‘I can take the pro­gram wher­ever I go’

Toronto Star - - SBJ -

Over the past 16 years, Shari Thatcher has dili­gently climbed the cor­po­rate lad­der. In 2002, when she was hired at Parker Han­nifin, a global leader in mo­tion and con­trol tech­nolo­gies, Thatcher was an ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant. With time, she ac­quired nu­mer­ous cre­den­tials and held var­i­ous po­si­tions within the com­pany. About two and a half years ago, Thatcher re­al­ized that to get to the next rung, she needed a mas­ter of busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion (MBA).

With a busy sched­ule that in­volved travel, an in-class MBA was not an op­tion. In­stead, Thatcher logged on with Athabasca Uni­ver­sity (AU) — the first in­sti­tu­tion in the world to of­fer a fully in­ter­ac­tive online MBA for ex­ec­u­tives back in 1994.

“I can take the pro­gram wher­ever I go and not miss a beat,” says Thatcher, who to­day is the lean man­ager at Parker’s Canada di­vi­sion and will com­plete her MBA in De­cem­ber. “The flex­i­bil­ity of online learn­ing fits into my lifestyle per­fectly and I’ve def­i­nitely ex­pe­ri­enced not only ca­reer ad­vance­ment but per­sonal ad­vance­ment as well.”

As the largest MBA for ex­ec­u­tives pro­gram in Canada, AU’s of­fer­ing re­quires ap­pli­cants to hold an un­der­grad de­gree with at least three years of man­age­rial ex­pe­ri­ence, an ac­cepted pro­fes­sional des­ig­na­tion and at least five years of man­age­rial ex­pe­ri­ence, or at least eight years of pro­gres­sively re­spon­si­ble man­age­rial ex­pe­ri­ence. These ad­mis­sion re­quire­ments make the pro­gram pop­u­lar with pro­fes­sion­als who, like Thatcher, want to main­tain per­sonal and pro­fes­sional com­mit­ments while com­plet­ing their MBA.

Deb­o­rah Hurst is the dean of AU’s fac­ulty of busi­ness. She says given this de­mo­graphic, the MBA, in ad­di­tion to con­cen­trat­ing on the man­age­ment ar­eas crit­i­cal to or­ga­ni­za­tional per­for­mance, is fa­cil­i­tated in a way that al­lows stu­dents to move beyond case stud­ies to real world ap­pli­ca­tion.

“This is a pro­gram for real man­agers, solv­ing real prob­lems,” she says. “As stu­dents work through the cour­ses, their ex­pe­ri­ences are brought into the dis­cus­sions. So, the pro­gram al­lows them to learn about their or­ga­ni­za­tion in a deeper way, and con­trib­ute more right away.”

Adds Thatcher, “There isn’t any­thing I have learned that I haven’t been able to ap­ply. It’s a win-win for me and my or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

Typ­i­cally com­pleted over two and a half years, the pro­gram is bro­ken down into two phases. The first con­sists of six foun­da­tional cour­ses that build upon each other and are capped by a week-long com­pre­hen­sive examination. The sec­ond, mean­while, re­quires stu­dents to com­plete four core ad­vanced cour­ses as well as elec­tive cred­its.

“It’s paced, col­lab­o­ra­tive and coached,” says Hurst of AU’s de­liv­ery. “In ad­di­tion to online dis­cus­sions, stu­dents learn to work in teams dis­trib­uted around the world. So they have the ad­van­tage of learn­ing a host of rel­e­vant soft skills in ad­di­tion to be­ing ex­pected to lead, make de­ci­sions and deal with con­flict. They come out of the pro­gram with adap­tive ca­pac­ity.”

To fur­ther strengthen their skills, at least one of stu­dents’ cho­sen elec­tives must be taken in res­i­dence, with the five-day res­i­dence elec­tives held across Canada and in­ter­na­tion­ally.

One of AU’s unique in-res­i­dence elec­tives is De­vel­op­ing Lead­ers, which Thatcher at­tended and which Hurst teaches with a team of AU coaches. Its fo­cuses on de­vel­op­ing lead­er­ship ca­pa­bil­ity in one­self and in oth­ers through the premise that lead­er­ship is a learn­able set of prac­tices that can be de­ci­phered, un­der­stood and in­cor­po­rated. Hurst says she be­lieves the course can be a trans­for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence.

“De­vel­op­ing Lead­ers ex­am­ines how peo­ple can lead not only with their mind but also with their heart,” she says. “It’s im­por­tant to stay true to our­selves in to­day’s pres­sur­ized en­vi­ron­ment, and my stu­dents seem to agree.

“By the end of the week, stu­dents are lead­ing the class and the as­sign­ments that come in af­ter­wards blow your mind be­cause stu­dents have been so touched. They al­ways come back and say it was mean­ing­ful to them.”

Thatcher, for her part, takes Hurst’s sen­ti­ments a step fur­ther. She says not only was the course trans­for­ma­tive, but AU’s MBA has made her a bet­ter per­son.

“Be­fore, I was very process driven and any­one can do that but it doesn’t mean you are mo­ti­vat­ing or car­ing about peo­ple,” she says. “The AU MBA ex­pe­ri­ence broad­ened my per­spec­tive, my val­ues and my ap­pre­ci­a­tion of peo­ple, which al­lows me to be a more ef­fec­tive leader and a bet­ter per­son.”

Con­trib­uted

Deb­o­rah Hurst is the dean of AU’s fac­ulty of busi­ness.

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