International Consulting Week – Vietnam

As an avid traveller with family in South East Asia, I’ve travelled fairly extensively in the region, although I’d never spent significant time in Vietnam. I was excited to see how it was different to other South East Asian countries and what it would be like working with a local company during our visit to Vietnam, on International Consulting Week.

The aim of the week was to give us real-world experiences working across cultures on a project with a local company.  We would be working with our company in Vietnam for just one week on a consulting project, giving a presentation at the end of the week and writing a full report after our visit. The projects on offer covered a broad range of theory we had studied in our first year on the MBA programme, giving us an opportunity to put what we had learnt into practice.

A couple of months before our entire class headed to Vietnam, we were given a list of companies to choose from, along with an outline of the projects, and then had to rank them in order of preference. On discussion, different people had different approaches to this. Most seemed to choose based on industry, whereas I was looking at the projects in terms of type, e.g., marketing, organisational design etc. Despite this, I thought about what I wanted to achieve from International Consulting Week, as well as from the overall MBA programme, and decided to list Vietcombank as my number one choice. The reason being that I am already a consultant and I’d like to build my abilities and credibility outside of the specialist field I work in.  The largest company in Vietnam – Vietcombank – seemed in prime position to help me achieve this. The move to list Vietcombank in first place was perhaps slightly risky as I had no idea what we would be doing – slightly typical of the region, the project hadn’t yet been finalised. Still, having completed all core modules. I believed I would be able to tackle a broad range of problems.  I was also fairly comfortable that Cass would ensure that the project would be one that we could make a success of.

As ever, juggling the MBA while working full time is a challenge, and one of our team member lives overseas and has to deal with a time difference (travelling to London each month for our Modular Executive MBA weekends). This meant that we hadn’t been able to get together as an entire group, so we held our first full team meeting in Vietnam. On the plane journey to Vietnam, I had powered through the pre-reading and found it very helpful to put into practice some of the material we had acquired when first forming as a team. Soon after, we developed a plan for the first couple of days, focusing on ensuring that we really understood the problem, including what they wanted to achieve and the deliverables they were expecting.

We had just one week to take on to take on the project and deliver a solution to our client– meaning that we had a lot to do in a short space of time! When we arrived, we were fortunate that the people we were working with at Vietcombank spoke good English. We started our first day with our sole focus on fact finding – identifying and framing the problem. It turned out that Vietcombank works with a number of major global consultancies, so we wondered what impact we would actually have. There were certainly some cultural sensitivities we discovered working with people from a different culture.  Our project was based on helping Vietcombank understand its current and potential customers. We spent our first afternoon writing the scope of work, which we presented back to them on Tuesday morning to confirm that we had understood their requirements, and to ensure we were on track with what they were expecting.

What was most interesting to me was how we worked as a team. Whilst we we’re in the same cohort, most of us were new to working together and at times, it was fascinating how wildly different our interpretations were.  Whilst on paper we didn’t initially seem particularly diverse, it quickly became clear how differently we thought to one another. As a result, every so often we stopped and collectively discussed and agreed our interpretation, along with our approach and next steps. If we were still not in agreement, we clarified our understanding through our contact at Vietcombank.  From there, actually completing the work was relatively straightforward as we had reached agreement about how we would proceed, and so we were able to define tasks fairly easily. Collectively, our diversity significantly added value, given the breadth of initial interpretation and different ways of thinking by adding extra depth and clarity to our work. We were always able to agree a way forward. Don’t get me wrong, we had our moments, but these were fleeting.  Our discussions were thoughtful and we always sought to understand the various points of view within the team.

As the week progressed, our work seemed to snowball. Vietcombank seemed to become more enthused about what we were doing. We interviewed members of internal teams and started to realise that our project had the ability to make a real difference to the bank. We were also sensitive to the fact that it was important we make a good impression to all those we interviewed to help ensure that everyone was involved and had agreed to what we were trying to achieve. Ultimately, our presentation ended up being moved from Friday to Thursday morning, as it was important to them the right people were in the room. This was very exciting for us and created the impression that we would generate positive change, it also added a huge amount of pressure.

 

 

We split into different groups based on our individual strengths and powered our way through to the finish line, working late to get our slides completed. We could have liked a bit more time to polish our presentation delivery, under the circumstances, we were all delighted with how it went.

 

The bank was genuinely interested with the insight it generated and how  they could take the project forward. It was an absolute pleasure to work with Vietcombank and an amazing opportunity for us.

I learnt loads about myself through the project in Vietnam. Firstly, it gave me confidence in a broader range of situations, with a conviction that whatever the problem may be, I’m able to work through it. None of us were specialists in the specific project’s subject matter but we were able to give Vietcombank useful tools which could be implemented immediately. It also demonstrated how far we have all developed since we started working in groups on the programme and despite the pressure, we spent lots of time laughing throughout the week.

