You can survive an Executive MBA. Here’s how.

It was with excitement and trepidation that I started my first Modular Executive MBA weekend in April.

The induction weekend the month before had given me a good taster of what was to come and my cohort was split into groups ready for the teamwork required ahead.

Four months on and I can’t quite believe that we’ve finished our first block of lectures and handed in our assignments already. It has certainly been intense, but I’ve already got so much out of it, more than I thought I would at this stage.

However, there have been hurdles I had to figure out along the way.

Find an equal footing

Firstly, due to the intensity of the learning, we bonded within our cohort group very quickly; supporting each other, understanding everyone’s work or personal commitments and identifying each other’s strengths.

It had been a long time since I had done project work where we were all on an equal footing, so it took some adjustment to realise that no one person was in charge and we were all equally responsible for completing the work together.

Be ruthless with your time 

Secondly, I tried to figure out how to fit studying around my work and family life. While I had a study timetable worked out for my readings, the element I hadn’t counted on was the timelines for the group work; an assignment was due around the same time as the next block of lectures which had prerequisite readings.

Learning quickly that I had to be ruthless with my time, I concentrated on what needed to be done and made sure to go back and fill in extra readings if I had the time.

Put weekend activities on hold 

Thirdly, I identified what I needed to change or give up in my personal life to accommodate my new study commitments. As my husband and I have a young child, I knew the majority of my study would need to happen in the evening, which meant I was unlikely to have any time for TV.

However, I soon realised I would need time during the weekends as well. We worked out a schedule where we both had some personal time during the weekends, but this meant I had to give up the baking and gardening I usually did for relaxation. But something had to give. I figured these sacrifices were only for a short period of time and the end result was worth it.

Learn to adjust your sleeping pattern

The fourth thing that suffered was my sleep. While I can function on six hours sleep a night, I can only maintain this for a few days at a time. Thankfully there were only a couple of intense weeks where my sleep suffered in the lead up to deadlines and lecture weekends. I learnt to adapt my sleeping pattern according to my programme timetable.

All in all, I am impressed with how much I have learned over the last few months and the connections made with my cohort. I’ve noticed I am more confident in dealing with things outside of my comfort zone at work and look forward to the year ahead!

Katheryn Needham
Modular Executive MBA (2020)

My extraordinary experience on the Cass MBA South Africa elective

When I signed up for the South Africa study tour, led by Professor Cliff Oswick, my decision was based  on feedback from several alumni who had given me glowing reviews about this elective – I knew then that it was an experience I couldn’t miss out on.

Before donning our student hats, a group of us arrived in Johannesburg from Dubai, two days prior to the tour, to get a flavor of, what is arguably South Africa’s most vibrant city. We spent a terrific day in the Pilanesberg National Park and Sun City, we watched the beautiful sunset on our way back and spent the evening exploring the nightlife scene and experiencing local cuisine.

 The study tour

The programme commenced with a tour of the historic township of Soweto. We visited the Hector Pieterson Museum and Nelson Mandela’s old house, a squat, red-brick dwelling that has now been converted to a museum. Mandela’s house brings history to life; every room and every corner tells a story about his struggles and triumphs and how he sacrificed his freedom for the dignity of his people.

As a Palestinian, the struggles of black Africans resonated with those currently living in my hometown of Palestine.

It was overwhelming to be in the house of my idol leader who changed the history of black Africans and inspired the entire country to move from the unjust system of apartheid into a brighter and more peaceful future.

During the remainder of the week, we paid visits to various businesses and not-for-profit organisations in Joburg and Capetown, from educational institutions such as Harambee and the Gordon Institute of Business Science to large corporations like Pick n Pay.

We also met senior executives and truly inspiring speakers who gave us a better understanding of the history of South Africa, its economy, politics, sustainability, business opportunities and challenges.

Two prominent problems were raised in almost every meeting we attended: the state of the educational system and youth unemployment. I have to admit that the commitment displayed by the leaders to tackle those issues was inspiring. It was amazing to see how these leaders have adopted Mandela’s values and ethics in their businesses.

