“If you talk to leaders about what keeps them up at night, the vast majority of their concerns will be related to people,” said Dr Simon Fishwick, a management expert at the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics.

The workplace is changing, and as Dr Fishwick’s research has shown, the future of an organisation is tied closely to how well it has invested in its staff.

That means if an organisation wants an advantage over its competitors, one of the best ways to do that sustainably is to recruit high quality staff who work well together.

“If a bank comes up with a new product aimed at professional women, another bank could easily come up with a similar product,” explains Dr Fishwick. 

But if a bank has people with the skills to actually engage professional women customers, that’s going to take much longer for another bank to replicate.

Knowing how to handle personnel can be a weighty responsibility for new business leaders who rise through the ranks without adequate training in people management. That’s why Dr Fishwick seeks to equip business students with the skills they need to be better managers right from the outset.

Real world vs theory

One of the key issues in people management is the gap between research and practice. It’s often difficult to successfully implement ideas from the academic literature into the professional workplace.

To address this in his leadership postgraduate business subjects, Dr Fishwick introduced what he calls ‘reflective practice journals’.

This exercise involves having students identify a real-life leadership problem, and find a solution to it in the academic literature. The next step is for them to devise a practical solution that would work in an actual workplace scenario.

After the first round of feedback on their practical solutions, the students are given a second and third chance to change their approach. The technique is designed to teach students how to reflect on and enact changes to their strategy on multiple levels.    

Dr Fishwick has also launched end-of-semester leadership forums to connect the students with leaders from a range of industries. Teaming up with workplaces and managers, he organises panels featuring people with leadership credentials, so they can share their experiences with the students.

A key part of these events is to promote diversity in leadership – a recent forum featured an all-female panel to provide an important, and often underrepresented, leadership perspective to the students. 

We know most organisations’ women are underrepresented, and there’s a lot of prejudice holding women back from senior positions.

The leadership forums are also open to practicing leaders and managers through partnership arrangements, such as the Tasmanian Employer of Choice (EoC) network and the Australian Human Resource Institute (AHRI). They are Community Engagement events embedded within the academic curriculum.

“Some attendees subsequently took up subjects at the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics,” said Dr Fishwick.

Dr Fishwick hopes that the learning initiatives he introduced to the University will embed in its students the qualities required to make a good leader.

And when the time comes for the graduates to step into their real-life leadership roles, they’ll have the advantage of practical training and guidance from those who are already at the top. 

I hope the seminars give them a bridge between university life and the life of a professional.

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