How ASB is Equipping Leaders for the Future Through New Exec Ed Offerings

By Crystal Cha, Marketing Manager, ASB | Thought Leadership, Strategy

Recently, we spoke to Dr. Lawrence Abeln, Associate Dean at Asia School of Business (ASB), on the changing nature of executive education, the case for a business school in Asia, and the new offerings that ASB is set to offer following its merger in 2020 with Iclif (formerly known as the International Center for Leadership and Governance). Discover how ASB is meeting the needs of the future while equipping leaders and managers with foundational management skills.

Dr. Lawrence Abeln is no stranger to leading business schools and executive education programs, having served as MBA Director at MIT Sloan School of Management (MIT Sloan) as well as Dean of leading business schools across the US, Australia, and Asia. He was also Deputy Dean of Cambridge University’s business school where he was CEO of Cambridge Executive Education.

Drawn to the unique mission of Asia School of Business (ASB), a collaboration between MIT Sloan and Bank Negara Malaysia, Malaysia’s Central Bank – to be a world-class business school, grounded in the ASEAN region but with a global footprint – he took on the role of Associate Dean at ASB in September 2020.

He is now based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, leading the Iclif Executive Education Center (ASB-Iclif), formerly known as the International Center for Leadership and Governance, which merged with ASB in early 2020 and the school’s Executive Education programs.

Recently, we spoke with him about his vision for Executive Education at ASB-Iclif, the importance of continuing education for the ASEAN region, and the changes the pandemic has brought to business schools.

Democratizing business education

Dr. Abeln sees tremendous opportunity to bring world-class business education to the ASEAN region especially to a rapidly developing city like Kuala Lumpur with its strategic location and access to markets.

Having extensive experience both living in Asia and working on projects in the region while at Cambridge and MIT, Dr. Abeln found the challenge of bringing business education to new markets a fascinating one.

“The ASEAN market of 600 million will experience accelerated economic growth in the next decade compared to UK, US and Europe,” he said. “Much of this is due to demographic trends and investment activities, and this growth will require increased focus on developing talent and graduate education for working professionals.”

International business schools play a key role in talent development, Dr. Abeln states, and have a fundamental responsibility to ensure that their expertise is shared with a wider market and a larger scale, so that society can benefit from its knowledge sharing – both in the private and public sector.

“At ASB-Iclif, we are democratizing business education and increasing access by delivering short course formats of our signature MBA program to wider audiences across the region and at all levels of an organisation,” he emphasized.

As part of ASB-Iclif’s commitment to the region, he added, the school has also invested in a first-rate, state-of-the art residential facility with new classrooms and technology. The aim of the new campus is to bring together students, scholars, and the business sector and to create a community where there is shared learning.

“Our international faculty, innovative curriculum with action-learning, MIT collaboration, our strategic location in the center of KL, and our facility all allow us a unique advantage as a start-up,” said Dr. Abeln.

Expanding the Exec Ed portfolio

Currently, ASB-Iclif offers short courses ranging from two days to two weeks. The catalog consists of over 25 two-day open enrolment courses with flexible online delivery in areas such as leadership, management, finance, governance and many other subjects, as well as flagship programs of five days, and certificate programs. ASB also partners actively with HR and talent leaders to deliver custom-built programs. Courses are delivered on the new campus in central KL located next to Bank Negara Malaysia, and candidates also have the option to take courses virtually.

The MIT influence also permeates the Exec Ed approach. “One of the ways our curriculum is distinct is we take an innovative, action-based approach to it, similar to our collaborative partner MIT,” said Dr. Abeln. “We want ASB as a business school to be relevant to the market, listen to the needs of organizations for developing leaders and to be an active partner with the business community. Our goal is to support talent development and provide individuals with an actionable, practical tool kit of new skills to increase performance.”

Some of the ways ASB-Iclif has begun responding to the changing market needs include introducing a mini-MBA skill building foundation course. “This course is for managers wanting to gain knowledge about MBA topics but who do not have the time to complete a degree,” explained Dr. Abeln.

In addition, plans are underway for a joint ASB/MIT Sloan flagship program for executives where participants spend a week at ASB and a week at MIT Sloan in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and get a joint certificate from both schools.

In the near future, “we also have exciting programs planned in 2022 in digital transformation, strategic management, finance and developing future-ready Smart and Sharp skills,” Dr. Abeln added. “We’re also expanding our short course offerings in the governance and central banking areas.”

Combining regional expertise with international experience

Although Iclif only recently merged with ASB in 2020, it was built on a longstanding history, dating back to 2003. The idea for Iclif was born during the financial crisis, when the then-governor of the Malaysia’s central bank, Dr. Zeti Akhtar Aziz, surmised that the crisis was born out of the lack of principled leadership and good governance. Subsequently, Iclif was founded to equip leaders to be principled and transformative.

Over the years, “Over 50,000 participants have attended Iclif programs and our annual Leadership Energy conferences from over 25 countries, so we have had significant impact on the business community in ASEAN and international impact,” said Dr. Abeln.

