Manchester’s time has come: New Head of AMBS highlights regional opportunities, business with purpose, and innovative leadership on his first visit to Dubai

Manchester’s time has come: New Head of AMBS highlights regional opportunities, business with purpose, and innovative leadership on his first visit to Dubai

Professor Ken McPhail, the new Head of Alliance Manchester Business School (AMBS), shared his thoughts and first impressions on his recent first visit to Dubai, where he also led the Middle East graduation celebration event.

I have really positive first impressions of Dubai and particularly within the team here at the Middle East Centre, where I can see the DNA of The University of Manchester. Since we founded the business school around 60 years ago, we have wanted to be driven by a sense of purpose and this comes through very strongly at the Centre here and with the people I have met.

The strength of the connections with the regional alumni community and business community, and a sense of embeddedness, is really important to us. Our AMBS strapline – Original Thinking Applied – is something we feel genuinely reflects what we do. So, these connections are hugely important and help guide us to where we need original thinking and disruptive thinking. And we want to do this in collaboration, with research questions informed by business and business practice, which in turn feeds through into education.

Preparing leaders to lead

The Manchester Method is distinctive. We don’t focus on case studies but look at real life projects and this is a core part of our approach in helping prepare the next generation of leaders. There’s a real sense here of the opportunities for distinctive thinking and how businesses can be profitable - very profitable – while also contributing something broader; economic growth and social value don’t need to detract from environmental value.

What’s really interesting in a region that has historically been associated with fossil fuels is what seems to be a genuine desire to engage with the challenges that net zero transition represents, and our established ways of thinking about business. I think grasping those opportunities requires a quite different perspective on leadership.

Our courses here – such as the Global MBA - are all about engaging with people and enabling them with the skills to become the next generation of business leaders who are going to have to navigate the complex environment we currently live in - and realise the opportunities. Our focus is on those types of skills such as agility, innovation and creative thinking, and the ability to navigate complexity.

Building innovation ecosystems

There is a broader perspective to our work. In the UK, universities are being recognised as anchor institutions – anchored in their place. This connects into something I’m interested in - what we term innovation ecosystems. The Middle East Centre - through its connections -can be a really vibrant part of that Manchester innovation ecosystem, whether this is around entrepreneurial activity and startups or whether it’s about the translation of innovation into commercially viable ventures. Being embedded in innovation ecosystems is important.

Innovative ecosystems are generally viewed in terms of place and places. We play a very significant role in the innovation ecosystem in Manchester but our Centre in Dubai helps us connect to international innovation networks – with a flow of talent and ideas through which we can establish really fruitful collaborations, pulling together talent and knowledge.

Graphene is a good example – to help really unlock the potential of graphene requires those innovative science breakthroughs but also fundamental business understanding and business knowledge of how you take a science breakthrough and make it commercially viable. It’s the businesspeople who sit in the middle and help make it work. So, we have a really important role to play in the realisation of the potential of graphene.

Regional community – committed to success

In this first visit, what comes through very strongly is the sense of commitment the University has to the student experience here - and how much students value this commitment by Centre staff.

When students make the decision to do their degree with us (and we are very grateful they do) we become committed to their success. Doing this degree is just one part of this and we are committed to providing the best experience we can for students. But we are also really committed to their long-term success and helping them realise their long-term ambitions.

The business environment is so dynamic and change is so rapid that most organisations struggle to keep up. So, we are committed to help students and alumni in the long term and through their careers, in staying ahead of that pace of change. This can be through business networking through our global community of 60,000 alumni – an amazing knowledge and business network – and helping them make connections.


In addition, we are also focusing on lifelong learning – in whatever form; coming to Dubai and feeling part of the community through the open and free masterclasses, visiting Manchester or through the open programmes we now offer. We want to skill up students for life.

I would really like us to do more collaboration with companies here through executive education and custom programmes. We now have open programmes to offer and there are lots of opportunities here.

We are a research-led institution and these types of collaboration really help us understand business and feed into the research process.

I would like us to focus on a few key areas. What are the regional challenges and problems and how can we help clients and make a difference - on net zero and digital transformation, for example. We have a lot to offer clients and executive education customers in the region through our world class expertise.

Manchester - more than a place

The crucial thing about AMBS is its place in The University of Manchester. This is what distinguishes us from other schools and is part of our USPs. For example, 100 metres from AMBS is the National Royce Institute for Materials Sciences; the Alan Turing Institute (for AI development); the Pankhurst Institute – a new, world class initiative bringing together AI, materials sciences and health professionals. It’s about cracking open our siloes and we think this is where the transformative opportunity lies. Businesses are also trying to crack open their siloes and so we are learning from each other.

The current business environment is energising and one of the most dynamic for generations. We find it exciting and we see huge opportunities. It’s the coming of age for The University of Manchester and Alliance Manchester Business School. We have always been a business school swimming against the tide and looking at alternatives to established ideas and thinking. We were talking about sustainability transition way before anyone else was. The University was the place where Turing’s ‘Baby’ marked the birthplace of modern computing. It’s the home of breakthroughs that have changed the way people have thought about things.

The 2024 Bicentenary gives us huge opportunities. Our stories that didn’t just transform Manchester but the way the world thought about business.

Leadership – purpose and performance

For me, diversity is key to leadership and diversity of perspective has been brought on to the senior management team, so we don’t get into ‘group think’ – where everyone thinks the same and no one is empowered to question.

A key motivating factor is being purpose driven and you can see here that in our people. But we cannot detach purpose from performance. It’s not enough to have strong sense of purpose. We also need to have excellent financial performance, student experience, and research. We cannot make trade-offs.

As our president, Dame Nancy Rothwell, says - ‘great people doing great things’ is at the core of our strategy. So, it’s all about people and authenticity. I’m interested in innovation and innovation cultures and how we get people to innovate process or product. This is what will keep us ahead, keep us distinctive and keep people engaged. Good ideas can come from people anywhere.

I definitely want AMBS to be visible globally. We’ve got a huge amount to contribute to business and public debates. We are a global business school and part of a global, very highly regarded university with a global community of alumni. We want to be global and public intellectuals – a space for academic discussions and theoretical ideas but also to get them into public debate and discourse and this is what we will strive to do.


Red or blue?

It has to be purple! Manchester is a global city for sport of course but also for music, culture, history and science breakthroughs. More hidden is the role of culture in Manchester

– for example, the Manchester International Festival is an international draw for arts and fashion and a great opportunity to bring cultures together and make a big impact on the world. Manchester’s time has come!