Desmond Thomas is a program director at Henley Business School Africa. “I always get asked the question,” he grins, “What does a program director actually do? For me, it’s a beautiful process, because I get to walk the learning journey from the day that the delegates first walk into class on Day One, right up to their graduation. It’s a transformational process that I’m fortunate to witness.”
It’s the program director’s task to work with facilitators, to ensure that the delegates progress from block to block, day to day, and ultimately, see to it that everyone gets through in the end.
Desmond believes that the reason he’s at Henley Business School, is that his values align with those of the school: “Henley Business School is all about the heart. You know, we have this motto, and they aren’t just empty words – to build the people that build the businesses that build Africa. Yes, you’re going to learn a lot of academic content, but what you’ll learn more than anything, is getting to know more about yourself. How can you effectively lead teams and businesses if you don’t even know where you yourself are at?”
For Desmond, studying within the Henley environment was a different experience; a whole new world. He had previously gone the university route, and it was probably to be expected that he had preconceived notions of what awaited him at Henley.
One of the most powerful differentiators that struck him, however, was the personal mastery element of his postgraduate course – not specifically the subject per se, but the thrill of personal mastery that ran through everything that the delegates did. “Immersing myself into my learning journey was incredibly powerful. That, and the link to personal mastery. Understanding myself was, for me, the ‘secret sauce’ – the power behind why I fell in love with the place.”
He now finds himself entirely immersed in the conviction that any leader – be it in the workplace or at home – needs to unpack who he/she is, and why and how he/she reacts to events in that space. “Only once we understand how we ourselves tick, can we ever hope to place ourselves in others’ shoes, and be empathetic, powerful, transformational and inspirational leaders”
‘Leading with the heart’ is the notion that sealed Desmond’s bond with Henley. “Not only do you become part of a global alumni that will serve you and your career for the rest of your life, but you also get to lead with empathy, which is what we all need right now, not only as a country and continent, but as a globe.”
An interesting revelation that Desmond has had about his time as programme director, has to do with expectations – both his and others’. “People believe that when you come to a business school or university, information will only move in one direction; from facilitators to students. But that’s not the process, in reality. Delegates, whether they’re at undergraduate or postgraduate level, learn so much more from each other, and so do I, as a program director, sitting in every class, every lesson. I’ve learned – and continue to learn – so much from delegates; from their shared experience. The implementation of workable solutions to each individual’s experienced path – that’s such a beautiful and exciting process, and that goes way beyond mere words in a textbook.”
Desmond is all too aware of the complexity and volatility of today’s world, coupled with a rate of change that has completely demolished old paradigms. “Previously, we lived in a world where people had the challenge of sourcing information. Today, we all have infinite information right at our fingertips, on our phones.”
The challenge now, he stresses, lies in understanding, processing and interpreting that info. And when he starts talking about “diversity”, he doesn’t restrict his thinking to race, but includes age, experience, and institutional backgrounds. “Those different backdrops, lenses and mental models that people get from those backgrounds, can fuel conflict if left unmanaged, but if we pay attention to each such viewpoint, we can find solutions to complex and volatile problems. Such conflicts can never be resolved if we’re only working from one perspective.
How Desmond became a part of the Henley Business family is an interesting story. “I was actually a student at Henley. I did my Postgraduate Diploma (PGDip) here, and I must confess that I went in very arrogantly,” he smiles apologetically. “My thought process was ‘I’m a chartered accountant – what can these guys teach me?’ But I decided to go through the motions and humour these people.”
He was, however, to experience a rude awakening – firstly, that he didn’t know everything. His second shock was his discovery that he didn’t truly know myself. That process of revelation would truly shake him up – in the best possible way – and set him up for the rest of his career.
“Being in class as a delegate in Henley really made me fall in love with the place,” he continues. You know, there’s a saying here at Henley that you never really leave, even though you might graduate, and leave in the physical sense. You always remain a part of this alumni. In my case, I haven’t even physically left,” he laughs, affectionately. “I was a student, and from being a student, I became a facilitator, and from there, I became a program director. In this time, I’ve become keenly aware that so many businesses and corporates today are purely fixated on output. We must never forget that our work teams are comprised of human beings.”
His time at Henley has taught him that people have a deep need to be valued and appreciated; to feel what they do matters, and that they aren’t just taking up space. “The common thread that’s run throughout these different positions I’ve occupied at Henley,” he says, “is that here, we learn to lead with the heart.”