It was almost six months after my arrival at REGENT Business School (RBS) in 2012 when I was requested by Professor Yusuf Karodia to assist the management team in the re-accreditation process of our flagship programme, the MBA. Based on the recommendations of the two national and regional MBA Associations, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) decided that MBA Degree is moved from NQF Level 8 to NQF Level 9. Consequent to this national edict, every provider of the MBA Degree in South Africa had to apply for re-accreditation of their MBA programme.
At this juncture, Professor Karodia was the principal of MANCOSA but had executive oversight powers of RBS and Professor Narendra Bhana had retired from management at RBS, but together with the head of Research, Mr Dharam Sewraj was still assisting with the intricacies of MBA Dissertations.
The Management Committee (MANCO) of RBS comprised Mr Zaheer Hamid (the de facto Head of the institution), Mr Ridwaan Asvat, Mrs Farahana Hussein, Mr Osman Seedat and Mr Bhan Bisnath. All, excepting Mr Bisnath had their offices in the main building on Samora Machel Street, Durban. Mr Bisnath shared office space with MANCOSA at the current RBS office in Johannesburg. Professor Bhana and Mr Sewaraj shared office space on the 9th floor of the main RBS building. Mrs Hussein, Mr Hamid, Mr Asvat and Mr Seedat who shared multiple managerial portfolios were located on the 7th floor, and I had an office space on the 8th Floor. Many of these individuals went on enrich their academic and professional qualifications and now hold doctoral and professorial titles.
During this period the institution had about 87 staff members and about 2500 students. Given the Mission of the RBS, especially in terms of access, affordability, success, and student-centric education; the imperative of quality compliance with the Council on Higher Education (CHE); and the fact that the institution was being buffeted against multiple challenges, the low student-staff ratio masked the overall managerial burden of the institution. Although this was a stressful situation for senior managers, my initial perception of them suggested that they were equal to any challenge, and this was borne out in my later collegial dealings with them. In simple terms, I found the management team and the corporate culture of camaraderie that they had inculcated within the organisation to be exemplary.
I also often wondered whether this had anything to do with the Servant Leadership provided by Professor Karodia. Anyone who knew him personally would know his salutatory message, “How’s things? Don’t worry, everything will come right. Hang in there.” It would seem that this almost ephemeral greeting was in some way a nuanced message which suggested that when challenges emerge, we should be able critically assess the situation, double down on the problem and sort it out. A further subliminal message in this greeting also gave one the impression that a crisis was not only a challenge, but an opportunity to do better, as well. Perhaps more importantly, the recurring massage that pervaded the message was… Be Resilient!
The précis, below of the strategic planning process for the re-accreditation of the MBA, will, I sincerely hope, assist in understanding the prevailing corporate culture of resilience at RBS and how Professor Karodia played a remarkable role in personifying it within the RBS family. Resilience as an important institutional trait thus has become one of the enduring legacies of Professor Karodia’s Empathetic Leadership at RBS. It is richly evident in our current leadership, management and the general team.
It was at one of these preparatory meetings of the planning team that I first met Professor Ahmed Shaikh. He had returned to the organisation after sabbatical leave and was also requested by Professor Karodia to assist in RBS’s MBA re-accreditation process. The meeting was chaired by Mr Zaheer Hamid and commenced at 5.30 pm, as did all other planning sessions for the new MBA. He listened very empathetically to the planning team’s concerns and plans for the new MBA programme and then made two very incisive recommendations. Firstly, he reminded the planning team to be mindful of RBS’s Mission and Vision and the need to empower our MBA graduates to hold more than their own in any situation. Secondly, he suggested that rather than have the issues of governance, sustainability and entrepreneurship as stand-alone specialisations; we should endeavour to integrate them into the core curriculum of the new MBA programme. His rationale for the recommendation was perhaps even more perceptive and innovative. Indeed, I was impressed. It was only after we completed the meeting and I was returning home that I realised Professor Shaikh was Professor Karodia’s proxy at our meeting. His empathetic demeanour and trenchant recommendations confirmed my hunch. He has now become the embodiment of what new transformatory leadership should be about. RBS which was once considered as a straggler by historically white business schools in South Africa was taken to new towering heights under his leadership. The fact that he served as the Deputy President of the South African Business School’s Association (SABSA) and also performed duties for the Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry in South Africa as a research advisor bears adequate testimony to this claim. He has given the word ‘Resilience’ and Empathetic Leadership a new significance at RBS.
Consequent to this meeting, the planning team met almost three times a week until Professor Osman Seedat and I were finally tasked to draw up the final draft of new MBA programme at NQF Level 9. The majority of these meetings took place in a makeshift boardroom on the 7th floor of the main building and the Wi-Fi service left much to be desired. Whilst there were robust discussions, final decisions at these meetings were based on consensus. Once again, amity within the planning team triumphed and it helped overcome the many challenges we experienced working in the evenings, especially after a hard day at work.
As is customary at RBS, Professor Zaheer Hamid, an educational specialist was an exceptional Chairperson and Leader and ensured that some light meals and refreshments were always provided. On many occasions his empathetic bearing helped in bringing cheer to a very lugubrious situation. He assured that the meetings were congenial and always provided for some form of comic relief and opportunities to talk about local, national and global affairs.
The affable Dr Ridwaan Asvat was own agent provocateur who kept the team on their proverbial toes. Just when we assumed all was well in with the planning process, he would always pose the most difficult rhetorical question and then ironically remind us about the deadline for our submission. In his own way he assured that the team was thinking critically and in the best interest of the organisation. His hearty smile and significant contribution to our debates about the need to safeguard the integrity of RBS through quality was always welcomed in our meetings. It provided for intrinsic cheer and pride in our institution.
