Sept. 18, 2020

MBA students learn to navigate diversity and adversity in the workplace

Advanced leadership course provides tools to engage professionally in challenging discussions

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has impacted businesses all over the world, challenging leaders to reflect on how they have responded when faced with challenges related to both diversity and adversity in the workplace. Suddenly, the ability to think critically, rationally and to practise emotional self-regulation when faced with highly charged discussions is more important than ever for leaders.

Enter Willow Brocke. She’s an adjunct professor at the Haskayne School of Business and recently taught an advanced leadership course for Executive MBA students that focused on dealing with both diversity and adversity in the workplace. Brocke holds a Bachelor of Social work and a Master of Educational Psychology from the University of Victoria. Her area of expertise is in effective engagement to build capacity in organizations.

Brocke challenged students with the overarching theme of “holding your seat in the face of adversity.” This included skills in critical thinking, regulating emotions, understanding your values, and communicating masterfully, especially in stressful situations. The course asked students to focus on who they are as leaders and to enact this consciously in their everyday professional life. The course finished as the BLM movement began, and students expressed feeling they were more prepared to deal with this after taking the course.

“Diversity and inclusion were continual themes throughout the course as we deconstructed and reconstructed contemporary leadership theories,” says Jill Brown, current Executive MBA student. “This led to some very robust and zealous class discussions as we explored these themes through our own diverse lenses.

"In recognizing the negative effects of oppression, I have reflected deeply, particularly in light of the BLM movement, on how I can use my agency as a leader to get in front of the negative forces that prevent inclusive practices in the workplace and create organizational structures that allow everyone to have a voice.”

Jill Brown and Jeff Plourde

Haskayne EMBA student Jill Brown participated in the recent advanced leadership course. Jeff Plourde, Haskayne EMBA student, reflected on learnings around conflict resolution.

Don Molyneaux

 “Companies that embrace diversity are not only ahead of the curve in terms of creating a more just society, they are more profitable, more creative and attract more investment.” says Brocke. “Cultivating diversity in business requires skill in leading difficult conversations with while listening from a place of openness and calm. It takes a lot of personal courage to do this, and students in this course demonstrated that courage by embracing truly transformational learning. This kind of transformational learning is central to the university’s Eyes High vision. ”

Throughout the course, students focused on thinking critically about leadership, cultural diversity, economic diversity, building diverse teams and engaging in difficult discussions. This, coupled with skill development on how to regulate emotions, provided practice at what will be required of them to lead the cutting edge in real-life business leadership.

They were also asked to practise taking charge of their own professional development, by following their curiosity to set up and execute a learning project, and to practise the habit of ongoing self-awareness through coaching and reflection.

“I believe the course provided the test environment I needed to engage in conflict resolution and resolve differences of opinion in a meaningful and productive manner,” says current EMBA student Jeff Plourde. “Willow provides a path for one to discover their own core beliefs, build confidence in their relevance and to enact an effective communication strategy. I have not only gained true purpose for my style of leadership but also for my daily contribution to humanity.”

Plourde reflects, “I am confidently able to navigate the new challenges impacting interpersonal relationships, brought on by the new world before us, because of Willow’s teachings.”

Brocke says, “The goal is to prepare business leaders who will be more innovative and ultimately more successful in business, which is conducted in the real-world context of diverse and ever changing environments, including the social and political realities of our times”

“The course asked us to tolerate a degree of discomfort in order to open ourselves to uncovering blind spots. For me, the concept of ‘holding my seat’ as a leader by listening and being curious rather than becoming defensive, has been transformational in my leadership practice,” says Brown.

“I learned to anchor my responses in my values but be more open to sharing perspectives rather than holding tightly on to my own. It’s a choice to be curious, and this often creates a sense of vulnerability, but better decisions are made with the whole reality in view. Absolutely nothing is lost by being open to other perspectives, and I learned that getting defensive and not assuming accountability for my blind spots is counter-productive to my leadership goals. What’s more, instead of just learning ‘about’ what I should do, I learned how to actually do it."


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