Executive EducationUCD Smurfit Executive Development

UCD Smurfit Business School: The Future of Executive Education

Helen Brophy, Director, Smurfit Executive Development on how the pandemic accelerated conversations around remote working and the future of work.

UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School is Ireland’s premier business school, ranked among the Top 50 globally, and triple-accredited, by US, European and UK bodies. Within this, the Smurfit Executive Development faculty brings skilled educators, ground-breaking researchers, and accomplished authors together with participants who come from the upper echelons of the Irish and international business world. Through executive education, participants are exposed to multiple perspectives, challenge their thinking and learn and develop new practices that result in superior business leadership and results. Helen Brophy, Director, Smurfit Executive Development, led the organisation through the challenge of quickly moving the executive education experience online when the first lockdown happened. While tools like Zoom had been used within the business school and among the faculty since 2015, the challenge of bringing executive education online, for Brophy, was in recreating the experiential attributes of their offering. “While there is a certain amount that can be done by yourself—we call it self-directed learning—the key here is that executive education is bringing like-minded people together. It’s the discussions and the debates that go on in the room, that’s where the real learning comes from. They learn as much from their own peers as they do from the faculty, and that’s our style.” For executives, taking part in a Smurfit Business School course gives them inspiration, introduces them to peers, and fosters networking opportunities. “If you’re in an organisation, it’s an opportunity to step outside that organisation and meet like-minded individuals from lots of different industry sectors, and there’s huge value in that. I think there’ll always be a place for the in-person experience, but I think online is also here to stay as well,” she adds.


While the ability to get outside of the normal physical environment, now the home office, may be gone, people still value the time spent investing in themselves. “For a lot of people, during lockdown, it’s given them a focus, in terms of being proactive about their own learning, and upskilling. I’ve been really struck by that with a lot of our executives, how strong-willed they have been, in terms of ‘I’m keeping going, and this is keeping my head in the right place’.” The faculty and students have creatively adapted to the challenges of connecting, figuring out how to replace orientation, welcome evenings, and social gatherings with virtual alternatives. “Some would say it’s been a lifeline to have that normality. We’re social creatures who are designed to interact; for a lot of people, it has given them that sense of connection.” Course participants have gathered virtually to discuss the readings and assignments for their modules, as well as having social coffee check-ins online. Brophy herself has found the classes she has led have begun to adapt to the new ways of delivery, and she says, “Now we’re having some really good discussions that I would never have thought would have been possible in an online environment.”



How the team have managed the move to online is something that business leaders can both benefit from personally as well as inspiring how they transfer that down into their own organisations, to keep their own staff motivated, connected, engaged, and inspired. “The organisations that have struggled the most is where there’s a lack of trust between the leadership and the different levels throughout the organisation,” Brophy reflects. “Remote working would be a given for some, particularly for a lot of our multinational clients used to operating across different geographies and time zones. For others, you could see that it was a huge transition for the leadership if somebody’s not at their desk, and they’re not physically in the office.” “There’s been huge learning for a lot of companies this year on how people can feel valued and recognised. It requires different skills and collaboration, people taking initiative. The question is how can we utilise this now to accelerate forward in our organisations. Having that type of flexibility can actually increase the effectiveness in teams.”



Responding to the real needs of business leaders remains at the forefront of the agenda for Smurfit Executive Development. “A lot of what we do will be very much aligned to the future workforce. It’s not that the skills are essentially that different; we’re just applying them to a different context and a different way of working. It’s more about challenging people’s assumptions about what makes work effective. “Our offering, in terms of our modes of delivery, is definitely going to expand. We’ve learned a huge amount from this experience, and it has been really positive, even though at times it’s been very challenging.”