COVER STORY: Educating Our Future Managers – Preparing Well

The two Grey High School accounting students were expecting straight-forward stock take. After arriving at the base hospital in Greymouth, Sam McDonald and Sarah van-Looy (both 16) dressed in gowns and masks and were led by nurse to an operating theatre. They started counting sutures and swabs, even the replacement knees and hips, as way of learning how to predict inventory levels.
The school and hospital had teamed up to give students some practical experience beyond the textbooks, but the pair were about to get more than they had anticipated. An emergency… and the pair were kicked out of the room in rush. Cut off from the stock they were supposed to be counting, hospital staff told them to sing out if they needed any help and left them to find solution.
“They were thrown real life situation and just told, ‘you figure it out’,” says Nicky Cooper, education project manager for Development West Coast. Using what they’d already counted as percentage of the total inventory and little guidance from staff, they did just that.
“We were able to apply the methods we were learning in school and it really made them stick,” says McDonald.
“They were professional, they weren’t crushed under the pressure,” says Cooper. “When I went in to see them they were problem solving, managing themselves. They were there with their spreadsheets out. It was amazing.”
The hospital was able to use the work in its budgets, while the students got hands-on idea of what management is all about.
For most of us schooled in the 20th century, the opportunity to apply in real business place what we were taught in class would have been rare indeed. But as New Zealand struggles to improve the quality of its managers, more attention is turning to the country’s secondary schools and how they can help students get head start in business. Hard questions are being asked of schools and the curriculum; essentially, are schools doing enough to prepare the next generation of business leaders?
“The answer has to be that the jury’s still out,” says New Zealand Institute of Management chief executive David Chapman, which is why this month sees the return of the Management Focus ( initiative launched in 2007. Management Focus was established by group of leading New Zealand private and public sector organisations to encourage managers and business owners to work together to develop their management capability. The idea, promoted initially by NZIM, involves major sector groups such as Business New Zealand, the Employers and Manufacturers Association, economic development agencies, chambers of commerce, educators such as institutes of technology and universities, and government departments such as NZ Trade & Enterprise and the Department of Labour.
The cross-sectoral promotion of management excellence will create an “enduring brand” under which range of activities will be developed and promoted to create week-long Management Focus programme every year. This year’s event launches on 3 June.
The education/business debate will receive even more prominence next month when Secondary Futures – project set up by Cabinet in 2004 to canvass voices not often heard in the education debate – releases paper on how and why business could be more involved in education.
The consensus amongst those interviewed for this article was that things were “improving”, “on the cusp”, or “moving in the right direction”, but far from complete. The main complaint was that for every improving school there were several others showing few signs of change.
Still, with pressure coming on from Government and business alike, new broom of learning is starting its sweep through New Zealand’s schools, and it will have profound implications for management in this country.
It wasn’t long ago that New Zealand high schools did fair amount of pre-screening for employers, deciding whether teenager was going to follow professional or technical path in life. The colour of your collar was often picked out for you before you were old enough to drive.
“It was the production line model, in large part because that’s how business wanted it,” says Shirley van Waveren of New Zealand Trade & Enterprise. school system designed for the industrial age mass-produced workers with the 3Rs; universities, polytechnics or employers were tasked with providing the add-ons. Enterprise was often dirty word and business studies didn’t extend much past economics, with its litany of dry theory. Chapman recalls the days when commerce was merely subset of social studies.
But the information age demands different kind of school graduate. Both the private and public sectors agree the old model is becoming redundant in globalised world where so many blue-collar jobs have been shipped to the developing world and New Zealand’s desire for knowledge-based economy – and managers trained to lead it – is increasingly urgent.
The old model assumed that management training for those professional classes could begin and end at university. Lester Levy, chief executive of the New Zealand Leadership Institute at the University of Auckland, believes that in the 21st century we have to start much earlier. The critical and lateral thinking required in management should be taught to every child, starting in primary school, he says.
“Our school education has not had an emphasis on that, it’s been about content… But if we’re serious about looking for the next generation of managers and leaders, we know that the research says that the earlier they start the better.”
Serious concerns already exist about the quality of management in New Zealand, and Levy warns that it won’t get any easier for managers in the next few decades. “Managers are already wrestling with more complex problems than ever before, in terms of technology, team-building and so on.”
Toss in globalisation, pressures on the environment, skill shortages and any of the other issues battling for prominence on the business pages, and “it’s only going to get harder and harder”.
Demographics too, spell out the need. Levy says lot of businesses don’t appreciate the impact retiring baby boomers will have over the next decade. “Younger people are going to be accelerated into senior positions really early, so we’ve got to prepare them. For all our sakes.”
For years, business, Government, and schools have each muttered, sometimes yelled, about the need for change. Yet as Phil O’Reilly, CEO of Business New Zealand puts it, “business and education have had bad habit of talking past each other”.
It’s easy to accuse schools and the Ministry of Education of being education purists or dinosaurs. Even van Waveren of NZTE, another government department, compares changing schools to “working with great big old rusty ship”. One of NZIM’s great frustrations is that although 22 of its management papers are now offered by 40 schools nationwide, from Kerikeri to Central Southland, and earn students NCEA credits, NZQA won’t record the papers on student’s record of learning, claiming it’s administratively too complex.
O’Reilly recalls teacher approaching him after speech and telling him that teachers were suspicious of business “because it’s not learning environment”. O’Reilly was flabbergasted. But business must shoulder plenty of blame as well, he adds.
As an example, he points to how businesspeople often say they want more exams, which typically puts teachers’ backs up.
“It’s as if exams are central to business; they’re not.”
Indeed, if employees took another person’s thinking, memorised it, and rushed it all onto paper in three hours, they would probably be sacked, he chuckles. In part, managers are trapped in the “it never did me any harm” line of thinking, but mostly they’re just not communicating well.
“To businesspeople exams are proxy for pressure, deadlines, and learning to cope with failure. They don’t actually want exams pe

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