Leadership with a cultural lens: The AGSM MBA Executive Year

A Master of Business Administration (MBA) is about developing not only business skills, but also leadership capability.

That is why AGSM @ UNSW Business School revamped its MBA Executive Year (EY) and introduced a Leadership Immersion program – a unique offering that focuses on developing the leadership skills of existing and aspiring business leaders in collaboration with First Nations businesses.

The Leadership Immersion program is the final course in the capstone year for the MBA Executive (MBAE). It equips graduates to lead across complex, culturally diverse business ecosystems.

Beyond the standard business, management and leadership aspects of a traditional MBA, this program immerses students in a First Nations project to provide a hands-on, transformational learning experience – a one-of-a-kind MBA program at Australia’s Best Business School.

It includes a one-week residential on Country with communities in Dubbo or La Perouse, workshops on cultural awareness and supplier diversity, yarning circles, reviews of the Reconciliation Action Plans of the student’s own employers, and learning about connection to Country, and First Nations’ perspectives of leadership. 

"Students learn while contributing to community through strategic consulting projects that positively impact on the communities and organisations they work with," said Professor Nick Wailes, Senior Deputy Dean (External Engagement) and Director at AGSM @UNSW Business School. 

“Adults learn incredibly well when they’re tasked to do something. It takes them out of the everyday and challenges them to think differently. This program helps them do that as business leaders,” he said. 

To ensure a collaborative experience with a positive community impact, an Advisory Board of First Nations leaders co-designed the program, which is largely delivered by First Nations facilitators. Students get the opportunity to work with a First Nations business or community organisation on a project or business objective that challenges their cultural awareness and leadership capability in a context they may not have previously experienced.

Since 2022, more than 200 MBAE candidates have delivered 18 projects for 12 organisations critical to Indigenous communities on Wiradjuri Country (Dubbo area) and Bidjigal Country (La Perouse area) through the program.

Context matters – leading with perspective

The Leadership Immersion experience is part of the AGSM @ UNSW Business School part-time MBA Executive program, which includes a fully integrated global Responsible Management curriculum designed to enable business leaders to be responsible, sustainable and ethical leaders. Across all programs, AGSM is preparing students to contend with the realities of organisational complexity.

“Through innovative research, transformative learning and responsible leadership practices, we equip graduates to find better ways to create sustainable economic and social value,” Professor Wailes said.

Spread over one term in the final year of the part-time MBA program, the immersion allows working executives to engage in experiential learning while balancing work/life commitments.

One of these business leaders is Cherie Thompson – a Wailwan woman from central western New South Wales. Cherie and her husband Phil, a Bidjara/Kara Kara man from central Queensland, founded Native Secrets – a 100% Indigenous owned and managed natural skin care brand.

Cherie completed an AGSM MBA Executive in 2022 and experienced the best of both worlds – completing the Leadership Immersion program as a participating student and beneficiary business owner. As a student, Cherie got to work with a local Indigenous business over 10 weeks, concluding with an intensive residential week in La Perouse, during which students lived and worked on site.

“Even as an Indigenous woman, the culture of the Bidjigal people is different to my culture. Understanding their community helped me see things differently and influenced the way I manage people through gaining new perspectives,” Cherie said.

Her observation speaks to the cognitive and emotional complexity that executives face in today’s dynamic and interconnected world. AGSM helps students develop the capacity to deal with these complexities and the experience teaches them how to adjust to context and truly listen to people to become effective leaders.

“Students are encouraged to move beyond their technical knowledge and work on soft and strategic skills, because the skills that got them to their current positions are not the same ones that keep them successful,” said Professor Wailes.

Knowing, doing, being

Another key characteristic setting the program apart from other MBAs is the adoption of the integrated learning framework of ‘knowing, doing, being’.

“Business education had become more about knowing and much less about doing and being. Knowing something by itself is not that useful, it’s putting it into practice that’s valuable,” Professor Wailes said.

By working with real world clients, AGSM MBA students in the Immersion Program learn how to bring their skills together to create actionable solutions for businesses. Students also developed soft skills by stepping out of their comfort zones. For Cherie, this meant building her confidence in communication and public speaking. These skills have allowed her to secure her first investor for Native Secrets since finishing the program in 2022.

For other students, engaging in cultural activities such as yarning circles, where every person gets a voice has shown the value in slowing down to listen to others. Many have walked away from the experience with a new appreciation for leading with empathy.

“Establishing trust, respect and common values with anyone you work with is a good starting point for productive relationships and effective leadership,” added Professor Wailes.

A program shaped for long-term impact

MBAE students are not the only ones to benefit from the Leadership Immersion program. Indigenous organisations also get access to some of the best business minds – up and coming leaders of large organisations who bring a wealth of knowledge.

“As business owners, we tend to work more in the business rather than on the business. This experience has allowed me to take a step back and receive help to work on the business and make new strategic projects happen,” says Cherie.

One such project recommended by students for Native Secrets is a cultural retreat to offer leadership workshops for corporate organisations using a cultural lens. Since then, the Dubbo Regional Council has given Native Secrets an area to build facilities in stages over the coming years.

The impact of the program lasts well beyond its duration. Reflecting its emphasis on building long-term relationships, students establish valuable connections and lifelong friendships. Many also stay in touch with the organisations and provide ongoing support to see them succeed.

“Students are interested in making a real difference, using their skills to produce better outcomes,” Professor Wailes remarked.

"Great management education is transformational and changes who you are as a person and a leader."

These outcomes go deeper than affecting Indigenous businesses and communities – they shape the students as individuals.

Find out more about the top ranked AGSM MBA programs available at Australia's Best Business School 2022/2023.