One of the most impressive organisations we visited was Harambee, which means ‘pull together’. As an accelerator designed to tackle youth unemployment, Harambee offers a range of training programmes to provide young people with the necessary practical skills and knowledge to find work opportunities. As part of our tour of Harambee, we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview several students.

With big, bright smiles on their faces, the students shared with us their stories, challenges and hopes for the future. Additionally, they shared their views on leadership and the positive impact they would like to have within their society when they eventually get the right work opportunity. Despite the challenges they face on a daily basis, it was incredible to see how determined they are to create better lives for themselves.

Towards the end of the study tour and after a very busy week, we went on a well-deserved boat cruise to soak up the superb views around Table Mountain Bay in Cape Town – it was a wonderful way to end this memorable trip.

I came back from the tour with profound lessons, great memories and new friends. It’s incredible that a study tour in a foreign country can change you in ways you never imagined possible – this is what made the Cass MBA South Africa elective an extraordinary experience.

 

Reem Awad 
Dubai Executive MBA (2018)

A unforgettable week at the Cass London Symposium

As mentioned by Dr Sionade Robinson during her introductory speech, the Cass London Symposium is a “backstage pass” into the dynamic and culturally diverse city of London. It opens the door on the challenges business now face and how they strive to remain competitive, especially with the rise of new technologies and digital transformation.

The theme of this year was truly relevant, Network Effects. By definition [i], it is a phenomenon whereby a product or service gains additional value as more people use it. It also applies to us as individuals, as the more important and diverse our social network is, the more opportunities we can create and the more value we add to our career. The subject was illustrated throughout the week.

London, a city of diversity

Sir Andrew Parmley, late Lord Mayor presented ‘London and Its Wonders’, showcasing how London is the most complex and advanced financial city in the world with more than 250 foreign banks. He also introduced the topic of cybersecurity as a critical and new opportunity to export skills and expertise from London, globally.

London is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world with 300 languages spoken in it, the most in Europe. Conscious that this cultural diversity was a significant advantage, Julie Chapelle told us how London & Partners built an international brand for the city to attract tourists, students and investors so that international business and talent remained, despite Brexit.

For its eight million inhabitants, London has one of the biggest public transport systems in the world. Mike Brown from Transport for London took us through its new strategy: to provide more transport, more security and a comfortable and affordable journey.

During the symposium, we travelled around the city using the tube to attend presentations at some of London’s most prestigious sites: British Museum, Royal Institute and the National Gallery at Trafalgar square and we also enjoyed some fine cuisine 😉

Network Effects in the financial sector

Crypto currency or digital currency using cryptography for security is disrupting the financial sector. Olivier Von Ladsberg-Sadie, CEO and founder of BitcoinBro, talked about crypto currency contagion; how good (and bad ideas) spread fast and evolve faster in a decentralised digital economy. The number of users is constantly rising and continues to draw attention to the bitcoin phenomena, subsequently impacting its value.

With regards to equity funding, in order to build a good network of buyers and sellers it is key to develop the most optimal processes, taking into consideration which buyer missed an acquisition and why, which buyer refused a deal and which deal was not closed. Greg Fincke from Equiteq helped illustrate the Network Effect using mergers and acquisitions examples.

James Chew, Global Head, Regulatory Policy at HSBC and Director of BGF, talked about starting a new investment company from scratch which requires building a strong physical network with branches in strategic locations and connecting with a pool of talent.

How the consultancy sector is adapting to new technology trends

From EY to Accenture, giant consultancy firms are adapting their skill set and portfolio of services in order to be sustainable using new technologies. Tasks that used to require significant man power have seen resource reduced significantly since Block Chain, Augmented Reality, the Internet of Things and Big Data have developed. The focus of a consultancy firm has shifted to help businesses stay competitive in a digital world by making use of smart data.

