Star Turn

January 29, 1999

Alison Utley sits with the men and women in suits learning how to turn business around

Everyone anticipates that students as paying customers will become more demanding -on that basis, Chris Pierce's class must have frighteningly high expectations.

At Pounds 250 a day they need to get their money's worth. Dr Pierce begins by establishing his credentials and selling himself hard. His audience consists of 12 thirty and fortysomethings (11 male, two in business suits) who have enrolled on the diploma in company direction because they want to find out how to run their organisations more successfully.

They are already experienced business people, directing companies with turnovers ranging from Pounds 1 million to Pounds 22 million and, suspects Dr Pierce, they have problems and want answers. Fast. Today our course is "Getting the most from your board".

"If I am unable to give you some new ideas to make your boardroom more effective I will have failed miserably," he says, acknowledging their needs immediately. "This should be good," says one cynic leaning back with his hands behind his head.

Leeds Metropolitan University runs the United Kingdom's only centre for director education, offering diplomas and masters courses in conjunction with the Institute of Directors. It boasts a 90 per cent pass rate and Dr Pierce, head of the centre, is an acknowledged business guru. He has held senior management positions with British Airways as well as running his own company and teaching business executives for 16 years.

"Your job is the vision," he tells his audience. "If you can't articulate your company's vision then no one can." He talks, sets short tasks, tells horror stories of when things go wrong with a succession of distinguished case histories designed to send shivers down the spine: Mirror Group Newspapers, Polly Peck, BCCII.

Leeds Business School has about 180 staff, but only a small handful teach on this course out of choice. "They can be the toughest of audiences and will go for the jugular," Dr Pierce says. "If things go out of control, they do so spectacularly."

He is continually looking for staff of the right calibre to join his team, but many do not feel qualified to face the directors. So what do directors think?

"It has been an absolute godsend," says one. "My company is floundering, and it is quite clear that expertise at the top is missing. I'm hoping what I learn here will turn things around. After all, company directors train their staff, but who trains us?"

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