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Welcome To Business School. Leave Your Shoes At The Door.

At Warwick Business School, one class uses masks to explore “questions about authenticity and how you interpret what people say and how does communication actually work.” Courtesy photo

At Warwick Business School, the play’s the thing. And while using a drama studio to teach business students may appear to be madness to those who are more comfortable with traditional teaching approaches, there is method in it, says Piers Ibbotson, former Royal Shakespeare Company director and principal teaching fellow in the Create Department at Warwick.

The sprung-floor studio, called Create Space, opened in 2014 in Warwick’s new, £30 million ($37.8 million) building extension. In it, students explore different aspects of leadership and study the effects of cognitive bias by using all the tools of the theater — movement, sound, visual cues and clues. They enact scenarios from ancient Greek plays and Shakespeare, and they take direction from accomplished stage directors and experienced drama teachers.

Sometimes they wear masks. But they never wear shoes.

Ibbotson, long-time leadership consultant and author of The Illusion of Leadership, says WBS may be the only business school in the world with its own drama studio — and its existence makes a bold statement about the core values of one of the top business schools in Europe.

“I’m not aware of any other business schools that have a bespoke drama studio in the middle of their business school,” says Ibbotson, who teaches Leading and Managing People for Warwick’s Human Resource Management and Employment Relations Master of Science and Acting Responsibly on the undergraduate program. “It speaks to the innovation of this school. In all our work there is a strong thread which is to do with ethics and social responsibility, and that’s obviously where the humanities land best.”

Piers Ibbotson holds one of the masks used to help students better understand the communications issues of leadership. Courtesy photo

Piers Ibbotson holds one of the masks used in Create Space to help students better understand the communications issues of leadership. Courtesy photo

A STRONG EMBRACE OF CLASSROOM INNOVATION

Warwick, about 100 miles northwest of London, is enjoying the limelight after years in the shadow of such prestigious neighbors as London Business School and Oxford Said. Last year The Economist’s ranking of the best MBA programs in the world placed Warwick’s full-time MBA program atop all schools in the United Kingdom, fifth in Europe, and among the Top 20 in the world.

Warwick climbed 19 places to reach a rank of 18th in the Economist survey. As former Dean Mark Taylor said in response to the rankings leap, the school’s success “is the culmination of five years of strategic planning in WBS,” which has a full-time MBA with an annual intake of 55 students, a long-distance MBA that has about 400 enrolled students, and two executive MBA programs with just over 100 combined students. With undergraduates and other master’s courses, WBS has roughly 6,000 students.

Taylor, now dean of Washington University’s Olin School of Business in St. Louis, was a big believer in the power of Shakespeare to teach about human dilemmas, Piers Ibbotson tells Poets&Quants. That belief led to the creation of Create Space, where he and a team of academic researchers and humanities veterans teach undergraduate and graduate students using all the tools of the theater — and then some.

Even with Taylor’s departure, the mission of Create Space continues. Warwick’s new dean, Andy Lockett, says his role is “one of channelling the collective endeavour of the staff, students, and alumni to put WBS at the forefront of business thinking at a regional, national, and global level.” Among the ways the school will remain at the forefront, Ibbotson says, is by continuing to embrace innovative teaching techniques.

TRANSFORMING TEACHING METHODOLOGY AT WARWICK

Piers Ibbotson. Courtesy photo

Piers Ibbotson. Courtesy photo

For Ibbotson, who spent 20 years as a freelance leadership teacher at McKinsey and other top consultancies, using the art of performance is a good way to get people more aware of their bodies, “so that they think about the physical side of what it means to lead, to command, to order, to direct, to manage — these kinds of essential physical skills of the workplace.”

The course is taught to 25 students at a time — the size of a theater ensemble, Ibbotson points out, and the number of actors Shakespeare had in his company. Of the nearly 600 undergraduates in the current intake at WBS, the Create Department will try to get every one for a couple sessions in their first term, he says, in addition to most of the 1,200 master’s students. “So we’re pretty hard at it most of the time,” Ibbotson says.

The tear-shaped studio is free of furniture except a few stools — no desks, no conventional teaching array at all. For most students, Ibbotson says, the most alarming thing about the course “is that you have to take your shoes off.”

“It’s a studio with a sprung-floor, so you take your shoes off at the threshold and you’re already in a room without furniture,” says Ibbotson, now in his second year teaching the course. “And so you’re standing up and moving around, and we always begin with a number of exercises just to get the team looking at each other, seeing each other, getting into their bodies. And then we can go in any number of directions depending on what we’re doing in the space — we might be looking at issues of status, we might be looking at a deconstructed case, we might be using a scenario from a piece of classical theater which might be Shakespeare or it might be the ancient Greeks.” By exploring all sorts of techniques for using the space and getting students to embody points of view, Ibbotson says, they build toward an understanding of complex leadership decisions.