Many of the governance programs have also been enrolled in by directors of public-listed companies. “These programs have helped new directors perform their Board and leadership roles and also helped instill confidence in Malaysia companies about our commitment to international governance standards.”

In 2020, Iclif merged with ASB to offer a wider range of offerings. “With the ASB-Iclif merger in 2020, we now have a larger pool of highly qualified faculty members from across the globe, including faculty who hold positions as International Faculty Fellows at MIT Sloan, and who are able both teach in degreed programs (MBA, masters for central banking, MBA for Working Professionals) and support the growth of the portfolio of executive education programs to cater to the developmental needs of executives throughout their career journey.”

Post-merger, anticipated Iclif events like the annual LESA conference continue to be held. This year, for the 9th year running, LESA will take place in November 2021, focusing on themes of leadership and enterprise sustainability, helping companies understand different approaches to integrating sustainability into their strategy.

Digitalization: Set to stay post-pandemic

The pandemic impacted industries and organizations all over the world, and business schools were not exempt as many shifted to a virtual teaching environment. On a global scale, Covid-19 closed economies, disrupted the labor force, disrupted supply chains and forced most business sectors to adapt. And it required people and organizations to adopt new ways of communicating, consuming, and working together. Almost overnight, platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams became platforms for meetings and tools of communication.

“We had to adapt to a virtual world as our freedom of movement and travel was restricted and the in- office experience was transformed to working from home for many. While we are confident medical advances will defeat COVID-19, its consequences will forever change the way we work and live,” said Dr. Abeln.

“Taking your classes at home”, “buying online”, and “working from home” are all trends which, for many, which will remain post-COVID-19. And that is why Dr. Abeln believes that “talent development and HR leaders will look for aspiring managers who can adapt to a more virtual world, manage diverse and remote teams, and understand the nature of organizations, markets and consumers to more effectively navigate changes from acceleration of technology and behavior.”

Agility and future-proof skills: Critical talent differentiators

For the ASEAN region, in addition to coping with the changes wrought by the pandemic, there are regional dynamics at play as well: “We have distinct demographics, different cultures, national policies, wage rates, income levels and levels of economic growth.” However, some of Asia’s biggest advantages, according to Dr. Abeln, is “a strong desire to grow and a strong sense of entrepreneurialism including family businesses and the importance of small and medium-sized enterprises to the economy.”

Executive education is poised to meet the evolving skill and talent needs of the future, Dr. Abeln believes – whether in Asia or beyond and reach more organizations. “The fundamental needs of HR to drive organizational performance through talent is the same: we look to find quick learners, those who can adapt and bring value to organizations, can work within a team and are eager to learn new skills and apply them.”

“Further, many organizations in Asia must now have a global strategy and mindset to compete with international companies, to expand and to find new markets, and to differentiate themselves and must develop a more proactive HR agenda to help achieve this,” he added.

To meet these challenges in an era of increasing competition, HR directors, whether in ASEAN or in more developed regions, can either recruit new talent externally or develop talent internally from within their organizations. “In my view, large companies must do both—they must bring in expertise from the outside who can accelerate changes and contribute external capabilities – but they must also integrate them into their culture. They must also more rapidly develop their own human resource capabilities from within and find ways to identify talent, cultivate it, and support managers to become leaders and allow them to succeed.”

Executive education programs can help fill the talent gap through upskilling individuals with relevant skills, while helping organizations accelerate the development of talent from within.

Building foundational skills such as strategic management

As part of the Executive Education catalog at ASB, Dr. Abeln also teaches a short two-day course on Strategic Management. This fundamentally important skill is something that can benefit everyone from middle managers to the C-suite and board members – and yet so often, people misunderstand it or don’t invest in it.

“Some managers may not want to develop a strategy or do strategic planning because it may be perceived as too time-consuming, has high demands, is not rewarded or comes with risks if the leader is held accountable to the plan,” said Dr. Abeln. However, when done well, “strategy is a tool for leaders to use to effectively communicate their vision, support a coordinated effort around similar organizational objectives, and build a team to achieve outcomes.”

According to Dr. Abeln, strategic management should be user-friendly, participatory, flexible, and should lead to resource decisions. “Rather than a static document, strategy should be a continuous process. It is a ‘work in progress’, requires continued communication, and needs to be adapted as changes to market forces and competition require. It is also a way for organizations to measure progress and success towards its goals.”

Many organizations have the right strategy but lack the right team, management, organization structure, and resource planning to implement strategy and achieve desired outcomes. Meanwhile, other companies have strong execution capacity, but the wrong strategy. “Understanding where your organization stands will allow for better alignment between strategy and execution, and that’s what I hope to empower participants with during my course,” said Dr. Abeln.

To learn more about ASB-Iclif’s Executive Education offerings, click here. 

About the ASB Master of Central Banking Program

The Master of Central Banking (MCB) is designed for central bankers and offers a comprehensive, first-of-its-kind curriculum that connects all the core functions of central banking as well as leadership and governance, in light of the technological and economic changes taking place in today’s world.

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Learn more about the Strategic Management Course

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