Emerging out of the drizzling rain the MBA team “These Suits were made for walking” turned the corner, completing their 55 kilometre hike through steep Australian bush terrain in 11 hours 3 minutes, representing an end to their 14-week journey in their “Adaptive Leadership” MBA course. As he crossed the line team member Tom Hodginson thanked the QUT MBA teaching team and observed: “you really don’t know what you’re going to get out of this until you cross the finish line”.
But this wasn’t just another outdoors education hike. Tom had signed up to our newly developed “Adaptive Leadership” course, which was a custom built educational experience designed around the OXFAM TrailWalker charity event aimed at specifically challenging and building MBA leadership capability in a “live” environment.
In order to complete the unit teams of four MBA students had to raise a minimum of $1400, train, and successfully complete the arduous 55km wilderness hike. All five teams completing the event, with the final team crossing the line in just over 16 hours. More importantly, the teams collectively raised just under AU$30,000 for a respected and worthwhile charity and were awarded the Highest Corporate Fundraising Award for their efforts, therefore representing QUT and AACSB in the best possible way.
Aim, Philosophy & Approach
The initial driver for this project was based on a simple premise. “You can only do so much in a classroom,” says QUT MBA director Glen Murphy. “The more you use simulations, the more you use experiential exercises, that’s really where people are going to be quite challenged, but have most potential to learn about themselves.” (Quoted in the Australian Financial Review, Sept 6, 2016).
Therefore our guiding principle is that leadership cannot be completely and authentically developed in a classroom. As such, we developed an innovative mechanism that combined the experiential and emergent nature of a psychologically and physically demanding outdoor activity with applied leadership theory to genuinely develop and expand leadership capability. Most importantly, this provided the opportunity for a truly transformative leadership experience as part of their MBA.
The Oxfam Trailwalker Challenge is a “pay to play” model – each team has to raise a minimum of AU$1400 to participate in the walk. Additionally, the course requires teams to navigate steep, challenging wilderness terrain that for many people requires extensive preparation and training. Critically, both aspects (fundraising & hiking) contained a high-risk quotient, requiring both leadership and “followership” behaviours to be employed by team members in order to ensure successful completion of the whole event.
Consequently, the OXFAM charity event was identified as a useful platform to build our Leadership unit around. Importantly, in addition to leadership skills, the event required teams to draw down on essential MBA skills such as strategy, marketing, financial management, project planning, networking, negotiation and problem-solving. Importantly, it was recognised that participating in the event would allow our MBA’s to showcase their talents to a broader audience and contribute positively to the broader community through the OXFAM event.
While many institutions report on “experiential activities” in MBA settings many are standard consulting type engagements or online simulations. Very few have “real world” consequences or a deliberately embedded leadership pedagogy. Therefore what makes the QUT Adaptive Leadership unit innovative is its deliberate intent to put our students in uncomfortable, unfamiliar settings with real consequences to their actions, to highlight their various leadership strengths or weaknesses and create the catalyst for leadership development and growth.
In this activity the consequences were real.
- Not raising enough money – can’t participate in the walk, can’t complete the unit;
- Don’t train with the group – risk injury or fail to complete the course;
- Don’t complete the course – have the team disqualified;
- Don’t attend the workshops and successfully complete your assessment — can’t complete the walk.
Designed as an “experiential” advanced leadership unit running over 14 weeks it was open to all enrolled MBA students that had completed at least 2/3rds of their degree.
The teams were allowed to self-select and were also required to participate in a series of “Advanced Masterclass” sessions designed to inform and facilitate their activities over the 14 week period. Workshop topics included “Adaptive leadership” “Intentionality & Strategy”, “Negotiation under pressure”, “Mindfulness & awareness”, and coaching on “Conversations & relationships”.
Participants were required to undertake both individual and group-based assessments over the course of the 14 weeks including the presentation of a project plan, development of a risk management strategy, reflections on their leadership journey throughout the activity and keeping a “blog diary” of their reflections and observations.
The unit was a tremendous success, at an individual level, institutional level and in relation to broader community engagement. Students participating reported significantly high levels of satisfaction with the unit outcomes and the effect on their leadership capabilities.
“This Unit was amazing overall – it really delivered on the “Real World” promise of the university as a whole.”
“It will be an experience I will have for the rest of my life, I formed solid bonds with a lot of good people.”
“The level of commitment to unit completion is considerably more than any other unit, however, it should also be put into context with the amount of satisfaction/learning gained as well.”
At an institutional level, the QUT MBA received very positive exposure in terms of its engagement with the OXFAM event, the success of the teams and their fundraising, as well as the positive brand association with a respected charity event.
The fundraising success of our teams has also prompted OXFAM Australia to contact one of our students to develop a comprehensive corporate fundraising strategy.
Additionally, QUT has agreed to collaborate with OXFAM in 2018 to drive the involvement of other institutions.
Most importantly the QUT cohort successfully raised just short of $30,000 dollars for a worthy cause and demonstrated the significant positive impact that a cohort of well trained, well-motivated MBAs can have on society and the global community.
The inspiration and innovation behind the Oxfam Trailwalker: An Adaptive Leadership Course has been acknowledged by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), a body that provides internationally recognised accreditation for business programs, and is synonymous with the highest standards of excellence.
The 2018 Innovations That Inspire challenge recognizes institutions from around the world serving as champions of change in the business education landscape, with a specific focus on innovation in leadership development.
QUT MBA’s Oxfam trail walker: Adaptive Leadership course was identified as one of 2018’s “Innovations that Inspire” out of the 800 AACSB Business Schools from 16 countries and was announced at the International Conference in April 2018 in the category of “Strengthening the Understanding of Effective Leadership and Leadership Development”.
Associate Professor Glen Murphy,
MBA Director | QUT Graduate School of Business and QUT EX