The shared experience I had with the rest of my team will stay with me.  It really helped me to appreciate the benefits of diversity within teams, including how to avoid conflict and harness the power of diversity, especially when under intense pressure.  In addition, it gave me a better appreciation of cultural sensitivities working in international business. Finally, the International Consulting Week also succeeded in consolidating everything I had learnt in the first year of the programme, giving me a much better understanding of what we are capable of, both individually and as a team.

Natalie Flood
Modular Executive MBA (2016)

When innovation is your only option

Cass Business School offers a wide range of electives, I was spoilt for choice and extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to take multiple. After much deliberation, the electives that I chose ranged in themes and locations; Silicon Valley focused on Digital Transformation, the London Symposium was themed “London is Open” and Cuba was on Sustainability. However, the one I attended and reflected upon most recently was Innovation & Technology in Israel and Palestine.

In my opinion, the Israel-Palestine elective was most thought provoking, and it discredited everything I ever knew about the region; Israel using its ‘obsession’ for security to secure itself from its Arab neighbour nations, to Palestine coming to terms with their current realities, both resolving their issues by use of innovation and entrepreneurship to better their future.

The elective started with me arriving on Friday in the “start-up nation”, a term I would hear tirelessly in Tel-Aviv, only to realise that the airline had left my bag in Berlin. I immediately took to Twitter, and a few tweets later, the bag was delivered to our hotel reception early the following morning. The majority of the cohort arrived on Saturday, and following the meet and greet, most of us had relocated to the beach, where you could easily forget we were on a study trip.

 

First thing on Sunday morning (the start of the week in Tel-Aviv), we visited the Peres Centre for Peace, followed by back-to-back visits to a host of other organisations such as The Bridge (Coca-Cola’s answer to an accelerator program) and 83 North (a venture capital firm). Another exciting part was the panel discussions, where we met a group of female entrepreneurs, angel investors, and different co-founders who were are at various stages of their start-up journey. These were very enlightening and educational experiences.

Fast forward three days later; our male Israeli tour guide left us, and swapped with a female Arab Palestinian tour guide. We didn’t need anyone to tell us, it was clear that Israelis were not allowed in Palestine. We were proceeding to the West Bank border crossing, a stark difference from Tel-Aviv. Heightened presence of Israeli military forces, high concrete fences and long queues at the check point. In less than an hour everything had changed. We were in Ramallah where there was no 3G mobile internet. We could see overhead tanks on roof tops and the subtle colour change of car number plates gave us a sense that we had gone back in time. However, we were arguably at the closest point where politics, religion, and economics meet.

In Palestine, we met with various stakeholders of the innovation and technology ecosystem, but this time in Palestine. This ranged from co-working accelerator spaces, entrepreneurs, politicians, and of course the financial institution, the Bank of Palestine. The highlight of Palestine was visiting Rawabi city, and meeting with the man behind the vision, Bashar Masri, who didn’t hesitate to give us his thoughts on how Ramallah is doing business, his quest to bring development to the people of Palestine, and his thoughts on Israel.

I am really hopeful, that one day both sides would come to an amicable solution, simply because they both need each other.

The elective ended with us visiting the holocaust museum, and then the old Jerusalem city. However, the experience of these two different states is bound to leave you with mixed feelings. To me, it is impressive how both sides have accepted the current status quo and decided to use innovation and technological advancements to better their lives.

In Vestates, which is my real estate business, we are about to commence a new development. We are working on how to utilise “waste” and excavated rocks and use these in the project, where previously we would have had them disposed. This idea came after Bashar Masri spoke on how the Israeli military did not allow them to dispose excavated stones, and so instead they used these stones to build the theatre in Rawabi city.

We have asked some of the Israeli and Palestinian software engineers, whom we met at the Bridge and Leaders organisation, to assist us in working on our mobile application for Jetseta, my startup. We hope to outsource some of our IT requirements to them.

One of the main take aways from the elective, is how optimism and innovation have acted as catalyst to the development of both Israel and Palestine (especially in the case of Rawabi city). In the words of the late President Peres “Optimists and Pessimists die the same way, but live differently”.

Harold Okwa
Modular Executive MBA (2017)

Reflections on Silicon Valley – Think Big, Act Fast and Share!

I write this as I fly back, reflecting on the thoroughly enjoyable week I’ve experienced alongside fellow MBA students and faculty in Silicon Valley. All the speakers were inspiring and I’ll mention a few of them below.

You can’t get away from feeling that there is something special that makes Silicon Valley the success story it is. It is no coincidence that the world’s  most innovative companies have all been born there in recent years. Experiencing this first hand has been fascinating.

So what did I learn?

Firstly, I’ve learnt that I would make a fantastic ‘alarmist blogger’, although this may not pay too well! I couldn’t help thinking at one time or another about whether companies were overvalued, with a bubble about to burst and an imminent crash to be expected. What about the impact of technology on society? What happens to those displaced and left without jobs? Should we expect the very fabric of society to crumble? Whilst mentioned light heartedly, these issues do need to be thought through carefully!