Media and telecommunication transformation

The way people consume TV has changed. According to a recent survey in the UK, most people now watch in their bedrooms, on tablets and in alternative – albeit illegal – ways; apparently the most watched TV episodes are pirated downloads of Game of Thrones.

On our visit to Sky – a leading broadcaster and service provider in the UK – we were shown around by Director of Data Engineering, Oliver Tweedie. He emphasised that to stay relevant in the field, content is the new oil. It has to be innovative and in line with customers’ needs.

Top screening company Netflix understood the game and are developing their own content. They use big data to understand customer preferences and expectations in order to create new programming.

Partnerships are key.  For example, Sky teamed up with Google for their data analytics tools. Other than cyber security, this is an opportune way to learn more about consumer behaviour in order to make more proactive decisions.

Collaboration is key for great leadership

Business and Leadership speaker, Rene Carayol, summarised the essence of the week perfectly with his moving presentation on collaboration. Authentic leaders care about people as well as results and performance. A combination of both is what makes us stronger.

The Cass London Symposium was a magical week. It ended with a closing party at The Ivy Soho Brasserie. This elective is a rare occasion to meet with a number of your London professors and classmates but also to meet new people from MBA teams from partner business schools in Europe and South Africa. We built unforgettable connections and had a lot of fun. The Cass London Symposium is a “must-do” elective which I highly recommended as there is so much to learn and experience.

Joanne Ebata
Dubai Executive MBA (2018)

[i] Wikipedia

Leadership and innovation in a war zone

As I am crossing at the Qalandya check point between Israel and the West Bank, the huge red sign shocks me: “The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against the Israeli law”.

It looks like something from a movie scene and you are not quite sure what to expect on the other side. We cross, and all I see is unfortunate reality of the region and conflict between these two territories, thoroughly reminded of my childhood in Yugoslavia.

On the Israeli side we saw the prosperous modern society, full of life and colours that are reflected in almost everything from streets, to people and food. On the Palestinian side our first impressions are the ruins, wall murals of past leaders, abandoned cars and chaos.

Israel and Palestine were my choice for the Cass MBA international electives. The focus of the elective was on Innovation and Technology, which comes as no surprise with Israel being known as the start-up nation. The first month into my Cass MBA, I learned that one of the international options for study will be Israel. I knew in that moment that this will be my choice of an elective – working in technology and financial crime, my interests spans across cyber security and regtech and fintech world.

International electives are intense. You go on a trip abroad and visit numerous locations and companies daily, whilst meeting and learning from founders, owners and investors. You travel from city to city and you cross borders, or in our case – check points.

Many won’t know that a large number of successful businesses materialised from Israel, such as Viber, Waze and Mobileye. The country prides itself as the start-up nation mostly driven by the uncertainty that seems to run through their DNA due to political and economic factors surrounding them. Success on the Israeli side, but what is going on behind the literal wall on the Palestinian Territory?

The western world often can’t understand why there are conflicts between people ‘somewhere far away from us’, and don’t really want to engage in that conversation. Most of my cohort was also confused as to why these two nations can’t be one. It just seemed logical that working in unity would be beneficial for both sides. The Palestinian side suffers a lack of infrastructure, lack of water and many other resources, yet they are as resourceful as Israel is!

The streets may look empty, but don’t let that fool you. Palestinian residents know how to live. On our first night we enter a restaurant and it is buzzing inside, the whole restaurant is packed with families and young couples dining and smoking shishas.

Our night ends in a famous bar packed with kids of American expats living in Palestine. Bizarre, you think? So did we. They are young, happy, dancing, and invite us to join them. We were not that cool to wear bandannas and lose ourselves to the sound of music, but nevertheless we did enjoy our night – we were useless at playing darts, but we proceeded to do so until late at night.

 

We met many successful entrepreneurs during the two days in Palestine. The Palestinian society is a lot more progressive than we are lead to believe. For example, the CEO of Bank of Palestine has fully eliminated the gender pay gap within the bank, insisting on this change himself.

