The need for a sharper brand

With a new leader and a new focus, Henley is set to compete on an international stage, says Hilary Wilce
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The Independent Online

Chris Bones says he feels "like a giant sponge". Three months after switching from the commercial sector to head up Henley Management College in Oxfordshire he is still soaking up new information. But what he has absorbed has shown him he needs to get out there and tell the world at large about all the good things Henley has to offer. "We're an underleveraged brand. We're not maximising our potential," Bones says.

Chris Bones says he feels "like a giant sponge". Three months after switching from the commercial sector to head up Henley Management College in Oxfordshire he is still soaking up new information. But what he has absorbed has shown him he needs to get out there and tell the world at large about all the good things Henley has to offer. "We're an underleveraged brand. We're not maximising our potential," Bones says.

Henley, he points out, is unique. It was founded as a charity nearly 60 years ago by a partnership of government, trade unions and industry to build the country's management capacity. As a result, it has always had a distinct profile among business schools.

People who take the college's programmes tend to be older and more experienced than those elsewhere. "The average age on our executive full-time MBA programme is 38. At the London Business School it's 26," says Bones, who is himself a youthful and slightly Harry Potterish-looking 46.

The school is highly international, doesn't use the GMAT to select students and is as concerned with character and integrity as with ability. Sixty per cent of MBA students end up there by personal recommendation and it is one of the few business schools around the world that has achieved triple accreditation from the leading professional bodies in the USA, Europe and the UK.

Nearly 6,000 students worldwide are studying for the college's masters degrees and doctorates and a further 3,000 a year take tailored development programmes - the overwhelming majority of them work while they study.

"All of which makes for a really interesting tradition, but not one we communicate very well," says Bones. "We need to be a sharper, more assertive, more confident institution."

Such hard-headed marketing talk is to be expected from someone whose background is strictly as a business practitioner. He did, once, start an MBA course, and found it useful to learn about cash flow and how to read accounts, but life moved on and he never finished it. Instead, he pursued his career in human relations, working his way through Shell and Diageo, to end up as group organisation effectiveness and development director for Cadbury Schweppes, where he was responsible, among other things, for executive education. He has worked in oil refining, brewing, retail and property, and has lived and worked in the USA and Hong Kong.

It is this hands-on experience and close knowledge of the market that the college clearly wanted when it appointed Bones to replace his retiring predecessor, Professor Stephen Watson, this January. But for Bones the leap into the "opinion rich, data poor" world of business education has had its culture shocks. "I have, sometimes, been heard to say I've lost the will to live," he grins.

In fact none of this was the path his life was supposed to take. He studied history at Aberdeen then took time off to be the first student president of the Social Democratic Party, although his main ambition was to be an actor. Today, the fascination with politics remains - his wife works for the Lib-Dems in Oxford - along with a thespian aptitude for easy articulation and good people skills. He is a well-known conference speaker and writes a column in a specialist human resources journal.

Much work lays ahead for Bones but he already knows him mission: he plans to convey a much clearer message about the services and resources Henley has to offer, while reshaping those resources to suit a changing marketplace.

Plus, he plans to encourage customers to look at the full span of the college's services and will be talking to major companies about how Henley can best meet their specific management education needs.

"The appeal of full-time MBA courses for 26-year-olds is declining rapidly, they're deserting in droves. Few people now pay the salary they're looking for and employers are moving away from employing them."

Instead, he says, the focus is on part-time and distance-learning courses and on tailored programmes where companies can support employees to get a qualification and, it is hoped, retain them over a longer period.

Research is another area he sees ripe for development, although not the arcane and highly academic work so often fostered by higher education. "When I read the Journal of Management, I don't understand the front page, let alone what's inside," Bones says . Instead he wants to see more practical, marketing-led research work. "We can do it at a fraction of the cost and far more rigorously than consultants. At the moment we're not using it as a marketing tool to get business."

He wants to develop a more international faculty, set up a specialist HR centre, and raise the game in management thinking, both inside the college and beyond. "I have a passion to improve the quality of management in Europe. I want to change the conversation about human resources. I want managers to know how to use people in organisations as drivers of strategic success." To do this, he says, he will hope to stir up discussion in the college and with other business school colleagues and among government and top executives.

Now he has left Cadbury Schweppes, Bones has made a commitment to his new world of academia and is excited by its possibilities. "When this came up I grabbed at it. It was just where I want to be. I'm doing something I'm passionate about, in a wonderful setting. And where else can you get to talk to chief executives and people like that about how to influence the next generation?"

In five years, if Bones succeeds at what he is doing, Henley College will be one of the top international schools for developing individual and organisational capability and, Bones hopes, "a thought leader in the practice of management".

Your reputation is your brand, he points out, "and this is a lovely brand that just needs sharpening up".

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