Having said this there are plenty of great learnings to take from the huge amount of success within Silicon Valley. The three key takeaways for me were:

  1. Think Big!

We heard from a number of speakers on the importance of this. We have to be more confident and audacious in generating ideas. We shouldn’t bound ourselves by what is possible today and also shouldn’t be afraid to set extremely ambitious goals. Aim high to succeed!

This is something highlighted throughout by speakers ending with Michelle Zatlyn, co-founder of CloudFlare, who believes strongly that without this mentality, they would not have a company which in a few years has scaled to a level that provides 1.6 billion people with a faster, safer and better internet experience. Michelle reflected that her journey started on a similar MBA trip nine years ago where she thought, “if they can do it, so can I.”

  1. Act Fast and Fail Fast!

Make the most of momentum by relentlessly focussing on proving the idea works. Aim to create a Minimum Viable Product and establish whether there is a market, at as low a cost as possible. The product can be polished later and if it doesn’t work, better to know sooner. Save any thoughts of fancy offices and perks, boot strapping is the name of the game! And if you do fail? Dust yourself off, learn and try again!

Boris Pluskowski from Rocket Space explained how the Silicon Valley ecosystem is perfectly tuned for this model. The company provides funding and a technology campus for early stage start-ups. They have seen companies including Uber and Spotify passing through, so they know what they are talking about.

Marvin Liao from 500 start ups also emphasised the culture of accepting and learning from failure, as long as of course, you fail fast and not too many times!

 

  1. Share, Share and Share some more!

Collaboration through sharing is good for everyone. In Silicon Valley, everything is about networks. Bill Reichart, from Garage Technology Ventures told us that it’s only by bouncing ideas around that we can come up with truly great ones. Coming from London, one of the most diverse cities in the world with such a broad mix of skills, experiences and perspectives, we need to make more of this. We are better placed than anywhere (including Silicon Valley) to do this.

The power of this can lead to truly great things, for example, we heard from Jessica Hansen of the not for profit company, Kiva, which offer micro financing to those in most need by crowd sourcing small loans (from $25). This connects for example individuals acting as lenders in the USA to borrowers in places like Kenya in East Africa, which would otherwise not have access to loans. The company’s work was truly inspiring (Kiva.com if you want to learn more)

To summarise, I fly back excited about the future, whether it’s autonomous vehicles or teleportation, who knows what the future holds! What I do know though, is that if we Think Big, Act Fast and Share, there is no limit to what we can achieve!

Aliasgar Inayathusein
Executive MBA (2015)

The Apprentice

In March 2017, I attended the International Consultancy Week in Hanoi, Vietnam, as part of my Modular Executive MBA programme at Cass.  It’s been an amazing experience, both in terms of MBA and professional learning as well as from a personal perspective. All 42 cohort members were grouped in small teams according to the business project we chose to deliver for a particular local company. A key objective of the Consultancy Week was to apply the learning from the first part of the MBA programme in a real business context but in a foreign setting.

 

For most of us, it was also an unfamiliar setting as we soon realised that the business norms and culture in Asia were different, something we needed to adapt to and learn.  Prior to the project, our team considered it would be good to touch base with the client to allow us to plan ahead.  What we also thought would be good was to obtain a briefing from British University Vietnam which is Cass’s in-country partner for that programme.  We soon realised that there is a lot of emphasis and importance given to relationship and trust in doing business in Vietnam, something most of us perhaps usually take for granted.  Knowing this helped us adapt our approach when engaging with the client: offering to have lunch together to get to know each other; not expecting internal information to be readily provided to us on request; or appreciating hierarchy and formality when engaging with stakeholders.

We were four in the team and we were tasked with examining the marketing case for a prospective new baby product line for a leading local fashion brand.  Interestingly, apart from one colleague in the team who had young children, none of us knew much about babies, fashion, or marketing! Of course, we had all learned about the principles of marketing and strategies for marketing during the first year of the MBA programme, so it was very much our starting point.  Once we had worked with the client to ensure that the scope of work was manageable and that we could deliver effectively in just four days, we approached the problem as we were taught at Cass, starting from the marketing 4 Ps (price, promotion, product, place).  Together, as a team, we then designed the structure for our project and each of us led a key delivery of the project: customer survey, focus group, competitor store visits, and desktop market research.

From a team and collaboration perspective, we generally worked well together but, admittedly, did go through the four stages of team transitions – forming, storming, norming, performing.  The storming part was rather uncomfortable but somehow, with our MBA hats on, we knew it was to be expected – we had even shared with each other our leadership styles prior to flying to Vietnam.  As such, we quickly resolved our conflicts to ensure that they did not get in the way of the project.  After all, we had a client to satisfy and we were determined to deliver work in a professional manner and to a high standard.  That said, there were several moments of “I am not sure what I am doing” and “Aarrgghh!!”, especially when we had a focus group planned for 10.00am and at 09.55am, we were still briefing each other and our interpreter on how we will facilitate the workshop.  None of us had facilitated a marketing focus group before, so no pressure there…  We did a good job though, and our clients, who were observing us in action, commended us on our work and effort.  It truly felt like an episode from The Apprentice!

