Business Leader in Action Series #1: Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell

Business Leader in Action Series #1: Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell

by Sean Potgieter -
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Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell, a space researcher and BSN MBA alumna, has been the Managing Director of the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) for almost a decade. SANSA’s high-impact science programmes include monitoring of the Earth’s magnetic field, engineering and technology as well as post-graduate student training. We are excited to share the story of Dr Lee-Anne’s MBA journey and how the Action Learning methodology has helped her to become a better leader.

BSN MBA Alumna Dr Lee-Ann McKinnellCan you introduce SANSA?
The South African National Space Agency (SANSA) was established in 2011 with the mandate to promote the use of space and strengthen cooperation in space-related activities while fostering research in space science, advancing scientific engineering through developing human capital, and supporting industrial development in space technologies.
The research and work carried out at SANSA focuses on space science, engineering and technology that can promote development, the building of human capital and the provision of important national services. Much of this work involves monitoring the Earth and our surrounding environment and using the collected data to ensure that, for example, navigation, communication technology, weather forecasting services and resource management, function as intended.
There are four main programmes within SANSA – Earth Observation, Space Science, Space Engineering and Space Operations.
I am responsible for the Space Science Programme which operates from SANSA’s Hermanus facility located in the Western Cape in South Africa. The Space Science Programme within SANSA leads multi-disciplinary space science research and applications. Key functions include fundamental and applied space science research, the support of space facilitated science through data acquisition, the coordination and administration of scientific data, and the provision of space weather and magnetic technology products and services on a commercial and private basis. Through the Space Science Programme, SANSA contributes to the worldwide network of magnetic observatories responsible for monitoring the Earth’s magnetic field and participates in global scientific projects. The magnetically clean environment of the Hermanus facility contributes significantly to space systems and applications development through, for example, space-qualified magnetic sensors and space weather information. The programme also provides leadership in post-graduate student training as well as providing science advancement, public engagement, and learner and educator support with STEM subjects.

We know that SANSA is going to expand its weather centre into a 24-hour facility within the next three years and it’s going to be the only operational space weather centre on the African continent and play a major role internationally. As the Managing Director, could you introduce this project?
Space weather refers to the conditions in space; emanating from the Sun, transmitted via the solar wind, and ultimately impacting the magnetosphere, ionosphere, and thermosphere, which can have adverse influences on the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems.
SANSA has been operating a single domain limited focus research and development Space Weather Centre in Hermanus in the Western Cape since January 2010. Recently, South Africa, through SANSA, received designation by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) as a Regional Centre for the provision of space weather information to international air navigation. This designation has provided SANSA with an international status that has fast-tracked the growth in value proposition for domestic space science expertise. The designation was given after an intensive international review process from which the decision to designate SANSA in this way was made. To fully provide space weather information, as well as products and services derived from space environment data that indicate the potential impact on technology, the SANSA Space Weather Centre will need to expand its capability to ensure that impact information is available in four main domains on a 24/7 basis. The domains are High-Frequency (HF) Communication, Navigation and Surveillance, Radiation exposure and Satellite Communications. The project plan is to build the capability and resources needed to provide a full 24/7 operational space weather centre within the next three years. ICAO requires that regional centres are equipped to provide the necessary service by 2022, hence the 3 years.

What does this project mean to South Africa and to all African countries?
The overall organisational impact includes the addition of a suite of products and services that can be added to the SANSA product basket, increased international and regional reputation as a leader in space science, and value-added benefits for the region. Nationally, the impact will include local access to expertise and services, national pride, access to opportunities for South Africans, and public access to space weather awareness activities. The African regional impact will be continental access to expertise and services, the implementation of an African instrumentation network for measuring space phenomena from the ground, the development of key scientific capabilities, and raising the African profile in space. On both fronts, it goes without saying, that adherence to the newly instituted ICAO regulations would be ensured for the African aviation sector.
The Operational Space Weather Project will also have downstream benefits which include an expanded data set that can be made available for research by African scientists and students, and the growth of regional expertise and capability in this fast-growing important field.

You are a BSN alumna. What was the reason for you to start an MBA course in BSN?
I had already been Managing Director for a number of years running the facility in Hermanus even before we established SANSA. Although I was interested in doing an MBA I just did not have the time. Then a proposal was made to SANSA that all of its Executives at the time enrol for the Action Learning MBA at BSN. What appealed to me was that the course was designed to educate Managers at work and we could continue with our full-time jobs while pursuing an internationally recognized MBA. So, this really worked in my case.

How did BSN study affect your life, during and after the programme?

The BSN study programme is intense as is all MBA programmes, and I was determined to complete the course within the minimum 2 years provided for it. As I was working full time in an Executive position at the time it was necessary for me to give up a lot of my personal time to complete the course. However, I have never regretted that as it was truly worth it. The discipline that I needed to apply during the course, as well as the subject matter of the modules, has stayed with me since I completed. Some of the action learning projects that I undertook during the MBA have been applied within my workplace which has been very satisfactory. I think that personally completing the MBA gave me the confidence to make improvements and adjustments in my own management style and approach which helped me to become a better managing director and to make a positive contribution to the organisation as a whole.

Has the action learning methodology BSN advocates helped your career or personal life? In what way?
I am a true believer now in the action learning methodology after completing the BSN MBA programme. The methodology assisted me in finding alternative approaches to real-life problems and challenges that we experience in the workplace. So, yes I believe that the methodology has helped my career and my personal life. In my career, it has given me a new approach and confidence in solving problems and engaging with my teams. The impact on my personal life has been more indirect as the action learning approach fed my natural instinct to read more about the subject matter and to continually investigate best business practices. The action learning methodology also formed a bridge between my original career, as a space researcher, and my current career, as an Executive within the Space Agency.

SANSA also sent a number of top managers to BSN MBA programme. Why did you choose BSN as SANSA’s strategic partner for talent improvement?
At the time the decision was made, SANSA was only 3 years old and as a young organisation was experiencing teething problems. We needed to provide our Executives (Top Management layer) with the tools they needed so that we could, in turn, be better leaders for the organisation and carry SANSA through the tough initial phases. The BSN approach was offered to us as part of a holistic approach that also sought to provide leadership coaching, individual analysis and team dynamic analysis. As we all had to continue with the normal running of the organisation and yet we needed the tools required to make sound decisions, it was agreed that the BSN approach would be the best.
I should also comment that all of the Executives who did the MBA programme at the same time (6 of us) were from different training backgrounds and different fields and had found ourselves together as a team within SANSA. We each had unique skills that were required however we needed a common understanding and approach. Doing the BSN MBA together helped to move some way towards this.

As one of the BSN alumni, what do you want to share with the current students?
Doing any MBA programme is intense, doing one while working full time in a position with significant responsibility is even more intense and can be very exhausting on your person. However, embrace the subject matter, give the time needed, and use the BSN methodology from the first day in your own workplace. This way the MBA and the workplace become one and they benefit each other. It is a great programme, with good structure and discipline and a very relevant and practical approach.