There are in fact a number of factors working in favour of Palestinians. The Palestinian society has a high number of highly educated individuals, and it seems that its diaspora can fuel the culture of innovation and finance it. Of course, the circumstances of country’s occupation are also helping to kindle the creativity of Palestinians.

Speaking to a young entrepreneur at one of the events in Palestine, he mentioned the collaborations between Israelis and Palestinians. Whilst the countries are in conflict, the people seem to be less so. ‘We work together with our friends from Israel’, he said, ‘and our business is thriving.’ Of course, software has the unique ability to flow through wires and borders, but perhaps even more surprising was that he was talking about a medical business, moving people across borders and offering them medical help when needed.

I got home two days before the American embassy moved to Jerusalem. The news were full of horror stories coming from the region, and I was thinking – could successful cross border businesses help build peace in the region? Is it the organised chaos that is prevalent in the region that we need in order to innovate successfully?  Perhaps.

I wouldn’t want to attempt to predict the future of the region, but I hope that these two nations find a common language in innovation – after all making innovation happen is a collaborative process on many levels, from nations to countries, to companies, to military and teams.

Nina Kerkez
Modular Executive MBA (2019)

Roar of approval for Dublin MBA consultancy week

Right at the end of the core components of our Full-time MBA, our entire cohort went off to Dublin to complete our International Consultancy Week in early April. I think many would agree with me that this was one of the most pleasant experiences of our MBA so far because it was the perfect setup for so many reasons.

First of all, unlike most of our coursework, we got to choose the project we’d be allocated to according to our top four preferences. This was an opportunity for us to find areas of personal interest but also to reflect on what our own unique strengths were, ensuring we’d be choosing a project we could contribute to the most. It wasn’t surprising at all that HouseMyDog  was one of the most popular choices.

A start-up platform business that connects dog sitters and carers to dog owners, HouseMyDog is representing the kind of digital innovation and changes in business models we have discussed throughout our MBA right from day one in our strategy course.

Combine that with dogs and you have a winning formula to attract keen MBA students ready to leave their mark and contribute to a growing business. Being a dog lover myself and having also worked occasionally as a dog-sitter using a similar platform in London, I was keen to learn more about the differentiating factors of this business and what they saw as their formula to success.

Putting this aside, the project brief also outlined an early stage growth strategy in Germany which suggested my German background may be of some use here. Although several other projects caught my interest, I was delighted to find out I had gotten my first choice in the end.

Even better was discovering who my team mates were. Even though we hadn’t chosen each other, it almost felt like it when I saw the list. By the end of our core modules, we had pretty much worked in one project or another with almost everyone on the MBA and also had developed a good understanding of everyone’s skills and personalities.

There were people I naturally  gravitated towards and many others whose talents and qualities I had discovered through the team working process. Varun and Vicki had both been in my block 1 and 2 team which was where most people had developed the closest bonds due to the intensity of the work and the sudden change that had hit us all at the beginning of the MBA. I knew that my block 1 and 2 team was a strong performing team with a successful track record throughout.

Betty and James were both part of my team during our ‘Achieving Your Potential’ professional development training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst which was the most physically challenging outdoor aspect of our MBA and these two helped and supported me through it. I knew I could not only trust all of these people but I looked forward to working together in this new constellation.

The project started with us getting in touch with Santi, one of three Cass professors who were our mentors for this project and spent the week in Dublin with us. Communication with James, the CEO of HouseMyDog, started via email to get some hints on how to prepare ahead of our stay.  We began with basic market research around the pet care industry in the UK and globally.

Once in Dublin, we met James in person on Monday and were given some space within the Huckletree coworking facility where HouseMyDog were based (in case you wonder: no, there were sadly no dogs). James introduced us to his team and ran us through a presentation of the company. It’s right then that we understood how small this company still was and how our own contribution through this project could make a real difference to them. James emphasised this wasn’t just a school report; our findings would be really valued and put to use in the company’s growth strategy going ahead.