We were not all alone – we had three academics accompanying the cohort to guide us and a debrief was available every evening to cover team dynamic issues or discuss any other operational or delivery problems.  We even had someone from the course office who made sure our programme went smoothly.  Indeed, the Consultancy Week was not just about the business project, but also about networking and having a good time (but shhh!).  We had the opportunity to obtain a country briefing from the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and to network with British Business Group Vietnam at an evening reception hosted by the British Ambassador to Vietnam.  I felt that we were well looked after and that the programme was well paced.

On a personal level, my experience in Vietnam reminded me that I had to be continually mindful of my leadership and management style to adapt to cultural differences and changing team dynamics. I kept an open mind, willing to explore how things were done locally. I made local friends and tried local food, including the famous Pho soup from a roadside stall. It was my first time in Vietnam and in many ways it was a humbling experience: I learned how hard the Vietnamese people work, having only come out of war conflict not too long ago.  I learned that the country was ambitious and was eager to grow as fast as it could. I remember walking around the iconic Hoàn Kiếm Lake with a fellow colleague and randomly being approached by this six-year old Vietnamese girl who wanted to converse with us.  Her parents then explained that they bring their two children from their surrounding town to Hanoi to give them a chance to practise their English.  It felt like a real testimony of how much the country wanted to progress and adapt to international standards. All in all, it’s been an amazing experience and certainly one I will cherish!

Hemrish Aubeelack

Modular Executive MBA (2016)

Things they don’t teach at business school – Part 1

‘You’re taking the Dubai elective, why?’ My colleagues, professors, and friends repeatedly asked when I mentioned my February plans. Cass Business School was offering its MBA students electives around the globe, starting with one that explores cultural diversity in the UAE.

Coming from Saudi Arabia, it may sound like cheating to take the course, as the Arabian culture is very similar, and I kind of should be familiar with it already… I also visited Dubai multiple times where my extended family reside. But, like many visitors, I knew the malls and the cafes, but not much about the history of the city, or why, like in Saudi, nationals wore white and black garments for men and women, respectively.


From the outside, the Middle East may appear to have its own caveat of culture and lifestyle almost non-relatable to everywhere else, and many go by the notion of ‘it is what it is’. Although I speak Arabic fluently, I myself wasn’t aware why the city was called Dubai in the first place, and on a personal level, I didn’t know that my last name, like many Arabic names, is an adjective with a very cool meaning also. All of that illiteracy was about to change, as we packed our sunglasses and made our way to Dubai for the late winter elective.

Perhaps I should start by explaining why I chose the elective first – going a little beyond the ‘…. I need the sun!’ statement. Because, you can imagine how an analytical MBA student normally approaches their networking prospectuses; they would systematically expand some spread-sheet of contacts by exploring new places with different people. In my case, I guess I intrinsically adopted a different strategy of business networking altogether; one that lends itself to something we learnt during the last elective we had in medical school. At the time, we travelled to New York and had visited Columbia University whilst sightseeing. I met their MBA administration team, one of whom casually laid down some resonating advice:

‘I’ll tell you something they don’t teach at business school… for free.’  he began to say…. and, after pausing for impact, he then continuedYour network? it isn’t about who you know and how many, it’s the people who care about you… the old lady down the road? The one you help out with her groceries? She can have better intentions for you, and really help you, more than all the CEOs whose business cards you keep on file… why? because she cares… and has you at the forefront of her mind when opportunities come by’.

As years passed, I found myself doing an MBA in my city of London, a metropolitan place where everyone is truly culturally unique, and where I have grown up and studied university. But the experience of leading a busy life teaches the importance of family, and valuing the incredible people who have always been kind, giving , thinking of you despite the distance and always seem to want the best for you i.e. ‘family’ (in my case just don’t ask me how we’re all actually related, it gets complicated when you’re from the middle east!). However, being a student again is a great opportunity to reconnect and invest in our ‘networks’, and following the advice from Columbia University, we can do so beginning with our roots, as well as then exploring the organisations and institutions that expand our horizons. Furthermore, understanding what makes us all ‘culturally unique’ helps us bring in a different prospective to the global world we live in and makes us better global citizens able to share our heritage. So, in my case, that’s the full story of why I wanted to go to the Middle East, despite what they normally teach at business school! Now I present to you the story of what was learnt from the journey through our – eventful – elective in Dubai and the Emirates.

When you travel to Dubai, you expect to see people from all over the globe who somehow gravitated to it following its economic boom in the last couple of decades. However, the city has actually been a natural port and meeting point of travelers for thousands of years. ‘Trade’ and foreign exchange is in the DNA of the local Emirati people, previously known for pearl diving – a precious commodity back in the day. Thus with the economic prosperity, they were well poised to be a global trading ground, with a sense of luxury. From our elective, we have come to know how much the city has developed. Perhaps if you were to say two decades ago that Dubai will be hosting the World Expo, no one would believe it! But in less than 3 years from now, that is exactly what is on the agenda. Still, many would say that Dubai ambitions are unrealistic. Yet, I find it fascinating how in the meeting points of diverse travelers, whether it is Dubai or other global ports such as New York, group thinking is bravely overcome, and assumptions are routinely overturned. This special and forward looking mind-set of ‘nothing is impossible’ is in the air, and as I got to know, highly contagious.

