Kai explains his greatest achievements during his 12 years at Ashridge Business School, his system for prioritising tasks and why he often feels like a sheepdog.
What does a typical day as Chief Executive look like? Is there such a thing?
No, there isn’t a typical day. It’s an interesting job where you have to decide yourself what you want to be paying attention to. I end up feeling like a sheepdog, in the nicest possible way: running around between different activities, whether it be degree programmes, marketing or executive education. Some things are scheduled, others are just adventures – someone’s visiting, the boiler falls over or there’s a snowstorm. It’s a composite role rather than a defined one, and one that requires the curiosity and willingness to talk to people all over the place about all kinds of different things.
Given the variety of your responsibilities, how do you prioritise things?
I try to focus on doing things that are meaningful to the school. The size of the prize has to be big enough to justify me doing it. In practice, that means the designing of a new programme that could lead to 100 students a year is worth it; whereas arguing the toss about something small is simply not worth it. I try always to rank everything on money, glory and fun: if it has no money, glory or fun in it, don’t do it.
What have been the most rewarding parts of your career at Ashridge?
Working with my colleagues to gain Ashridge its own degree-awarding power in 2008 stands out. Ashridge is one of only seven or eight schools in the UK that isn’t government funded and is able to award degrees. Otherwise, it’s always been rewarding working within the business school community. And smaller things are rewarding, too – for instance, when you’re involved in a big pitch and it comes through, especially if it has run for years and years.
How did Ashridge gain the power to award degrees?
The process of becoming an approved degree-awarding body came down to proving that, over time, we have enough academic capacity to administer internal quality control that meets the needs of regulatory bodies. We worked with accrediting partners for years and then built up our own quality control systems, checks and balances, and academic board.
You’ve previously worked for companies such as IBM and Volkswagen. How has your experience in business informed your career in business education?
I think education is, in many ways, like any other activity in the profit or non-profit sector. You have to manage well. You have to keep an eye on the finances. I think my experience at Rotterdam School of Management (RSM) was actually the most formative for me. In 10 years, I went from being an MBA student to MBA Director and then Dean. I had seen all the needs – because it’s about balancing all the needs of each community. For instance, faculty have different requirements than students do, and recruiters have different interests than parents do. A varied background helps bring all those different perspectives into focus.
Ashridge and Hult International launched a partnership in 2014. How has this affected your role?
It’s an interesting challenge to work out how to offer such a variety of programmes in such a spread of locations. There’s undergraduate, pre-experienced masters, MBA, part-time masters for working professionals, a doctoral programme and executive education at campuses in San Francisco, Boston and a pop-up campus in New York. Then there’s also undergraduate and postgraduate programmes and a head office in London. And there’s Dubai and Shanghai [where Hult runs Masters of International Business programmes]. So it looks a little bit more like managing General Electric now than managing a single location.
What do you think will be the key challenges in the near future for business education?
I expect, sooner or later, real online and blended learning will arrive. I think the faculty model of publish or perish on one end of the spectrum and teaching at the complete other end of the spectrum will also change, and there will be more flexibility in how faculty are composed. I think a lot of things are coming our way.
I did a little exercise looking backwards 20 years, thinking about how many changes there have been in business schools. And there have of course been all kinds of mergers, acquisitions, joining of universities, de-joining of universities. France adding all their business schools together, others working with external providers like Pearson to do some of their online learning. There’s been a ton of change.
This is the first in a new series of interviews with people who hold all sorts of jobs in the higher education industry. See the full series here.
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