At the beginning of the week, we had a brief discussion around the bigger aims of the consultancy project. Throughout the week, those aims were broken down further with a clear set of deliverables that we’d have by the end. The project had to fulfil James’s expectations but also our criteria as a project that was part of an academic course. It was a hectic week for James, still he found the time to answer any of our queries and give us feedback through the process.

At the other end, our mentors were available to us every day to discuss the progress we had made and make sure that we hadn’t gone off-track;  the objective professional perspective was very helpful and Santi did a great job at guiding us within the path we had chosen, leaving us in control.

On the final day, we presented our findings to James. Even though we had worked on this for the entire week, I was still surprised at how it all came together in the end with contributions from everyone in the team neatly captured in the final presentation (which was largely a product of Betty’s great visual presentation skills). James’s overwhelmingly positive feedback was an extremely satisfying end to our week’s work and we proudly took home our HouseMyDog t-shirts.

Apart from working on the project, there was also plenty of time to enjoy the last occasion our entire cohort would be together. Dublin offered plenty of opportunities to get a drink and it didn’t always have to be a Guinness (although it often was). After Sandhurst, this was the second time we all spent days together in the same hotel. While at Sandhurst, we were still finding out a lot about each other and it was time to perhaps mingle with people we hadn’t had the opportunity to with, yet here in Dublin, we were just enjoying each other’s company, completely at ease with each other.

One afternoon, we were also taken on a tour of Howth peninsula and Malahide Castle. It was interesting to experience everyone’s perception of that too. Having grown up in Germany myself, I have visited large castles but also smaller ones that may look more like a luxurious large-size villa. Malahide Castle is not imposing in size but steeped in its long history including claims to possibly possessing the oldest chair in Ireland. Hearing about the losses during the Battle of the Boyne especially caught my interest, given I only recently revisited this part of history for my Life in the UK test.  The visit was a welcome break for everyone to replenish and get to know Ireland a bit more beyond the city centre of Dublin.

The whole project didn’t end in Ireland. Once back in London, we had another month to prepare our final report to the company. Largely based on the work we did in Dublin, it gave us some more time to reflect on the experience and the knowledge gained, and compile it all in a clearly structured report which we could be confident would make a positive contribution to the company.

Overall, the International Consultancy Week was such an uplifting and unique immersive experience contributing to HouseMyDog, an exciting start-up with so much potential, working alongside a group of people I respect for both their personal and professional qualities.

Full-time MBA (2018)

What makes my MBA

“I said maybe, you’re gonna be the one that saves me” is blasting from my radio as I’m driving and all I can think of is Vietnam. Why, you ask? Well… that is how we closed our trip to Vietnam, in the dodgiest karaoke parlour in a private room, somewhere in the middle of residential Hanoi.

We are not really sure whose idea it was, but nights in Beer Street and endless amounts of beer or other alcohol will do that to you. It was a long week for all of us; our exam results came in just before Vietnam and thankfully, the whole cohort has passed.

We also just finished our International Consulting Week with various Vietnamese companies and we were ready for celebration. Not that we needed an excuse for it.

When you start exploring an Executive MBA as an option for the first time, nobody prepares you for what it truly is. You hear that it is the hardest thing people have done in their life. You hear that a lot, as well as that you need a lot of family support, work support and plenty of hours of study a week.

If you are exploring Cass, you also hear that you will get a lot of international exposure through International Consulting Week and electives. That is all true. You need plenty of time to work with your groups on assignments and you definitely need a lot of support from your surroundings.

Then, 38 professional adults get to go on a consulting week to Vietnam, supported by their families. You are placed into a new working group from your cohort, new country and new company, all you have to do is figure it all out within a week and deliver amazing results. Really, not much of an ask (sarcasm intended).

Vietnam – a country that we learned is struggling through high level of instability, a country that is culturally hierarchical and extremely different to our normal environment. With such differences from our world, we were not sure what to expect in the business environment or how to navigate it, but most importantly when we had expectations, the reality turned out to be completely opposite.