On landing in Dubai airport on this occasion, I found myself catching the bug, and somehow went from the girl who is most in her element in the ultra-hygienic environment of labs, reading books or drinking gluten-free-hot-chocolate-made-with-soya-milk, to the girl who would be riding camels, getting a henna tattoo and booking Skydive Dubai. Little did I know, collecting my luggage at DXB – that I have optimistically filled with summer clothes in the middle of February – I would have all of that to look forward to, never the less, that I would also explore another side of the pristine city, get caught in a sand-rain-mud storm of some kind, then deeply understand the culture – my culture – and how it’s actually very much connected to the world; so much so, that the garments we traditionally wear are in fact one of the gifts of our international friendships. Finally, I would also find out what my last name actually means, and how it became my guide in choosing my career. But, I’ll tell you more about all that in part 2 of this blog 🙂

 

Mashael Anizi
Full-time MBA (2016)

Getting Disruptive post MBA

Mahmood Jessa started his own business, NgageU whilst studying for his Executive MBA Programme at Cass Business School, Dubai in January 2015. He graduated from the programme with Distinction in May 2016.

On April 17th 2017, his company launched their third digital platform, Name Your Rent; a disruptive digital service which Mahmood describes as “A revolutionary way for renters to find their new home and a powerful platform for Real Estate Agents to serve their clients, smarter.”

The Dubai based business is a story teller & concept builder in the digital and mobile app space with a primary focus on creating customer convenience solutions as well as developing propriety and client commissioned B2B & B2B2C platforms. Mahmood and his co-founder established the business after collaborating on various projects where they realised they held a shared vision of building digital solutions.

Mahmood credits his family’s deep roots in trading, his extensive commercial experience both in the UK & UAE along with the Cass Business School, Dubai’s Executive MBA as a factor in successful launch of Name Your Rent.

 

How would you describe your overall experience of the Cass Executive MBA?

Many people have asked me about the Cass Executive MBA saying that they really want to sign up but don’t have the time. The old adage of we have to make time is so true when you are trying to juggle full time work, a young family, a ‘side hustle’ and an EMBA. The EMBA not only makes you appreciate that time management is a crucial life skill but it also moulds you into a sharper individual and motivates you to achieve your goals. Nothing is more challenging than waking up at 5am to get some background reading done to only have your toddler waddle over, 30 minutes later, to give you a hug and want to play with your laptop!

 

What made the Cass Executive MBA the right choice for you?

Like for many people currently contemplating the Cass Executive MBA there were mixed feelings at the beginning, however, I felt that going back to university, after such a long gap, though daunting would be an exciting & bold challenge. When I originally signed up for the EMBA I had just finished a role as Operations Director and had started new role as Chief Intelligence Officer in the Digital Media business of Dubai Duty Free. It was during my MBA interview that I received my first piece of sterling MBA advice. Having built up a professional network from 12 years of working to suddenly drop off the radar would not be a sensible move and hence I signed up for the executive programme. A decision I certainly don’t regret!

Are there any life lessons you have taken from the experience?

I was in the fortunate position of undertaking 6 electives after completing 12 compulsory core modules and it was a journey which took me across the world, from Dubai to China to London to Chile. The hunger to learn as much as possible brought me in contact with so many different people and ways of doing business, that the EMBA experience is something I recommend on a weekly basis to anyone wanting to achieve anything they have their mind set on. However gruelling it may seem today, taking the bold steps in life pays off handsomely in the future.

Do you still keep in contact with members of your class and what do you think is the value in maintaining those relationships?

I never look at my cohort as a network, they are more than friends, they are my extended family. Many of whom I meet with on a regular basis and am continually doing business with. During the launch of Name Your Rent many of my cohort attended and were my most ardent cheerleaders, a deeply emotionally charged feeling, which I will always cherish.

 

 

 What was the most rewarding aspect of the Cass Executive MBA for you?

Though my original goal had been to pivot my career into the Management Consultancy field given that I had worked in myriad of industries believing that the programme would enable to fill some of the gaps in my business knowledge, the Executive MBA ended up rewarding me in three significant ways:

Firstly; when you’re self-funded you may doubt your ability, however, after being awarded the Entrepreneurship scholarship, that thought was squashed instantly.

Secondly; being given the opportunity to adopt and implement what you have been taught during a class the very next day was an extremely motivating experience. The satisfaction of knowing that you were instantly benefiting from the programme gave me the drive to work harder and see the truly practical side of this education programme.  Learning before was about just passing the exam, whilst the EMBA really helped to shape me.

Thirdly; after all the hard work over the 2 years, attaining a distinction gave me the gusto to believe I can achieve anything if I set my mind to it.

