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The Decade Ahead Part 5: Insights into the future of work, leadership, and executive education

By Mark Threlfall
“We don't offer traditional business school executive education, and we’re not a consultancy that creates dependencies to feed itself. Our aim is to build organisations’ internal capabilities, to fuel their individuals’ and let them fly.”



In Part 5 of our series on 'The Decade Ahead' we talked to Mark Threlfall, Director of Cranfield Executive Development, about his insights into what the next decade might bring.


As Director of Cranfield Executive Development (CED), I am passionate about leading the strategic transformation of executive education within the University, making it relevant for organisations right now, and also exciting and visible for the decade ahead.

What does ‘the decade ahead’ mean to me? That phrase always reminds me that what has got us to where we are today, probably won’t deliver what we need in the future in so many areas. The canny leaders who recognise that, accept the need for constant change to meet the increasingly unclear context ahead.


Building future skills

As part of Cranfield School of Management, CED is focused on delivering against the learning needs of organisations and their individual employees, to help them tackle that murky and constantly changing context.

One of the biggest challenges organisations face in the decade ahead is how to build strategic ambidexterity, where the ability to deliver the “here and now” combines with never losing sight of the future – a future that is becoming increasingly less clear whilst unfolding ever more rapidly.

Fundamentally these two things require different skillsets. Managing the “here and now” requires robust operationalised procedures, whereas looking forward and working with the unknown requires an ability to work in an evolving context and being comfortable with not knowing what is going to happen. Not everyone can do both really well – we help people build capabilities in both.

Nobody can predict the future. You can take a view on it – which is what you do when you set an organisational strategy – but if you cannot work with unfolding complexity, and adapt accordingly, then you end up clinging to a punctured life-raft. For next decade, and beyond, this will be a fundamental element of the skillset and mindset of leaders and managers. It is our job to prepare them to have the confidence and capability to work and think in this way.

Fortunately, it is our view at CED that you absolutely can develop these skills, but doing so is not an entirely cognitive process whereby you can just sit back, consume some content, learn some frameworks and be done with it. You have to experience it. You have to feel the pain.


Executive education for the future

Therefore, we bring real, deep-dive transformation – through experiential and immersive learning. We work with the whole person to build up their match fitness to be ready for that coming ambiguity. We see it as our job to expose people to the discomfort of not knowing, to immerse them in it and give them the opportunity to practice within that off-kilter environment, so that when they’re back in the context of work they’ve got a bit of muscle memory around how they felt and how they dealt with it.

Too many organisations buy executive education programmes that are comfortable and collude with their existing culture, but at CED we see our role is to sensitively and proportionately challenge that existing culture and mindset. I call it ‘putting the grit in the oyster’ – because how else do you create pearls? We create that discomfort that enables people to shift mindsets, perspectives, mental models and schemas which have been built up over years and are ingrained. This takes time and is a process. It requires deep and sustained effort. Like coaches on the sidelines, we support them and encourage them to keep pushing through.


The decade ahead

Whilst ambiguity is one of the major themes for the decade ahead, there are a few more too.


We experienced a massive uptake in digital learning during Covid-19 but now we are seeing a bit of a drawing back. Clients have realised that learning is more than just knowledge transfer, and that there is a social process that supports the development of capability – of learning how to do something. Undoubtedly, digital is here to stay thanks to its ability to widen participation, but we are seeing people wanting to return to the more visceral face-to-face learning, supplemented by digital where appropriate.

In the decade ahead we’ll get more sophisticated in how we blend the two together to make best use of those ‘gold dust’ face-to-face moments.

Development of meta capabilities

There is an increased desire for meta level capabilities like systems thinking and sense making. These skills are going to be fundamental for the leaders of the future, because the rate of change is only going to get quicker. As people become ever more connected and switched on all the time, the need for ambidexterity will increase. There will be more and more pressure on organisations to ‘do, do, do’. Too many are already on that hamster wheel and have lost sight of the value of thinking, and the ability to do it well.

To survive in this messy context, you need that reflective capacity and capability.

Changing notions of work

Once the basics of paying the bills to put a roof over your head are satisfied, we are going to see more and more people questioning the purpose of work. We are already seeing graduates leaving universities who don’t have an allegiance to a decades-long career.

There is an understanding that we scale and upskill throughout our lives. Organisations will have to shift their mindset from trying to lock people in and retain them. That requires a very different view of how you invest in people, one that seeks to develop people’s talent for the “here and now” but also for their next role, which will probably sit outside their current organisation.

Leaders need to acknowledge that they don’t ’own employees’; they only ’borrow people for a while, so they will need to find ways to ensure each party gets the best out of that relationship while it lasts.

Increased focus on learning

Changing attitudes to work will also change learning. As people become more mobile so their lives will increasingly become an unfolding series of chapters of continued personal growth, and there will be a need for highly individualised learning journeys to match that growth mindset.

Organisations with learning in their DNA are going to be very attractive as employers, whereas those who don’t feed people’s itch to learn and improve will be the ones that lose out. In this context, I’d like to see organisations bring learning and development front and centre, elevating their chief learning officer or equivalent position into their top team at board level, so that learning, and its intrinsic link to working through change, is represented in those most senior conversations.


Looking to the future

What does the future hold for CED?

I’ve been at Cranfield 19 years and my desire from the beginning has been to see CED bring success to our clients by working across the University to leverage the very distinct resources and knowledge we have. If we can bring together Cranfield’s unique combination of leadership, management and technology to work with organisations in a more holistic way, then we will be able to meet clients’ needs at an even higher level.

Beyond that, in the next 10 years I would love to see CED become a disruptor in the executive education marketplace. I want to see us redefine what executive education is and how the marketplace operates.

We may be based on a former airfield in the middle of the Bedfordshire countryside, but we work on a global scale and deliver real impact – something that’s been recognised at the highest level in global rankings and through the awards we’ve won.

We don’t offer traditional business school executive education, and we’re not a consultancy that creates dependencies to feed itself. Our aim is to build organisations’ internal capabilities, to fuel their individuals’ and let them fly.



Mark Threlfall is Director of Cranfield Executive Development

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