Not only are you navigating thousands of motorbikes on the streets of Vietnam, but you are also navigating the unknown working environment and language barriers.  But don’t let that dishearten you! All the difficulties we faced, proved to be a challenge that we all wanted, and we came out on the other side with a very positive feeling.

Vietnam is a very fast developing country, and with that so are the companies that we have worked for. With growth come challenges, and many of the things could have been addressed within businesses. Scoping our work was probably the hardest thing we had to do, but once it was agreed between us and the hosts, we embraced it and we delivered. With the pace of change in Vietnam, the scopes can change daily too, yet that is all part of the fun that this week brings to you.

The day before our presentation to the business’s directors, we had a sudden lightbulb moment and decided on a scope change at 4pm. When you are a part of an MBA group, you most likely don’t like to make things easy on yourself and embrace any challenges thrown your way, so we buckled up and continued working as a group till’ after midnight.

In the end, we delivered an extremely successful presentation the next morning, and our company loved us, they want to adopt us, or perhaps just permanently employ us.

 

But let me focus on my cohort for a minute. My friends, rather. The most amazing, the most resourceful and fun group of people I have ever come across with. It comes by no surprise that most of us share ambition and drive, but all of us have different backgrounds, and yet again most of us are very alike. We work hard and we party even harder – the quiet ones will always surprise you.

We also argue and disagree more than you would think, at times we don’t like working with each other and we think that we would get things done much quicker and easier if we could just finish them on our own. But, the reality of things is that we can’t. So we learn to be patient, be there for each other and love each other regardless of what happened five minutes ago in that team meeting where we annoyed each other.

My MBA friends are there when I need them, they are there for the highs and the lows on this crazy journey and we sympathise with each other as we are going through this collectively. If I had to pick one thing that made my Vietnam week, or even my first year of MBA, then it would definitely be the people around me. I thank Cass for bringing us together and placing us in the most random of places where we could go to the dodgy karaoke bar for a song or ten.

After all, we are all each other’s wonderwall.

 

Nina Kerkez
Modular Executive MBA (2019)

 

 

Climbing Mountains in Vietnam

Early Saturday in Hanoi, the tropical heat starts to build up on the streets, MBA students wearing suits and pushing their carry-ons roll out of the international terminal at Nội Bài Airport, heading to a five star hotel in the central area, south of the Old Quarter.

It’s been 12 months since this group first met in a cold and grey London morning. Twelve incredible months of constant challenges and big achievements, all in preparation for this moment.

We are in Vietnam!

Some of us arrived a couple of days earlier and the pictures shared on a messaging app look very promising. The remaining group just landed from a connection in Doha and that is the group I am looking for at Hanoi’s international airport.

My trip followed a different route, through Dubai, where I dealt with life and taxes, met friends for the first time since I left one year ago, and generally had a good time. I arrived in the country the night before in Ho Chi Minh City and after yet another sleepless night in an airport (oh so many), landed in the domestic terminal some 30 minutes before my cohort.

After a stroll between terminals I meet our local contact, Chris, Dean of the British University Vietnam. Slowly, familiar faces passed through the terminal gates and joined us in the lobby, everyone displaying a mix of tiredness from the long trip but also a certain freshness. The excitement was visible.

We are all here for one reason: to climb a mountain. It’s a rite of passage that marks the culmination of a year of learning. It is International Consultancy Week.

Our mission is to help local companies with diverse challenges, from Human Resources Management to Corporate Strategy, Marketing, Finances, Innovation and Digital Transformation. There is something for every background and interest.

So much to do, only one week to go.

If I had to pick only one life lesson from the first year of my MBA studies, it would be that front-loading pays off, always, and that was the force behind our engagement strategy. By the time we arrived to our client on Monday morning, we have had a couple of conference calls with our project’s sponsor, defined and clarified the scope of our study and had learned a lot about the country and the business, their cultures, challenges, and opportunities.

