Jan. 29, 2020

Master of Management students balance strategy and values in WestJet capstone experience

Graduate studies for non-business students develop outside-the-box thinking

Think business is all spreadsheets and financial statements? Haskayne Master of Management (MMgmt) students, who have come to the graduate studies from other disciplines, have also been digging deep into ethical leadership within their 10-month business education.

“Strategy considers how to pursue goals in line with the company’s values, and ethics allows you to evaluate and reconsider these values,” says Dr. David Dick, PhD, an associate professor of philosophy and a fellow in the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership (CCAL) at the Haskayne School of Business. Balancing these aspects of business is always a challenge involving trade-offs, weighing the needs of multiple stakeholders including customers, regulators and employees.

The airline industry provided the perfect environment for MMgmt students to learn first-hand how these business challenges are approached, with a capstone project hosted at WestJet.

  • Photo above: Mirele Koumary (ninth from left) and her team examined WestJet’s strategy to pursue corporate and business travellers in their week-long capstone. Photo by Adrian Shellard, for the Haskayne School of Business

“We became involved in the capstone quite simply because Haskayne and CCAL asked for our participation. WestJetters believe in giving back to the communities we serve, and this kind of thing comes naturally for us,” says Charles Duncan, executive vice-president and chief strategy officer at WestJet.

David Dick

David Dick explores business ethics with Master of Management students.

Adrian Shellard, for the Haskayne School of Business

Four topics, with ethics literature for each, were covered in the intensive week-long experience: onboarding, network connections, labour relations, and strategy. Ethical issues can arise in all of these areas. In onboarding, for example, the challenge is creating a consistent culture that still allows for constructive deviance, as this quality is often what can help an organization side-step group-think.

“My biggest takeaway from this experience is how incredibly difficult it is to develop and manage any industry and how a multitude of components come together to determine whether a company is going to be successful or not,” says Mirele Koumary, who came to the Haskayne MMgmt program with a BSc in Psychology from McGill University.

Diverse backgrounds informed students' conclusion

With four days of intensive learning about the complexities of the airline industry and six hours to prepare a presentation for senior leadership, Koumary and her group examined WestJet’s strategy to pursue corporate and business travellers. Taking their diverse backgrounds to analyze the implicit messages behind the company’s marketing campaigns, the group ultimately recommended that the airline stick to recreational travellers.

“They did a great job pointing out how some of our current advertising seems inconsistent with our stated strategy,” says Duncan. “The students’ recommendation prompted some great discussion long after the students returned to campus. And I applaud them for thinking outside the box and taking a strong position.”

The cohort MMgmt students are diverse, each coming to the program with an undergraduate degree in an area other than business. And it is this diversity that really adds to the experience as the students go through intense learning together. The geologists and biologists bring a mathematical and analytical perspective, while the psychology and sociology grads are tuned to cultural issues.

In their final capstone paper, students will need to bring these perspectives together with an ethical analysis of their recommendation, applying the moral philosophy they learned through the sessions with Dick and visiting business ethicists like Joanne Ciulla, Mary Gentile and R. Edward Freeman.

“The rapid and variable courses we had taught me that I am capable of working under pressure and adapting to different situations,” adds Koumary.

Westjetters at capstone event

Westjet’s Charles Duncan (second from left) commended the students for their out-of-box thinking.

Adrian Shellard, for the Haskayne School of Business