What advice would you give to someone considering to do an Executive MBA at Cass Business School?

When we are at school it is all about our personal results.  When we decide to enter into further education as a mature student and embark on a qualification as challenging and practical the results are not the be all and end all, as the journey is as important if not more so then merely finishing it.

Here are my 3 tips:

Enjoy it – some children today believe that school is boring and they don’t learn anything. Definitely none of us would have reached the places we have if we hadn’t learnt anything.  You’ll meet some amazing people who you are always bouncing ideas off or are able to give you some insight you never thought you would get access to.  You will hear great stories and build a new family. Don’t think of the MBA programme as a networking exercise because then you’ll be bored and tired of the programme by the second weekend!

Share it – the most satisfying aspect of being part of the EMBA programme is your ability to share what you’ve observed and learnt from the Professors, immediately. My kids always say sharing is caring and it’s something I believe whole heartedly especially in respect of education or attained knowledge. Without sharing the knowledge, it is purely information; it is through the sharing that we grow and help others to do so too.

Live it – to really enjoy anything in life you need to have a passion for it and the EMBA is definitely something you must develop a passion for. Don’t read the text book because the Professors said you needed to, read snippets and see how you can empower yourself to better your performance. The EMBA is not just about improving your work life but all aspects of your life. Once you realise that, then you’ll be drawn back into reading the whole text as it will hold deeper meaning for you.

The only way to do it, is to do it

“Which problem do you solve?”

This was the first question posed to the Cass MBA group on the Leading Digital Transformations elective as we began a week in San Francisco and Paolo Alto at the Stanford Design School. Problem-solving was a recurring theme as we met tech giants, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and Cass alumni from the San Francisco area. If you could find a need, and were passionate about finding a solution, the ‘design thinking’ approach taught at Stanford was a fantastic way of achieving your goal. For someone with a pure business background, the most counter-intuitive part of this approach was that even in Silicon Valley, you didn’t need to be a software engineer to succeed – design thinking is a state of mind.

This realisation of being able to make a difference no matter where you came from was greatly helped by the flow of this elective, which allowed us to get under the skin of what innovation in Silicon Valley and San Francisco is all about. My classmates and I attended a pre-travel class in London, Leading Digital Transformation which covered the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of digital transformations. This gave us the foundations for what we were to see in California, where the all important ‘how’ was revealed through company visits and panel discussions.

We were extremely privileged to get access to such prestigious companies and to people who are leading digital transformations from the top of their fields. The business environment in Palo Alto and San Francisco was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, with people being extremely open, honest and direct about their projects and experiences, which maximised the learning experience.

As the week progressed we met with exceptionally successful companies that are leading digital transformations both within themselves and for their clients. The problems they’re solving range from doing a single thing well – such as Intel with microprocessors – to developing a platform and ecosystem of partners to address a problem more holistically – like SAP and its connected car programme – and offering the entire end-to-end value chain both for internal business units and clients, such as at GE Digital. It’s clear this latest digital revolution isn’t about a single technology but an infinite combination of technologies, and is the reason why the business knowledge you gain from the Cass MBA programme allows you understand how these component parts can be combined to innovate.

Cloud computing, telecommunications and the Internet of Things are the core enabling technologies, and they’re being combined with artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing and others to solve business problems. The ‘old’ way of doing things, by making something incrementally better, need not now apply as these technologies let business people rapidly experiment with new ways of improving products, processes and services by orders of magnitude.

We saw this in action with Autodesk’s design software and 3D printing and Quid’s neural network search engine – you no longer need a PhD or computer sciences degree to digitally create or run complex analytics, the technologies to innovate and experiment are available to all.

The Silicon Valley Way is About Much More Than Just Technology

Having personally chosen this elective to learn more about how digital technologies are changing the face of business transformation programmes, I feel that I got considerably more out of the experience than just learning about the latest technologies. Starting with the design thinking workshop at Stanford, it set the tone for the whole week. Having panel sessions with venture capitalists and entrepreneurs interspersed with the company visits also gave us the opportunity to really probe and better understand the stories behind the successes. The takeaway for me – and many of my peers – was that if you’re passionate about solving a problem, are willing to openly share your ideas, and be doggedly persistent in your pursuit of success, you will succeed. Which, as Founder and CEO of BootUP Ventures Mukul Agarwal very eloquently said, is a wonderful lesson for life, not just business.

There is no failure… unless you stop

Reflecting on our week in California, it was inspiring to see how people from many different backgrounds and walks of life are succeeding in this latest digital revolution, and that they all share one common trait: they never stopped. By using technology to address problems, quickly prototyping, testing, failing, learning and trying again, it personified the explorer ethos of the Cass MBA programme. When you have an end goal in sight, explore your ecosystem, recombine technologies and test a solution quickly. When you treat problems as learning experiences, you can never fail.

