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Christer Thörn & Sara Bengtsson

"Talent does not grow on trees alone." Christer Thörn and Sara Bengtsson, HR and Nominators, Södra. Since 1998, the forestry company Södra has nominated close to 20 employees for participation in the SSE MBA Program, seven of whom are currently members of the Group's executive management team.

From an HR perspective, what has Södra learnt from nominating so many employees for an Executive MBA?
Christer Thörn, HR Director: 
"Earning an MBA undoubtedly offers a tremendous amount of added value to both the individual participant and the company. The employer’s challenge lies in placing the MBA in a larger context and establish how the education relates not only to the professional ambitions of the participant but to the needs and plans of the rest of the organization. You need to reflect on, for example, which ones that may need to rotate in order to create space for the future MBA graduate to continue growing once the degree is completed."   
"Overall, the employer’s challenge is to ensure that the organization is able to earn a return on the investment that an MBA nomination represents, and get the most 'bang for the buck'."   

Sara Bengtsson, HR Development Manager: 
"You need to implement a systematic approach to how the MBA nominations fit into the general scheme of manager development and succession, and maintain a dual-track process. For example, when you foresee a manager change at some point in the future, you plan ahead for the vacancy and assess what type of skills the successor might need to fill the position. The succession planning should in turn be related to the overriding business objectives of the organization, since these objectives may require a whole new set of competencies in certain areas, something which will then have a bearing on deciding which individuals to nominate for an Executive MBA."  

That aside, how do you select which employees to nominate for an Executive MBA?
Christer Törn: 
"The individual has commonly entered a more senior position and wants to replenish his or her competence bank, or else the MBA is a first step on grooming someone for a more senior position in the future. On the same note, the organization's needs for the talent of an MBA graduate are identified."

How do you maintain contact with the participants during the course? 
Christer Thörn: 
"We strive, for example, to contribute cases to be used in class in order to stay in touch. Above all, however, it is important for the participant's manager to retain contact in order to fully harness the improved skills and abilities of the MBA graduate once he or she returns full time to the organization, or even before that."

Sara Bengtsson: 
"Management must maintain a dialogue with the individual to ensure an adequate matching of challenges to the new skills of the future MBA graduate. The ideal is for the MBA participant to be able to continuously apply newly acquired skills and tools for the benefit of him-/herself and for the organization, throughout the education."   

What does Södra get out of the cases submitted to the SSE MBA classes? 
Christer Thörn: 
"It is always valuable to have a fresh set of eyes examining the challenges your organization is facing. The input and recommendations from the cases, however, must be called for and fictitious cases should not be used."

What does an MBA graduate contribute to the organization?
Sara Bengtsson: 
"Motivated employees generally contribute more to the organization, and to be nominated for an Executive MBA means being seen (by the management) and often works better than a salary increase in terms of increasing motivation. The employee acquires an image of him-/herself as someone with a high potential."  

What should other organizations keep in mind when selecting Executive MBA nominees?
Sara Bengtsson: 
"To develop tangible and measurable objectives to be reached from the MBA participation, for the individual as well as for the company. The employee and the employer have to agree on these."

Christer Thörn: 
"It is important that the nominee is able to transform skills and competencies acquired during the MBA into something of real value to his or her every day job and to the organization at large. The learning has to be useful and instrumental. The goal should for example be to establish beforehand how the learning will affect the participant's job performance."   
"An MBA should never be given primarily as a sort of reward, a pat on the shoulder for services rendered, or instead of a bonus check. The decision must be based on whether the MBA makes sense from a business perspective."

Sara Bengtsson: 
"The decision to nominate an individual for an Executive MBA cannot be isolated from the bigger picture of managerial succession, competence planning and job rotation, or from the individual's own current family status and life stage."  

How do you resolve staffing issues arising from the MBA participant's part-time absence from work? 
Sara Bengtsson: 
"We work them out as they come. In general, however, the absence represents an opportunity for the individual to learn how to delegate, and for his or her colleagues to grow and take on added responsibility."  

Who should nominate? 
Christer Thörn: 
"The candidate's manager must be the primary driver and the nomination should not be an exclusive top-down process. It is important to secure a wider commitment within the organization to the MBA nominations."  

Why is that? 
Christer Thörn: 
"A wider range of managers should be made aware of who is currently participating in an Executive MBA program, as the candidate might be moving to a different part of the organization after graduation. Other managers must therefore be prepared and willing to take him or her on, while the former manager must be willing to let go and focus on what is best for the organization as a whole – hard as it might be to say goodbye to a talented and motivated co-worker."  

Have you measured the return on investment from your Executive MBA enrollments?
Christer Thörn: 
"The business gains a quantifiable return as the graduates quickly offer added value. From a qualitative point of view, no one at Södra has ever argued that the MBAs have not been beneficial to the company. It has certainly boosted the manager corps."