Helping VOKA entrepreneurs take their business to the next level

Gregory Dendas Account Manager for Company Specific Programmes at SBS-EM 29/11/2019

Seven years ago, the Limburg section of VOKA - Flanders’ Chambers of Commerce and Industry, contacted us to talk about the best way to help entrepreneurs acquire new skills to grow their business. We sat together and devised a powerful tailor-made programme that made a real impact.

When you start designing a tailor-made business education programme, you know from the start that the only way it will ever grow and prosper is by fulfilling its objectives. This is why we are particularly pleased that the MBA Highlights programme we worked on with VOKA - Flanders’ Chambers of Commerce and Industry, is such a success.

The collaboration started in 2012 with VOKA’s Limburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and is now in its seventh consecutive year. In 2015, we launched a similar  – but not identical – programme in West Flanders. Other regions have since followed, and the initial programme was complemented by an advanced programme to help the alumni of the first programme take their business even further.

Starting from the entrepreneurs’ needs

One of the key success factors of the programme is our tailor-made and co-creative approach. For Axelle Henrard, Director of Owner-Entrepreneurs for VOKA Limburg, this was the key element in the decision to work with Solvay Executive Education.

"We needed a programme that would be both short and impactful. Our members are active entrepreneurs, so they need to acquire tools that they can immediately put to good use. They know they have to take some time away from their business to reflect and think strategically, but they wanted to do it in a down-to-earth, close-to-home way, Axelle Henrard explains. Above all, we did not want them to buy something ‘off the shelf’: we wanted the contents of the programme to be grounded in their daily reality, and we wanted to have a say in its design. This is why we chose to work with SBS-EM."

Start from the daily business context

We always start from the situation and the needs of the participants. Of course, there are common elements to our MBA Highlights programme. For example, it is always built around five modules that each last two days: Leadership, Strategy, Finance, Innovation, HR and Sales. They cover all the areas of knowledge a business owner might want to expand to start thinking differently about his or her business. But since the idea is to give entrepreneurs actionable tools to work with, we adapt the content of each module to their needs.

For example, a VOKA entrepreneur in West Flanders does not face the same challenges as an entrepreneur in Limburg. In West Flanders, there is a brain drain phenomenon: young professionals want to leave the region and go to Gent or Brussels. This is why our HR module in West Flanders is more focused on talent retention. Limburg used to rely on the automotive and mining industries, but most multinationals left for other countries. Which is why we strengthened our Innovation module with more aspects of digital transformation, industry 4.0 and other topics that help Limburg entrepreneurs create value for the region. 

Grounded in entrepreneurial reality

Another important aspect of the programme is its close link to everyday entrepreneurial life. As Charlotte Dekimpe, Account Manager for West Flanders at VOKA, puts it,

"Our entrepreneurs really appreciate that most of the teachers have entrepreneurial experience. Not only do they know the most recent and most efficient managerial tools, they also know what it’s like to be in the entrepreneur’s shoes, which makes the discussions all the more vivid and enriching."

To reinforce the link between theory and practice, participants are asked to work in small groups on real business cases.

"The cases are brought by the participants themselves, mostly about their own company, Axelle Henrard explains. People vote on which cases they want to work on, and they are used in each module to immediately apply the concepts discussed in class to real business questions. Furthermore, these cases often lead to concrete ideas that the entrepreneurs can apply to their business. This year, for example, one of the participants brought a business case about Dux, his family business, a company specialized in hair brushes. He wanted to find new leverages for growth. Thanks to the discussions he had with the other participants of his group, he completely changed his point of view, and he is now working on implementing the conclusions of the business case inside his company."

Constant adjustment

The MBA Highlights programmes are not only tailor-made, they are also constantly adjusted to maximise the link between theory and practice. VOKA works with coaches who have a crucial role: they act as facilitators between VOKA, SBS-EM, teachers and participants. Their work allows us to better understand the needs of the participants and fine-tune the programme to make sure these needs are met. They also help the participants to work on the business cases.

"In addition to the course material they receive through the teachers, the participants get five extra coaching sessions throughout the programme, explains Sophie Deboiserie, who coaches the participants of the West-Flanders programme. This helps them to really put the theory into practice and gain a deeper understanding of the topics. The composition of the groups working on the cases also helps, as the participants have different backgrounds. Besides, there is a lot of cooperation with the teachers. They are really flexible and open to suggestions. Since I am in constant contact with the participants, I can brief the teachers about their expectations, their current progress with the cases, and so on. Thanks to that knowledge of the cases, they are able to build better interactions with the students on the cases, make more links with their own courses and use the cases as practical examples."

Network effect

Spending time together during the modules and while working on the cases really helps build strong links between the participants. Thanks to their training, they also share a common vocabulary that makes it easier to discuss cases, but also their own businesses.

"Since the content of the cases are confidential, they build a lot of trust working together, Sophie Deboiserie adds. They really do bond. For example, the WhatsApp groups that are created for the programmes need to live on long after the training is completed. I know that former participants often ask each other for advice, and also make business together. As a matter of fact, many of them now sit on each other’s boards."

That is also one of the reasons VOKA wanted to build this programme: to create stronger links between entrepreneurs of the region. This networking aspect is really important to them. 

Only the beginning?

As the cooperation continues between VOKA and SBS-EM, we have been asked to create other programmes. For example, alumni of the MBA Highlights wanted to continue building their knowledge, which is why we have developed an advanced programme for them.

"In Limburg, 140 entrepreneurs have followed the MBA Highlights sessions, Axelle Henrard illustrates. And out of those, 25 have already completed the advanced programme. Others have also enrolled. Moreover, this also started a self-improvement dynamic, since many alumni chose other trainings from our portfolio. This programme really exceeded our expectations."

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