A few volcanic takeaways to the business world

It was an absolute joy to climb Snæfellsjökull, a 700,000-year-old stratovolcano with a glacier covering its summit. The mountain is one of the most famous sites of Iceland, primarily due to the novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) by Jules Verne, in which the protagonists find the entrance to a passage leading to the centre of the earth on Snæfellsjökull.

I would like to share a few points with you that I learned in this leadership expedition, organised by the Full-Time MBA Programme team.

1.    Leadership and followership go hand in hand. On the glacier, we were tied together and had to move in a row. I trusted the teammate in front of me (leader) and followed his footsteps. However, I watched carefully and chose a slightly different path just in case he did not take the right step. I also led and warned the one behind me (follower) about the potential dangers.

2.    The rope that connected us together was sometimes pulled by the leader and sometimes by the follower. There is a virtual rope that connects the team members in the business environment as well. Therefore, either the whole team succeed or fail. This highlights the role of each individual’s teamwork. We reached the summit as the first team and our secret was that we neither went too fast nor too slowly but at a steady pace.

3.    The last few hundred meters to the summit were the most challenging ones. It resembled the end of a business project that looked so close, though in reality, needed patience, hard work and mental toughness.

4.    Finally, in each climb we forget the pain but the joy of reaching the summit stays in our minds. This is the true feeling of success!

Video of us at the top:

Lisa Sohanpal on her Executive MBA Experience

 

Lisa Sohanpal graduated from an Executive MBA programme at Cass Business School in 2008. She now runs her own business Nom Noms World Food. Founded in the UK, Lisa manages the business remotely from her home in Toronto Canada. The business came from wanting to feed her children authentic international cuisine that was aimed at kids but flavoursome enough for the whole family. Nom Noms World Food is the first family focused brands in the UK and every meal purchased feeds a hungry child in India. So far Nom Noms has served over 400,000 meals to school children in India, to keep them off the street and in school so they can gain an education.

Lisa says ‘‘Nom Noms allows families to be able to enjoy international cuisine together. We’ve secured a deal with 550 stores with Carrefour across France and a major international airline which is amazing for the brand’’.

Nom Noms World Food launched in February 2017 with the world’s largest online grocery retailer Ocado, and sold out within 50 minutes of going live. The brand has gone on to win 18 global awards including the Great British Entrepreneurs award 2016 for the small business category and is sponsored by BMW, Natwest, Diageo  and AXA insurance. Lisa credits her family upbringing, extensive international business experience complemented with the Cass Business School, London’s Executive MBA as a factor in her business  and career success.

How would you describe your overall experience of the Executive MBA?

Overall it was excellent. It was workload intensive, but that is to be expected from an MBA. The programme is open, collaborative and the professors are very approachable.

The course began with an intense team building activity at HMS Bristol, which involved saving your team members from a sinking ship and it allowed us to get to know each other. Among our cohort it felt like a family including academic staff. When you go into an MBA you know that we are all here to achieve similar things so we supportive of each other.

What made the Executive MBA the right choice for you?

I chose the Executive programme because I wanted to improve my business knowledge and move into a more senior leadership role. The EMBA also enabled me to continue working full time while studying. This worked really well as I was able to take the things I learned from lectures and apply them immediately to my day to day work.

Are there any life lesson you have taken from the experience?

One key lesson I learned is how important time management is. With so many deadlines and the time pressure to achieve everything, you find you are just constantly on the go trying to meet every deadline. Going through all this whilst managing a full-time career meant that when I became a mum to three children in three years I was able to adapt to the fast paced demanding role and I now believe that anything is achievable for me and my business.

Do you still keep in contact with members of your class and what do you think is the value in maintaining those relationships?

I do yes. We all got to know each other really well during the programme. I feel like I can always pick up the phone and call friends from the MBA and it doesn’t matter if we haven’t spoken or seen each other for years. In terms of the value, well one of my MBA colleagues is the CFO for a major retail brand and that brand is one of our targets to get our products into. There is an immediate connection from the programme that could prove invaluable.

What was the most rewarding aspect of the MBA for you?

At the time of starting my MBA I was quite clear on my goal, and that was to triple my salary and get into a business leadership function in a highly reputable and credible global organisation within the medical devices industry. The most rewarding aspect for me is that the Executive MBA enabled me to achieve this goal. It is an extensive programme especially if you are self- funding, I wanted to make the most of it and I feel proud that I have achieved my return on investment.

What advice would you give to someone considering to do an Executive MBA at Cass Business School?

One of the biggest reasons for me choosing to join the programme at Cass was that they were very encouraging for women to join. The cultural, gender and sector diversity among the cohort was strong.

My advice would be to look for a programme with strengths that align to your goals rather than your current position. You have to expect that when you embark on an MBA programme that you will be expected to step out of your comfort zone and be challenged many times over. I would also advise going to the information sessions and speaking with alumni from different and similar industries to your own. This will allow you to hear about what previous students have achieved and the value they’ve received from their own Executive MBA experience.

