Interview with a past participant of AVIRA: the role of business in society

Glen Cornelius

Managing Director of Harrison Grierson, New Zealand

Harrison Grierson’s Managing Director, Glen Cornelius, explains how AVIRA: Awareness, Vision, Imagination, Role, Action gave him the space he needed to critically assess his organisation and the tools to crystallise his strategic vision.

Please introduce yourself

I’m a civil engineer by training. In 1995, I joined Harrison Grierson, a leading engineering and design consultancy in New Zealand, as a specialist engineer. I subsequently held various roles in the company before being promoted to Managing Director (MD) in 2012. So for the last ten years I’ve been transitioning away from the business’s purely technical aspects and moving more towards leadership roles. 

Since I became MD, I’ve been responsible for steering our 130-year-old firm through major positive change and growth. I wanted a development programme that could give me the space to reflect on that process and assess company performance. I also wanted tools that could help me develop my personal leadership approach. 

Why did you choose to attend AVIRA?

Our Chairman, Margaret Devlin, has an MBA from INSEAD and recommended the school to me. I also liked that AVIRA is aimed at senior leaders and focuses on peer-to-peer learning.

As a senior leader, you don’t often get access to this kind of forum, where you can talk through professional issues with your peers while challenging and motivating one another. So that was a big attraction.

What were your expectations and did the programme live up to these expectations?

It exceeded my expectations. While I’d checked out the programme online, I hadn’t gone into too much detail. I went in thinking it was going to be pretty much the standard business school programme where you attend lectures, they work you through the day and night, and the outcome is a fairly predictable kind of business learning. 

AVIRA was completely different, transcending that narrow business focus and instead taking a much more forward thinking and holistic view that encompassed the role of business in society. From there, we moved our analysis down to the organisational level and then to the personal level, with 360-degree coaching provided. There was a much stronger focus on the emotional aspects of being a leader than I was expecting, which I found really valuable.

I was also pleasantly surprised at the smaller size of the group. Previous programmes I’ve attended have had up to 130 participants. The smaller group size meant more opportunities for peer-to-peer learning and the creation of strong bonds. 

What impact has the programme had on you as a business leader?

It gave me the space to step back and reflect – both on how the business was operating and how I was operating as an individual. That started a journey that is helping me clarify the long-term view of where we want to be as a firm and the initiatives we want to implement over the next six to 12 months. I was also able to isolate some of the things that we could be doing differently. It’s quite easy to get caught up in the day-to-day running of the business and overlook the importance of doing this.

What were your key takeaways?

One main takeaway was to do with sustainability. I was very interested in the discussions we had about creating shareholder value and how it doesn’t simply revolve around share price management. In fact, the job of CEOs is to create shared value, in the sense of sustainable and profitable growth. As a company, we want our shareholders to benefit, as well as our employees and society at large. So we have to consider what the implications are for us and what we want to be involved with. 

I also got a lot out of the 360-degree coaching – in fact, I wish we’d had more time on this. As a leader, I’m often called on to deliver presentations or speak at events, but it’s rare to obtain quality feedback from senior people in similar roles on how they see you operating. 

Did you benefit from the diversity of participants on the programme?

Absolutely. We had a highly diverse group, with 13 countries represented. Participants came from a wide range of businesses too, from SMEs to very large firms. It was enriching to hear their views on the challenges of leading businesses, and one thing the programme did very well was to give us lots of opportunities for discussion, both inside and outside the programme. We’ve all stayed in touch. We have a WhatsApp group going and we discuss things when we need to. 

What did you think of the faculty?

Professor Subramanian Rangan, the Programme Director, was fantastic – exceptionally talented in terms of his understanding of business. He’d obviously done his research on all of our organisations and knew what kinds of issues we faced. 

The facilities in Singapore were also very good. We had a nice, relaxed environment that encouraged collaboration but also gave us space to breathe during what is an intense five-day experience. 

What would you say to someone who is thinking of doing the programme?

It’s not your usual business course. It’s far greater than that – it gives you the space and guidance to set aside the day-to-day running of a company and refocus on what’s really important. I’d highly recommend it!

If you are a senior business leader keen to refresh your outlook and to see the bigger picture for your business, click here to find out more about the programme content.

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