A programme designed by Standard Bank and Henley Business School Africa was called Acceleration and formed part of the Bank’s future-ready transformation strategy to grow the organisation beyond banking, and into a platform business.
The brief was ambitious: to design a unique and bespoke Pan African programme specifically tailored to ensure a strong pool of internal successors to senior roles in-country across 14 African nations, ensuring Standard Bank remained true to its transformation strategy.
The programme, designed by Standard Bank and Henley Business School Africa, was called Acceleration and formed part of the Bank’s future-ready transformation strategy to grow the organisation beyond banking, and into a platform business. It involved acting on the decision made by Standard Bank’s executive team, to invest in the succession pool and talent pipeline in the many African countries in which it operates.
Traditionally, the Bank had not hired or promoted internally for key in-country senior leadership positions – the eventual incumbents often being expats or external appointments. Invested effort was also required to improve on the gender split at senior levels, explains Mei-lene Els, the programme’s key driver and Senior Learning Partner for Business and Commercial Clients (BCC) Segments at Standard Bank. “The view was not only to accelerate our leadership muscle, but to build a pipeline that would continue to grow and develop in a sustainable way for the next five years.”
Henley was well known in the Standard Bank environment for being agile, innovative and impactful, making the business school an obvious primary partner in the co-design and rollout of the Acceleration journey.
The partnership between the two institutions began in 2015 and has grown to the extent that Henley works across many of the Bank’s business units, delivering more than 25 customised accredited and non-accredited programmes.
“We wanted a programme that allowed the delegates to be vulnerable and to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. We wanted these senior executives to be learners on this journey, giving them permission to be curious and to learn together. We built in some fun – essential for creativity (and attendance!),” states Linda Buckley, Executive Education Director at Henley.
This learning environment would enable the delegates to put theory into practice in their own unique context, transferring learning from contact sessions to their own lived reality. We understand that adults need to unlearn certain behaviours if they are to establish new and more effective practices, and we hoped they would reflect on these as key lessons challenged their thinking patterns and ways of being and doing. “The very things you think you know as a leader are often the stumbling blocks that prevent you from learning and accelerating,” says Els.
As part of the programme design, five contact blocks were devised, incorporating themes identified for the growth and development of African future-fit leaders, to be facilitated by best-in-class providers and the bank’s own experts, explains Buckley. “Our role was to seamlessly direct and integrate the programme while holding eight other providers and the internal banking experts, ensuring a well-constructed learning journey, tailor-made for these learners.”
Henley’s role was to integrate the teaching and learning experience, allowing the journey of five ‘classroom’ content blocks to feel seamless and holistic, coaching the delegates on their design-thinking projects, and managing the formative learning by way of reflective practice.
In March 2020, an unexpected twist resulted in South Africa and most of the other African countries moving into a strict lockdown because of COVID-19. This necessitated all providers to upskill the relevant faculty to provide and deliver the content blocks on a virtual platform across different time zones. It was a game changer for the programme.
Acutely aware that a large percentage of adult learning resides in the social domain, in being together and learning with and from each other, Standard Bank and Henley had to work quickly to create a valuable learning experience for busy, senior people in various geographies, across three time zones, in a ‘two dimensional’ fashion.
They made it happen, and a virtual launch took place on 6 July 2020, where the 40 delegates were informed of all major milestones and expectations, including the programme timeline, key deliverables and high-level content per block.
At the launch, Buckley advised delegates that the programme would test their long-held orthodoxies, allow for uncomfortable dialogue with peers, challenge the notion of leadership on a continent filled with both adversity and potential, and encouraged them to open their minds to divergent thoughts such as, ‘what if?’ and ‘how might we?’
There was obvious buy-in from group executives as well as from the leaders in the various countries. This highlighted to all the level of importance placed on the programme and inspired delegates to be present, to give and to collaborate.
The Acceleration programme ran during a particularly difficult time in global history – many told of deaths in the family and in work teams, lack of access to key tools in their countries, such as internet connectivity, workload increases due to staff illness and retrenchments. “We had to remain empathetic and cognisant of life challenges,” says Dr Puleng Makhoalibe, Programme Director.
Despite the obstacles all 40 delegates remained engaged and committed throughout. “We weren’t presenting a programme to them. We were shaping it with them. We brought to it what we believed the delegates needed and, collaboratively, we either added, extracted or built as we progressed, in an agile fashion. Throughout the journey we pivoted and kept it relevant,” said Dr Puleng Makhoalibe.
Prework was required ahead of each content block and reflection and application activities during the weeks between sessions. Delegates were required to use their own contexts as the learning incubator and apply theory to practice in real time, with the assistance of business coaches, the programme director and faculty.
Powerful stories were shared upon their return to subsequent content blocks, which is often where the deepest learning takes place.
“The two cohorts also attended a two-month Cambridge online digital transformation programme with 150 delegates from across the globe, to ensure international exposure. Two of the Acceleration delegates were named top students on this programme,” says Els.
The Acceleration initiative was judged by the Bank to be highly successful as a Pan-African initiative. Following the programme 13 of the 40 delegates have been promoted into senior leadership roles: 40% of these are black women. Those who were not promoted were, by virtue of a restructure, moved into relevant lateral roles or newly created positions.
Although a small percentage of delegates resigned from the business, the Bank considers these ‘regrettable losses’. “What we have done is to make [those delegates] more marketable, enabling them to add value to the industry across the continent,” says Els.
“If an employee moves to another organisation in Africa, we are still living up to our commitment to grow the continent. The Bank’s commitment has always been bigger than itself,” she explains.
Feedback from delegates focused on programme rigor and intensity. “The programme is deep but wide at the same time,” says Makhoalibe. “I believe the delegates left the programme with answers as well as with quality questions, and a sense of curiosity as to how this would unveil, saying – ‘as a leader, I need to have the confidence to think for myself instead of seeking the counsel of others’.”
Each delegate had been exposed, intentionally, to the many topics identified as key to the growth of a future-fit African leader – among them, being a global thinker with a growth mindset, an agile leader able to pivot when change is required, a leader able to understand, internalise and teach others the key tenets of the platform business, an authentic leader able to harness cross-cultural teams and utilise the strengths in difference, and a collaborative, vulnerable leader able to ask the right questions, and feel comfortable with ‘not knowing’.
In addition, they had created a powerful network, a community of practice – friends and associates they could call on for advice or to share stories. As alumni they are tasked with paying forward lessons learned and ensuring their own teams are richer for their experience.
“The impact of what we discovered was greater than we could ever have imagined,” says Els. “We no longer had to look for that talent because that talent was ready and the pipeline was strong.”
Standard Bank & Henly Business School Africa won a Silver Award in the Talent Development category of the 2022 Excellence in Practice Awards. Learn more about the awards and apply for 2023 here.
See other articles from Excellence in Practice 2022.