Mrs Farhanna Hussein was our task master and made sure that we kept to the deadlines. Both her and Mr Bhan Bisnath’s passion and respect for institutional rules and regulations was, and still is unquestionable. Although Mr Bisnath was in Johannesburg at the time of the planning sessions, he was our luminary for institutional memory. Mr Bisnath is a sobering influence on MANCO and constantly provides a reality check on members with grandiose and unrealistic ideas. Yet, behind those ‘tough’ facades, both these individuals are compassionate individuals and their proclivity for excellence in what they do has become a beacon for quality assurance at RBS. Out of her own volition, Mrs Hussein set up a ‘war room’ and provided the planning team with important portfolios of data and information. She managed to persuade three members of her department, Mrs Rakhee Bisnath, Mr Stanton Thomas and the late Farah Ally to assist in this regard. Mr Ravi Khetwari from the Quality Assurance office also provided invaluable assistance. Except for Mrs Ally, all of these individuals are now managers of important portfolios at RBS.
Professor Osman Seedat, the de facto Academic Dean of the institution at the time of planning for the new MBA was the academic guiding light for the institution. This erudite and humble individual was a champion for the Socratic pedagogical methodology and frequently brought this approach of student engagement into the planning meetings. He engaged the planning team in conversations that were designed to help define broad ideas, also exposing the complexities and ambiguities behind them. In this way he compelled members to think critically and consider why things are a certain way, also considering arguments for and against different viewpoints on certain critical issues.
Through Professor Seedat’s particular approach, we were able to rationalise many of the modules, especially from the NQF Level 8 MBA programme and recommend new ones in accord with the demands of the new business and management education and workplace dynamics, the national economy and the global political economy. Generic issues such as Entrepreneurship, Sustainability and Governance as recommended by Professor Shaikh were integrated into the core curriculum of the new MBA and new module specialisations such as Health Care Management, Islamic Finance and Management and Educational Management and Leadership were included. The waves of information on the 21st century knowledge economy education, the Fourth Industrial (4IR) and Digital Economy did not reach the shores of higher education at this time.
Based on discussions of the many iterations of the planning committee, Professor Seedat and I formulated the final draft of the core curriculum for the new MBA at NQF Level 9 and it was presented to MANCO for ratification and onward submission to the CHE. Professor Karodia attended this meeting and was chuffed with the presentation and thanked the planning committee for their dedication to the task. And as usual, he said, “Don’t worry, everything will come right”. It was as if he had uttered prayer for us.
After a few weeks we received a response from the CHE. Whilst it had approved of our submission in principle, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the organisation mentioned that they had a few concerns. One of them related to the governance of our examination process, an issue which was raised by a previous visit of an audit commmitte from the CHE. The allegation centred on the safe storage of our examination papers. A small delegation consisting of Professors Hamid and Seedat and myself visited the CHE offices. We managed to clarify the other concerns and invited the CEO or his representative to visit RBS and undertake an in situ inspection of our premises, because we denied the allegation relating to risk in storage of examination papers vehemently. A few weeks later the CEO with one other member from the CHE made an unexpected visit to RBS. He was directed to the 9th floor where the examination department was located. He found that RBS had installed a fire-proof safe many years ago and all examination and test papers were stored in the safe. He apologised and almost a week later we received news that our submission for the new MBA at NQF Level 9 was approved.
Our new MBA at NQF level 9, regarded as one of the best in South Africa and Africa at large, provides a learning environment which offers a rich and diverse learning experience for high levels of personal and professional growth. Students are exposed to a wealth of knowledge, experience and industry insights to test their existing perspectives and challenge the status quo. The programme takes an integrative and innovative approach to business education, combining core business knowledge within the context of the global political economy and a highly disruptive technological and digital world.
If there is anything clear as a result of this planning exercise for the MBA NQF Level 9 programme, it is that through a transformative and agile leadership and collaborative intelligence, the institution completed a very important task successfully and continues to get the job done, even in the midst of other challenges that continually follow in a world of major disruptions. This episode of planning clearly shows how RBS responded to the exigency of the CHE, especially in terms of inclusivity, agile leadership and the use of collaborative intelligence.
The camaraderie of the planning team and MANCO has created a sense of belonging and community within the RBS ecosystem and this more than exemplifies resilience. Even in recent years, we have found that as we interact and work with different people within an organisation, we have developed social capital. Building social capital means developing trust, understanding, and rapport with one another. The corollary of this is that the higher the social capital, the higher the level of resilience RBS will have. We have realised that when employees trust one another, it makes work more enjoyable, more tolerable and resilient organisation.
The expediency of this new practice showed that even the best-performing individuals benefited from interacting with a network of peers and those dynamic networks in which peers chose their collaborators, improved individuals’ performance significantly. Resilience has lent itself to an institution where employee morale is high, effective teamwork, constant innovation, great productivity, and enviable success and profitability.
At RBS we are proud that resilience has become a benchmark for success. In view of this, the word Resilience and Empathetic Leadership have become synonymous with the institution.
Despite my many years of professional development within the higher education sector, RBS has instilled in me a deep appreciation for resilience, camaraderie, the value of hard work, perseverance, and personal development. It has also thought me about the need to embrace the imperatives of an agile organisation, especially in terms of empathy, integrity, inclusivity, innovation, the need to see opportunity in a time of crisis and collaborative intelligence. Thank you sincerely REGENT Business School, Honoris United Universities, the late Professor Yusuf Karodia, Professor Ahmed Shaikh and my dear colleagues whom I work with on a daily basis to conjointly deliver business and management education that is relevant to the empowerment of our youth and country.