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Meet The Business School Dean Crafting An MBA For The 21st Century

Professor Heather McGregor, dean of Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University, says the School is building an MBA fit for the 21st century


Thu Oct 31 2019

When it comes to careers, we often talk about the impressive ‘second act’, but for some professionals, their career trajectory may better be described as a series of increasing acrobatics.

Professor Heather McGregor's career has seen many somersaults—from working in investor relations for large investment banking firms, to a PhD in Hong Kong, to joining and later buying an executive search firm that she grew from a nine-person office to a globe-spanning business outfit.

Heather’s latest trick sees her at the helm of Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University, where she has served as executive dean since 2016.

Bringing the fruits of a dynamic career to bear on future generations of business leaders, Heather has turned her talents to education—and to crafting what she has referred to as an MBA fit for the 21st century.”

Sharing her business knowledge with the world had been part of Heather’s life, long before she arrived in Edinburgh.

The author of a popular Financial Times business column since 1999, she wittily imparted business advice to readers under the pseudonym ‘Mrs Moneypenny’ for years, and even started her own charity—the Taylor Bennett Foundation—in 2008, to help graduates from ethnic minority backgrounds to access jobs in communications.

“I set it up to give people not just skills, but also to teach them how to build networks,” she explains. “I wanted to show them what the importance of that was.”

Heather wanted to improve access to education: expanding the number of people who could confidently and competently throw their hat into the ring of world business.

She was one of 12 women to help found the 30% Club, a now-international campaign to improve the gender balance in senior management roles.

Coupled with her experience running the Taylor Bennett Foundation, this commitment to promoting diverse talent meant that Heather arrived at Edinburgh Business School with a trail to blaze.

Bringing leadership and entrepreneurship into the MBA

Edinburgh Business School pioneered their first distance learning MBA programme in 1990, making it one of the longest-running remote programs in the world. Students can complete the whole program on their own terms and from anywhere in the world they choose—the School has active testing centers in widespread locations including the United Arab Emirates and South Africa—and combined with their scholarship provisions, this makes for a truly global cohort.

This long-standing infrastructure presented a unique advantage when Heather came to the task of distinguishing the MBA from others of its type.

They already had a greater reach than anybody else, she reasoned, so the first thing on the agenda was to make the curriculum even more competitive.

She started by foregrounding two of the skills that had served her best over the course of her career: leadership and entrepreneurial thinking.

With a strong base of core modules on topics like project management and strategic planning, students of the MBA at Edinburgh Business School can also choose from a host of electives—from more ephemeral topics like influence, to key practical insights on managing people in global markets.

Rolling out the teaching of a full-time MBA virtually was the first step—the next step would be rather more complicated.

Connecting students on the other side of the world

One of the key business skills that Heather has learned over the course of her career is solid relationship-building.

“In my headhunting business, the clients were all enormous, and I developed relationships with some of the biggest companies in the world,” she says.

“The thing I learned from all of that is that knowing how to build relationships is absolutely essential.”

On a full-time, on-campus MBA, this experience is almost a given, and Heather knew that if she could bring it to her online students, she could put Edinburgh Business School ahead of the pack. “People learn as much from each other as they do from a classroom,” she says.

The result was the development of an online learning portal that was launched this year, optimized for the needs of the online learner. 

This platform has changed the game for the online MBA, as it allows all 10,000 current students to interact with each other remotely.

Now launched, the platform will allow a student studying a finance module in Guatemala to log on and see how many of their classmates are studying that module at the same time, and reach out to a student in Finland to discuss their assignment: a key social component that is missing from many online programs.

For Heather, it is this aspect that is truly revolutionary.

“I think any artificial constraints on the MBA—having to finish it in one and a half years, having to be online at a specific time or in a specific place—it’s very restrictive for what the 21st century is about,” she says.

At least for anyone studying for their MBA at Edinburgh Business School, these constraints will no longer exist.