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Exec Ed Director Q&A: Anara Ayaganova, Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Business

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Exec Ed Director Q&A: Anara Ayaganova, Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Business

Lifelong learning is no longer a luxury of curiosity or academic interest, but a requirement for remaining relevant in an ever-changing working world, states Anara Ayaganova, the Director of Executive Education programmes at Nazarbayev University's Graduate School of Business.

The university, established in 2010, offers a range of business education programmes including a Full-Time MBA, EMBA, MSc in Finance, and Master in HR Management, alongside executive education programmes. These are offered as custom and open enrolment, and includes an SME Leadership Training Programme aimed at entrepreneurs and senior managers of small and medium-sized enterprises that desire to grow their business.

The Graduate School of Business (NUGSB) is inspired by the mission of the wider university, to be a model for higher education reform and modern research. It specifically aims to be established as a world-class business school, recognised for the quality of its education, impact of its research, international orientation, and engagement with the business community.

We spoke with Ayaganova about executive education at the school and what exactly makes the programmes at this Central Asian school stand out within the sector.

What is NUGSB Executive Education’s general approach to leadership development?

The mission of the NUGSB is to develop principled leaders and generate knowledge to transform business and society. Clearly, leadership development ranks high in our mission statement. We aim to accomplish this through our degree programmes (EMBA, full-time MBA, Master in Finance, and Master in HR Management) and especially through our executive programmes. We believe that great leaders inspire both through their knowledge and through their personal skills.

The Executive Education Programmes at NUGSB are designed to create a new generation of leaders who practice continuous improvement and lifelong learning, ready to gain new knowledge and sharpen their skills as well as support their employees in this journey. We help participants of our programmes to lead organisations and their people in a world of increased volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

What are three key leadership skills executives need to be successful in business?

A leader is someone who can see how things can be improved and who rallies people to move toward that better vision. The skills that most embody and support our perspective on leadership are:

Strategic thinking skills. In today’s increasingly dynamic environment, to compete successfully means creating substantial value for customers, stakeholders, and shareholders with the goal of achieving a sustainable competitive advantage. Most of the time, executives in organisations play the role of navigating their team towards goals which are well-communicated and clear to the employees. However, on the way, they also need to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. Change is inevitable and a business reality for everyone. Deep knowledge of the industry and its surrounding environment, together with a firm grasp of generic strategic models, are the basis of this strategic thinking skill.

Decision making skills. Leaders need to be able to turn strategy into action. A leader needs to have the ability to make decisions and take responsibility for those decisions. Again, sound knowledge will allow a good leader to solve problems and to choose the best alternatives among their ideas and ideas of their employees, so the latter feel themselves secured, supported, and ready to follow their leader.

Personal and Interpersonal Skills. Managers at all levels need to focus on the emotional side of leadership and develop people management skills, emotional intelligence, and other soft skills. The pandemic has demonstrated how important the human aspects of management really are.

As companies assess the future of work, how is lifelong learning increasingly important?

To quote Shakespeare himself, “Nothing lasts forever under the sun.”

We are experiencing a moment in history of rapid change, which manifests itself in science, technology, culture, and global balance of power. This, of course, has a significant impact on the corporate world and on-the-job skills required to participate in the workforce. Job descriptions and skill sets are constantly changing during one’s lifetime and career.

Lifelong learning is not a luxury of curiosity and academic interest anymore, but a necessity to remain relevant in an ever-changing environment. Beyond the workplace, it will secure social inclusion, active citizenship, and individual development, but also increase competitiveness and employability. Companies that invest in their employees will always have a competitive advantage due to skill qualifications of their employees and a faster adaptation to the change. Fortunately, technology gives companies a helping hand in more efficiently keeping employee skill sets up-to-date.

Is online delivery here to stay?

The pandemic has been a great demonstration of strengths and advantages of online learning and its applications. It also boosted improvement of technical features and development of numerous software, which can enrich classroom learning. While online delivery of our programmes will remain in the future due to a number of advantages, like elimination of travel costs, time saved on travel, possibility to organise educational programmes for employees who work in different geographical areas, and many others, some clients already prefer a blended format of delivery, since it still allows a company to save resources.

What particular industries should be looking to executive education today?

Continuous learning is the key to maintaining a competitive edge. For many business leaders, this starts with executive education.

Benefits of executive education are applicable to all companies notwithstanding their industry. All companies will benefit from filling skill gaps and broadening perspectives and networks of their managers and employees, which will lead to overall improvement in organisational performance.

How is Executive Education at NUGSB supporting more women and other minorities on their leadership journey?

NUGSB offers a range of scholarships to our open-enrollment executive education programmes. We support individually paying participants, representatives of SMEs as well as provide corporate discounts to companies. Mentioning gender balance, based on the latest statistics, we have almost perfect gender balance in our programmes: 51% male versus 49% of women in 2021, and vice versa in 2020.

What makes Executive Education at NUGSB so distinct?

There are three main aspects, which can differentiate NUGSB from other business schools offering executive education. Firstly, NUGSB’s global orientation. Though Nazarbayev University is a relatively young organisation, it is full of ambition, energy and, most importantly, academic foundation to become a well-known international university with a solid reputation. To achieve this, the university has formed partnerships with some of the highest ranked universities in the world in specific disciplinary areas. Each school within the university has its own individual strategic partner. The Graduate School of Business has a strategic partnership with the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, ranked within the top tier of business schools globally, since 2011.

Secondly, our faculty. All professors at our school hold PhD degrees from prestigious accredited universities. The combination of well-grounded theoretical and applied research of our faculty with best practices in classroom management, whether on or offline, result in the effective design and delivery of topical programmes that meet clearly specified learning objectives. We also involve widely regarded experts from industries alongside international specialists in our custom programmes which enriches content of the programmes as well. Strong course evaluations validate the satisfaction of participants in our open and company-specific programmes.

Lastly, the research conducted by our faculty helps companies in the region and around the world to better understand and face the challenges of today’s rapidly changing environment. We don’t just teach courses to share business knowledge and educate our participants about management decision frameworks – we create them based on international and local perspectives. Research focus of the school and its faculty creates an environment where we can apply new methods, knowledge, and theories to improve our executive education programmes and equip participants with the knowledge, skills and abilities to make a difference.

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