Leveraging peer-to-peer learning to create diversity of thought in the boardroom

UCD’s Diploma in Corporate Governance promotes practical, critical thinking in the boardroom, says Dr Margaret Cullen

Dr Margaret Cullen: “We also address behavioural aspects of boards, encouraging some self-reflection by participants on their own contribution to boardroom dynamics.”

Academic rigour, a practical focus and a willingness to challenge conventional thinking. These are some of the hallmarks of the UCD Smurfit Business School Diploma in Corporate Governance, according to Dr Margaret Cullen. Dr Cullen has lectured on the Diploma in Corporate Governance in the subject areas of executive remuneration and behavioural aspects of boards since 2007 and responsibilities of the board since 2020. Dr Cullen will be taking over the leadership of the Diploma from Professor Niamh Brennan in the forthcoming academic year 2024/25.

The brainchild of Professor Brennan, the academic year 2023-24 marked the 20th delivery of the Diploma in Corporate Governance to directors and senior executives in Ireland. “Back in 2004, the Diploma in Corporate Governance was the first academic programme in Ireland targeted at directors and senior executives. The Programme continues to go from strength to strength in terms of its attractiveness to those charged with governance,” said Dr Cullen.

Upon successful completion of the programme, participants are awarded the Diploma in Corporate Governance by UCD Smurfit Executive Development (NFQ Level 9). Dr Cullen explained that the programme provides a depth and rigour to participants that you would expect from a Level 9 programme. At the same time, its design, content and delivery have the experience and expectations of directors and senior executives to the forefront.

“Participants experience the rich blend of academic rigour, best practice and the reality of the boardroom and beyond,” added Dr Cullen. She calls the fusion of academic learning and practical application “pracademic”.

So why has the programme been so successful? In addition to its pracademic ethos, it also brings the critical thinking of academia to an area that is constantly evolving. “We don’t want to lead directors’ thinking,” says Cullen. “The world is not black and white – it’s grey. To quote Professor Niamh Brennan, ‘Corporate governance is an art not a science’. We want to help directors navigate through the grey areas. We want to encourage them to challenge the prevailing wisdom; to look at the business world through a different lens. This enhances cognitive diversity on boards and senior leadership teams which further enables good-quality interpretation of the internal and external environment and, thus, decision-making in uncertainty.”

Dr Cullen highlights other critical aspects of the programme such as the subject depth and breadth and the peer-to-peer learning in a class-based environment. Participants gain an in-depth exposure to all aspects of corporate governance.

“The great thing about this course is that it wraps its arms around the whole governance ecosystem from the legal and regulatory architecture to stakeholder management (including shareholders), to board and board committee roles and responsibilities, to strategy formulation and performance management, to risk management and internal control, to financial reports and executive remuneration and incentives.

“We also address behavioural aspects of boards, encouraging some self-reflection by participants on their own contribution to boardroom dynamics.”

Peer-to-peer learning supported by expert faculty is also core to the Diploma in Corporate Governance ethos and that’s where the benefit of the classroom environment is most evident according to Dr Cullen. “Executive education is very different to undergraduate teaching and learning. The participants’ experience brings the discussions to life. The most effective forum to leverage the expertise of senior executives and directors is in the classroom. For example, in exploring executive remuneration and incentives, there might be a director of HR of a listed company or a large private company in the classroom. They can enhance the discussion through their shared experience.

“As a lecturer, I can encourage that interaction and leverage it to make the learning environment incredibly rich.”

The peer-to-peer learning is further enhanced by the diversity of organisational context represented in the classroom. “Participants come to the programme from listed companies, large private organisations, SMEs, family businesses, commercial semi-state organisations, charity organisations, public sector organisations engaging with State bodies. The variety of contexts and experience broadens everyone’s mind, including faculty!” said Dr Cullen.

The quality of teaching is another key USP, explained Dr Cullen. The faculty are widely recognised as skilled educators, consultants, researchers and accomplished authors. Many are also experienced directors. They leverage off this expertise in the classroom, encouraging participants to widen their perspectives and understand their own capabilities and challenges. “The faculty present topics in a range of engaging methods such as case studies, through group assignments and role plays so as to deliver a unique, long-lasting learning experience.”

The highly experienced faculty have discerning eyes when it comes to providing reading material for each module. “In selecting readings for the Programme, faculty need to be discerning, with the target audience in mind. Senior executives and directors will be quick to tell you if it doesn’t resonate with the reality of the boardroom. The business and academic literature in the governance arena is vast. As faculty we want to stand back and look at what will help participants arrive at the best decisions when dealing with the situation in front of them.”

The business, regulatory and policy world never stands still and faculty must be agile in their module design and delivery. “Our faculty and the module content are current, reflecting the externalities that directors and their boards must deal with,” said Dr Cullen. “For example, the module on Director’s responsibilities has evolved over the past four years to include sustainability and its integration into the strategic objectives and risk appetite of an organisation. In the 2024-25 academic year we are introducing a dedicated module on Technology Governance.”

After 17 years lecturing on the programme, Dr Cullen never takes the experience for granted.

“It’s a real privilege to facilitate learning in an executive education classroom. I relish any challenge back from participants on a particular issue. The academic year is very short (24 weeks in total) and it is amazing what the class absorbs in that time. Our aim is to support directors and those charged with governance in executing their responsibilities. The rising tide of directors who have invested in their own development raises board standards and effectiveness. I can think of no place I’d rather be.”

For more on UCD’s Diploma in Corporate Governance, see www.smurfitschool.ie