Woman talking at Senior Executive Forum

Inside the Senior Executive Forum Experience

Learnings gained from Harvard’s elite

5 minute read
Woman talking at Senior Executive Forum

Participants at the Senior Executive Forum 2022

An opportunity for Western Australia’s corporate leaders to rub shoulders with respected Harvard Business School professors, the AIM WA Senior Executive Forum last held in July 2022 offered a unique and complex learning environment, delivering successfully on professional development through case study learning.

The Harvard Business School case study method, which celebrated its 100-year anniversary in the 2021-22 academic year, provides realistic scenarios and teaches “the art of managing uncertainty”.

Harvard Business School Professor C. Roland ‘Chris’ Christensen, who was one of the founders of business strategy and a contributor to the development of case method teaching, described it as a process in which the instructor served as the “planner, host, moderator, devil’s advocate, fellow student and judge.”

Case method teachers teach subjects to develop the balance between planning and spontaneity, allowing for active feedback and reflection through discussion and collaboration with fellow peers to understand how people from all walks of life use the same information to arrive at diverse conclusions.

Allowing this case study method to be experienced down under, the two-and-a-half-day Senior Executive Forum brought Harvard Business School’s David Collis and Ethan Bernstein to Perth, where they shared their invaluable insight with the likes of Foodbank WA Chief Executive Officer Kate O’Hara.

Ms O’Hara said the opportunity for professional development at the Senior Executive Forum was second to none, for both herself and the Foodbank WA leadership team.

“To see an event held by AIM WA with the calibre of Harvard’s lecturers has, for a long time, had an appeal,” she said.

“Being one year into my role as Chief Executive Officer, I felt that it was an ideal time to not just personally go for a refresh but to also bring some members of the leadership team along to build on leadership, team alignment and culture development.

“It was enormously powerful.”

Moment to refocus

With global corporations still embarking on uncharted territory in a post-COVID-19 world, the forum delved into the changing face of leadership and strategy in this rare corporate landscape.

Ms O’Hara said the fast-tracked change as a result of the pandemic was certainly felt at Foodbank WA, tying in perfectly with the subject matter of the Senior Executive Forum.

Established in 1994, Foodbank WA underwent significant changes in the past three years, with COVID-19 breaking down old standards of operation in order for the organisation to quickly reach the market and meet its needs.

“It was very important to maintain the momentum of that agility and maintain the growth that had been achieved through these fibres,” Ms O’Hara said.

“The forum provided us with an opportunity to consider those major levers that we need to turn to keep improving and meeting the market.

“Each case study’s discussion points, overviews and summaries were very easily translated into what we are dealing with right now as an organisation."

“Probably 90 per cent of businesses and organisations out there are dealing with change, but it was the translatable factor of the content that really packed the punch on the value of the Senior Executive Forum.

“The manner in which it was presented and the volume of insights that are relevant to business was phenomenal.”

Connecting with leaders

Ms O’Hara said being able to connect with other business leaders was also a highlight of the event, uncovering the intersecting issues faced by a raft of industries.

“I've definitely come away with a very different perspective,” she said.

“It made me stop and think about other organisations and their issues.

“The blend of C-suite and senior management was very good. The breadth of businesses, from the massive-scale Fortescue Metals Group (Fortescue) to the smaller-scale organisations, was really useful.

“To be able to hear some of the things they’re dealing with, which they spoke honestly about, enabled us to develop a level of trust and do talk about things that, in a half-day session, would never have normally been tabled and debated.”

Fortescue Resource Definition Manager - Eastern Operations Shane Carr agreed that bringing together people from different sectors and worlds was a highlight.

“I haven’t had the opportunity to engage with the not-for-profit sector previously, so it was great to see such a significant turnout of people from non-profits there.

“I was able to have conversations with them, not just around the content but also around how their businesses operate.

“It was also a great opportunity for me as an individual to see those different viewpoints, understand the different challenges and know that there are shared challenges across all industries and businesses.”

Understanding strategy and leadership

Similar to Ms O’Hara, Mr Carr was especially drawn to the Senior Executive Forum having just stepped into a leadership role.

He said he left the forum with a greater understanding of how to identify a good strategy, formulate it and contribute to discussions around it.

“I learnt some of the soft skills from the leadership point of view about different ways people can influence their own leadership and other people’s, as well as setting a culture of acceptance to change and how that can be quite empowering,” Mr Carr said.

“One thing I took from it at a personal level was that everybody has a fair amount of imposter syndrome when you take on a higher role for the first time.

“They make the forum very easy for all levels to talk to each other – I sat down with chief executive officers, chief financial officers and managing directors, and we were able to have conversations where I was able to hold my own.

“It gave me an opportunity to sit down and talk with people outside my organisation, as well as within my organisation that are higher up than myself.

"This was an event where doing this was encouraged – it didn’t matter what your job title was, everyone’s opinion was there to be heard and valued.

“This was quite powerful for myself as an individual.”

Well worth it

“If it’s your first time going, and if you’re in a similar position to myself, definitely go for nothing else other than the fact that it will give you validation of your role and your ability, as well as the exposure to other industries,” Mr Carr said.

“These leadership and strategy sessions lead to change and, sometimes, that change is great for the organisation or the person realises they are a changed person from it and they cannot go back to an unchanged environment,” Ms O’Hara said.

Where to from here?

For more information about the Senior Executive Forum, read At Home With Harvard Business School