 

A bit about us:

Embracing my MBA with Cass

What makes you want to press pause on your career and choose to study for a full-time MBA programme? An increase in salary rise; change in industry; or change in job function? What will you consider when you choose an MBA course? Ranking, location or tuition fees? In the face of all these questions, I was happy about how clear my thoughts were before I decided to come to Cass Business School.

About me:

I studied in Sydney, lived in San Francisco and I worked in the retail B2B business of a multinational oil and gas company in Beijing. As a Chinese national with over four years of experience in bridging the interests of Chinese national companies with those of global organisations in my previous roles, I have always been driven to succeed in my career and I was glad that I had a position within an organization that could utilise my skills and knowledge. I had great fun too and a sense of achievement with all my colleagues. However, with a curious mind, I kept wondering what was happening in other sectors of the business world and what other people were doing in an international city like New York or London.

Why an MBA?

Having an MBA degree had always been at the back of my mind. Frankly speaking, I did not think of it as a career or salary accelerator, rather I knew my knowledge and skill gaps and I needed to fill in those gaps to make myself a better employee to any of my future employers. Besides, I love learning about people from diverse backgrounds and I love the dynamics of a group of passionate experts and what I could learn from them. As my parents always tell me, “your happiness does not come from anyone else or anything else”, I know that having the experience of an MBA in a world-class programme is for my own benefit. In other words, sometimes you really need to sit back and listen to what your heart wants. Because that is the thing that makes you commit the most.

Why London?

Cass
I made the decision of coming to London before EU referendum happened. However, I do not think Brexit would have caused me any hesitation to come to London. Having worked in an Anglo/Dutch company, I travelled to London several times. I love visiting museums; I love learning about the rich history just by travelling, I love walking past those old lanes full of happy people partying, I love watching the world change in such a cosmopolitan city. Although people have varying viewpoints about life after Brexit, London was the city that overtook New York as the financial centre of the world and it is still one the greatest cities in the world for business and innovation.

Why Cass?

As stated previously, you really need to know what you want and what will benefit you the most. Cass was recommended to me by my friend who graduated from the MBA course almost a decade ago, now he is the Strategy Director in a multinational energy firm. I didn’t rush to start my application, I did enough research about Cass Business School before I made my decision.

It’s not about how much money you are prepared to spend or about how high the school sits in the global ranking, every business school is different and you need to find the one that fits you. I wanted to fill the gaps in my skill set and I knew Cass would be the perfect place for me. Located in the City of London which is one of the oldest financial centres and today remains at the heart of London’s financial services industry.

The practical business knowledge is just within our reach each day. These days I have been busy meeting professionals from different industries and most of them work around the local area or within a short tube journey. Cass also arrange seminars for us almost every week on a variety of topics.

The twelve month course is a challenge for most of us and we find ourselves running around here and there learning from different contacts and gaining a wealth of new knowledge. However, isn’t this the real world? Have you ever had a time at work when you wanted to ask for more budget for your marketing projects but felt weak when talking to the finance team because you didn’t have the financial knowledge to really negotiate and leverage?

 Sandhurst Military Academy

Leadership day at Sandhurst Military Academy

The Cass MBA programme is comprehensive in terms of subjects and the soft skills that are taught. We had a networking skills workshop at the beginning of our course to teach us how important networking is and how to properly network under different circumstances. We have had many business leaders coming to our classes talking to us about real world business decision challenges. We have had company CEO’s talking to us about how they dealt with brand crisis, investment issues, leadership and the importance of people in businesses. We went to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst for leadership training. We learnt strategy and harnessed our teamwork spirit through baking cakes. We worked in different teams on consulting projects for companies that are facing challenges. We learnt so much about how to present ourselves through various presentation skills workshops. We have experienced so many special moments that are going to be valuable memories in our lives.

Liying and her group during the MBA Cass Bake Off

Liying and her group during the MBA Cass Bake Off

What’s next?

There are only six months left on my MBA journey. Next week I am going to Durham with my team to meet a company in FinTech and an Open Banking business to talk about our strategy project. Next month, we are going to Iceland to have a business consulting week with a company and also to conquer a volcano together as a team. In two months’ time, a group of us will go to Silicon Valley to learn Digital Transformation from the companies that sit at the forefront of digital innovation, while other members of the cohort will go to Israel, Cuba, China, Dubai or South Africa for courses on different subjects. Cass gave us so many opportunities to choose from in this part of the MBA programme, so we can tailor our learning based on our interests. Confucius says “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”. We have a very professional and supportive careers team at Cass to help us shape our career and choose the industries and companies which really match us.

Before my MBA programme I never thought I would be interested in the financial services, investment or consulting sectors. What I want to say is that we don’t know what we don’t know and the MBA course at Cass enables me to learn from diverse people, learn new things that I didn’t know before and really build on who I am as a professional and as a person.

I am grateful for my decision to come to Cass. I often reflect and think “what would have happened if I did things differently at my previous job”, I note these reflections down, then I continue to strive for my career.

Dear readers, please, always remember, the person that can make you sing is you!

Liying Hao, Full-time MBA 2016

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