Dianne Bevelander

Dianne Bevelander

Profile of a woman on top

Dianne Bevelander is a Woman On Top, who is not afraid to take a risk. She is an executive educator and Associate Dean of MBA Programmes at Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), responsible for a multi-million euro revenue portfolio. Her Twitter account, @Dianne_RSM, reflects her international experience spanning the globe.Dianne Bevelander

Dr. Bevelander teaches personal leadership development at RSM and at other Business Schools internationally. Her passions are management education, social network theory and the development of human capital with particular emphasis on the career development of professional women.

With her extrovert personality and holistic outlook, Bevelander is widely regarded as both a leader and a pioneer in her field. She was born in South Africa to a Dutch father and German mother and gained her MBA from the University of Cape Town and her PhD from the University of Lulea, Sweden.

“I love education”, she exclaims, “especially the experiential side of it. My passion for this was aroused when I was an MBA student. I became fascinated by gender issues and, realising I was naïve and blind to bias, I began what led to a huge amount of research into the experiential approach to gender-based corporate solutions”.

“I have a dream”, says Bevelander. “Helping women in powerful positions of influence to affect policy changes. Policy-making across the world is ineffective at best, because there are not enough women at the top, due to gender bias”, she claims. Her women’s Masterclasses challenge how society, mainly politics and the media, create the way we think. 

Climb any mountain

Case study is an important method in Bevelander’s teaching – especially experiential cases. She believes that traditional education for the world’s future business leaders has its limitations. While emphasising Return On Investment (ROI), Bevelander claims that education neglects the shaping of another aspect – probably a more important aspect – in a future leader.

That is, the human aspect – courage, integrity, respect, and the ability to harmonise with nature and society. Therefore, Bevelander develops unconventional experiential learning programmes, where she flings business students onto a big mountain, into a remote nature reserve, or a poor township, to force them to think, reflect and learn to be courageous and responsible.

And this is where the Woman On Top, takes the stage. She is vocal about the issue of gender discrimination at the highest levels of corporate, government and not-for-profit organisations. Leading through innovation, Bevelander designed a Women’s-only elective, RSM Women in Leadership MBA, focusing on the empowerment of women - using the mountain (Mt Kilimanjaro) as an outside classroom and as a metaphor for business. “Climbing Kilimanjaro showed me that any problem can be solved”, writes a keen participant on the project’s dedicated blog.

For the many students who do not have the opportunity to participate in such a course, Bevelander is working with the RSM Case Development Centre (CDC) to transform the experiences of the lucky students into teaching cases that can be used by them all. 

The case, ‘Kilimanjaro: Challenge, Self-reflection, and Gender Stereotypes’, is based on the RSM Women in Leadership elective. The Kilimanjaro MBA leadership course is designed to bring female business leaders – often accustomed to being outnumbered by male colleagues – to learn to trust and rely on other women.

The case depicts the journey up Mount Kilimanjaro, of four ambitious women of different ages, from diverse cultural backgrounds and life situations, who have to learn to trust, support and help each other in a highly risky and demanding environment. After initial misunderstandings, the difficult nine-day trek forces them to work together to learn how to overcome physical and mental barriers.

The Kilimanjaro case helps students to recognise the complexities facing high-potential women and the importance of relying on one another to reach a common goal. Also, to gain a greater understanding of how people make decisions in high-risk situations, as well as to reflect on women’s potential to overcome the social, organisational and cultural ‘mountains’ that stand in their way.

This case also forces educators to ponder how personal change occurs, how adults learn and how educational institutes can and should measure the impact of personal development.

This ambitious project, part of the only MBA course of its type in the world, certainly meets ‘extreme’ requirements. While RSM’s Kilimanjaro elective may be an extreme example, “an increasing number of schools are focusing on building women-to-women networks”, says the New York Times.

“The Kilimanjaro experience allows each woman to appreciate that she can ‘shoot for the stars’ in her professional and personal life”, says Bevelander.

The Kilimanjaro programme raises a host of questions on various outcomes, not least: should there be women only leadership courses, and how should the gender balance in group dynamics be managed in discussing gender issues in a neutral way? The Kilimanjaro case is written for a female audience but is not restricted to females only and can be used in management courses or corporate training programmes on leadership, and at business schools across the world.

Township test

In spite of EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding’s proposal on gender quotas designed to increase the number of women on corporate boards to 40% by 2020, Dianne Bevelander believes that quotas can only take societies so far. “Education still lies at the heart of sustained transformation”, she states.

Bevelander’s vision is to move “from gender to ability”. “It is about women’s communication and their ability to work in teams”, she says. “Women can be just as tough as men, but have additional strengths in communications and team work”. 

Bevelander is putting this vision to the test in a new experiential case in her native South Africa. This, RSM’s first multimedia case is about service learning in the country. Yet again, this case is based on a RSM Executive MBA study trip in which student teams delve deep inside the bottom of the pyramid of a most important emerging economy in today’s world.

