With her expertise in intercultural management, Anke Middelmann, Director of the Global Executive MBA programme (GEMBA) at SKEMA Business School, has seen first-hand how a leader’s behaviours impact the bottom line regardless of the culture they inhabit.

In this interview, Anke looks for the answer to the age-old question “Are leaders born or made?” and explores the importance of developing both technical and soft skills for the future.

How does one gain the skills to communicate constructively, empower teams, resolve conflicts, and transform challenges into opportunities for growth? Are these soft skills innate or can they be learned?

Be encouraged! Leaders can be made. There is not one mould for the effective leader. 

There is a toolkit, and the skills are learned by practising them… again and again! Becoming a leader is an ongoing process which begins with knowing yourself and continues as you gain the confidence and ability to move forward to:

  • Identify strengths and abilities
  • Measure the gap between what is needed and current skills
  • Develop in a way that enables you to close that gap

When EMBA participants arrive at SKEMA, where are they in this process?

Participants come to SKEMA to gain knowledge. That is what business schools deliver; yet, we need to deliver even more for graduates to be effective in their organisations. 

Each person arrives with a set of skills – many are not fully aware of the skills they have. When they graduate and have enriched their toolkit, they realise the importance of the personal development journey undertaken. These skills are built layer by layer through classes on leadership, personality assessments, reflective work, practice sessions, coaching, and practical training in soft skills.

The Global Executive MBA at SKEMA provides an incredible learning journey both on the classic MBA hard-core topics (finance, project management, supply chain) and on raising leaders’ awareness of themselves and others. It is both a professional and a personal learning curve as the two interlink. You can learn things personally and apply them in the professional context and vice versa. It is holistic learning.

You speak of the participants learning about their strengths and weaknesses. How does international exposure help them do that?

The international experience and intercultural exposure facilitated in global programmes are vital in preparing tomorrow’s global leaders. Our programme is closely aligned with SKEMA’s vision and values, which emphasise the development of a global business vision, coupled with multicultural competence and an entrepreneurial and innovative spirit.

It is important to build as much diversity as possible into all learning groups by mixing gender and cultural and professional backgrounds and interests. We intentionally expose our students to differing viewpoints, and participants talk about the eye-opening experience of these group projects: 

“It’s like a light bulb went on.  Now I understand why I experienced my cross-cultural challenges, why things went wrong, and why people reacted in the ways they did. I now know how to manage the situation differently.”

Our Leadership Lab represents another cornerstone for the programme. It is a safe space that allows participants to develop personal and professional leadership skills through various tools. It is a shift from education-in-the-classroom to learning-by-doing and getting feedback from professionals.

How does the experiential learning benefit EMBA participants and the companies that employ them?

When they arrive, participants are at ease with the more data-driven subjects because that is what they have been doing for years. They realise more is required to move ahead. “I need a helicopter view and leadership skills.” Specifically, what does that entail? They don’t know yet and soon realise they must confront some of their own challenging positions. This can be uncomfortable! 

Our graduates learn that they need each other and cannot rely on their own perspective, which might be tunnel vision. They learn and practise teamwork.

How do you integrate the many facets of leadership: from vision to implementation strategy to motivating and empowering teams?

In order to graduate, participants need to deliver a capstone project, for which they have to present an effective and innovative solution to a business issue in their current organisation. This is an integrated piece of work and we expect strategies for project management, marketing, finance, and more. Some participants submit proposals for change management, others for performance or process improvement. Many stimulate innovation within their company.

The capstone project measures hard and soft skill learning. Participants present their vision and their insights of the different functional areas and how these work together. They apply their leadership soft skills to secure buy-in from their management and their teams. It is a win–win situation for everyone.