are championing and leading change in business education.

“We are proud that TELUS chose the University of Victoria and Gustavson’s Sardul S Gill Graduate School to deliver a masters programme for their future leaders,” says Dean Saul Klein. “Since launching the programme we’ve seen first-hand how deep and powerful the impact has been for TELUS and the MBA students. Universities need to continually explore innovative ways of delivering content and to ensure that their programmes meet market needs, and be willing to learn and adapt at the same time.”

As in the rest of this collaborative arrangement, the benefits cross both ways. For Gustavson, the MBA for TELUS has provided a productive partnership with a leading-edge corporate client, opened new avenues for exploration in teaching, underlined its reputation as a top business school, and brought in additional revenue

Looking forward

The hard work that began in 2013 reached a momentous climax this summer when the first cohort of students officially graduated after completing their studies in October 2017. Following two years of intensive and life-changing study, these graduates take back to TELUS the expertise, confidence and leadership skills required to advance their careers and take their company to the next level. Already, 40% of the graduating class have shifted into new roles across TELUS. With subsequent TELUS cohorts commissioned through 2024, this inaugural group is the first of many to benefit from and contribute to, a deeply fruitful and productive partnership between business and industry.

“This MBA has exceeded our expectations,” concludes Pontefract. “To realise economies of scale and a return on investment is fantastic. But to witness the incredible transformation of team members in parallel with the significant impact they have created across the entire TELUS organisation is a testament to the unique value, creativity and dedication that the Gustavson School of Business delivered.”

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