One hundred ‘wealthy and privileged’ Executive MBA students monitor service learning for microbusinesses for a day, in the townships on the fringes of the dynamic markets of Cape Town and Johannesburg.

“By dropping one hundred Executive MBA students into South African townships and re-living their experiences, other students in classrooms far away from South Africa also have the chance to explore the opportunities and challenges that micro-businesses and not-for-profit organisations in these townships are facing”, says Bevelander. 

A collection of three- and six-minute video interviews with the students before and after their long, hard day in the townships, illustrating the structure and results of the exercises, makes for an interesting panorama of experiences. “It is not just about Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Bloomberg and money”, says Bevelander. It is also about the impact of business on society and service learning”. 

You can get a flavour of the South African service learning multimedia case from this short video.

“Experiential learning is mainly about realising that making a decision is not the same as executing it”, explains Bevelander. In both the Kilimajaro and South Africa cases, it is evident that students tend to shy away from executing decisions. “At the start, they are eager to make many relevant decisions, but when they realise that executing them involves designing a strategy, students are often at a loss for ideas on how to proceed”, she says. “Students learn best from other people, how best to execute decisions”, Bevelander believes.

Experimental methods

As Associate Dean at RSM, Bevelander has to justify ROI in all her activities. She is satisfied that experiential learning is worthwhile and “catching on”. “Experiential learning is sparking enthusiasm far and wide, embracing for instance, Japanese students and Taiwan’s Rotary Club members, among many others”, explains Bevelander. “The success of the Kilimajaro programme in particular, has impressed a range of students who come to RSM primarily for experiential learning. Learning to be a good leader is good for their CV and invites people to look at them differently”, she reckons.

Bevelander’s ‘tried and tested’ methods of assessment are varied and widely applicable. She is busy interviewing each student who climbs Kilimanjaro, each year after the expedition. Collating examples of each student’s experiences in this and other projects, Bevelander is in the process of evaluating the collective experience of experiential learning. This evaluation is the core of new research for her next book. She hopes it will give its readers precious insight into experiential learning, as well as the impetus to her students, to “push themselves beyond their comfort zone”.

Complacency finds no place in Bevelander’s scheme of enhancing leadership and enriching careers. One her most well-known assessment techniques is Bevelander’s use of software in her so-called ‘network study’ method, where students fill in a questionnaire about who they talk to, trust, work well with, seek ideas from and socialise with. 

This software maps the personal networks that students form among themselves and teaches them how to more effectively create networks to succeed in a global business environment. Bevelander colour-codes the types of connections to produce a lacework image on screen.

“By drawing the network chart of the MBA class, significant patterns around individuals and sub groups appear”, she explains.

This method shows up gender preferences and behaviours, such as when there is risk involved in a project, women tend to prefer to work with men – a factor that spikes Bevelander’s curiosity for risk-related projects. Bevelander is now interested in monitoring how her new network study method can help student teams to perform better.

But to her, risk and adventure are just a part of learning how to perform better, experientially - learning how to talk and listen to each other is the key to success.

Business at Bergplaats

That is why mindfulness is the theme of the next project that the Associate Dean has in the pipeline: yet another RSM flagship programme in her native South Africa.

Dianne Bevelander recently returned from a reconnaissance visit to Bergplaas, a far-flung nature reserve in the Sneeuwberg Mountains in the Eastern Cape. With no TV or Wifi, and only two hours of electricity a day, storytelling and feeling at one with nature are the main activities.

Princess Irene of the Netherlands, owner of Bergplaas, will host Bevelander and her students, on a one-week minor in November. They will design a case study on the reserve, on how to incorporate inter-being with the land as our primary teacher, into their leadership approach.

But mindfulness, meditation and wandering in the woods, Bevelander believes, are simply natural tools to help her students use harmony with nature to tackle the challenges of today’s leadership and gender issues back in the workplace. As part of the Bergplaas project, these challenges will be acted out in a series of so-called ‘vignettes’, or role plays, based on role reversal. These include a scenario first worked on from a female perspective, then changed to a male perspective, finally measuring how the audience reacts. For example, the scenario of a male boss who has a sexual relationship with one of his five female employees, followed by the reverse situation is a vignette that can boast an enthusiastic response.

Bevelander has many more ideas in the pipeline, spurred on by the fact that her unconventional methods of teaching leadership have won widespread acclaim, sparking public as well as media interest. Her network study and ‘vignette’ approach have made it to the pages of the Business Week magazine as well as the New York Times, among others.

There is bound to be more interest soon, when Bevelander probes potential cases in emerging markets in Asia, where she plans to send her students to face new challenges on the ground, next summer.

But for Dianne Bevelander, the Woman On Top - the bottom line is the support she receives from the CDC, which plays a core role in helping to get her cases published. “I am very impressed with what they do. The CDC is the key to realising my vision. By publishing and promoting experiential cases”, she believes that “RSM can raise awareness, reach out and encourage both men and women around the world, to take the first step to leadership and make that crucial move ‘from gender to ability’”.