Hoffstede’s cultural dimensions, Porter’s Five Forces, SWOT and PESTEL analysis, the voracious consumption of industry reports and our secondary research enabled us to touch the ground running. By the end of the first day we had our hypotheses lined up, our primary research planned and the data to backup our analysis on its way.

In the pursuit of helping the company to move forward with their mission of benefiting the Vietnamese society, we leveraged our knowledge of Economy, Business and Corporate Strategy, Marketing, Finances and Organizational Behavior.

From the group dynamics perspective, we accelerated the group transition stages through our pre-engagement preparation which helped us understand our individual strengths, styles and preferences, allowing us to split the work so each one of us was challenged and confidently capable of delivering significant value. Some of us focused on secondary research, the elaboration of financial models and preparing the presentation, while others went to the client’s office daily for a series of stakeholders interviews that allowed us to form a firm grasp of the issue at hand.

In this process we used proven frameworks and cutting-edge knowledge, balanced with the realism and pragmatism that only a deep immersion in the business of our client could provide.

What followed was hard work, more learning, more hard work and the resulting satisfaction of knowing that our input was not just valuable, but potentially transformational.

The rite is complete.

As a smart and quirky man once said, there is no honest way to explain the edge because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over it.

These words feel very appropriate to describe my experience with the International Consultancy Week. As a rite of passage it successfully marked the transition into our second year of studies, and as a life experience it pushed us into a new realm where we can all feel confident in our ability to bring positive change to our companies, our host country’s economy, but most importantly to society.

Postscript

On a not-so-early Saturday in Hanoi, the freshness in our eyes was replaced by dark circles and, in some cases, a well-deserved hangover. The sense of accomplishment is visible.

Some of us left the night before, heading to Sapa to climb another mountain, the Fansipan.

As for me, I’m off to explore beaches and tombs, the old and the new, the north and the south of Vietnam, from Hanoi and Ha Long to Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City, all before departing towards Singapore and London in a few weeks… but I’ll tell you that story another time.

 

Luiz Grzeca
Modular Executive MBA (2019)

 

Reflecting on the Cass London Symposium

“Trying to split?” If you ever meet any of my good friends from the Cass Full-time MBA or back home in Washington, DC they will tell you that I persistently ask this question every time we go out to eat at a restaurant. My counter argument to this is of course how can you blame someone for wanting to try all the different delicious choices on the menu?

Wondering how my maddening indecisiveness has anything to do with the 5th Annual Cass MBA London Symposium? Well let me provide you with a bit of my own personal background as well as the exciting week that transpired at the London Symposium.

Before I accepted my place in the Cass cohort I worked in the retail banking sector. While the work was challenging and the knowledge obtained was valuable, my inspiration for obtaining an MBA was to transition to an industry that would suit my skill sets better. I had a general idea of a few industries to transition into, but I was still hoping to learn and explore others where I had absolutely no bearings.

Upon seeing the London Symposium being offered as an elective, I knew I had to partake as this elective would allow me to gain insights from leading London organisations in many different sectors without having to narrow it to just one.

The week consisted of four days with speakers for everyone in the morning and a choice for three different site visits in the afternoon. Many of the speakers were alumni of Cass Business School and on top of sharing their insights and experience with the students, also graciously hosted us in the afternoons at their offices.

During the mornings we heard from many impressive speakers, with highlights from the late Lord Mayor Sir Andrew Parmley, commissioner for Transport for London Mike Brown and Deputy Mayor of London for business Rajesh Agrawal, among others.

A Look into the Luxury Sector with Markus Kramer

The three site visits I chose were in vastly different sectors: retail with John Lewis Partnership (JLP), media with Sky News and financial technology with Starling Bank. The speaker that had a profound impact on me was Andrew McInnes who is currently Head of IT Operations and a proud Cass alumnus at John Lewis. While John Lewis is known to be a highly respected and trusted UK company, it was refreshing to hear about the unique challenges that JLP was facing both online and in their brick and mortar stores.

In a fast moving climate where vast amounts of consumers are changing their behaviours of shopping, Andrew was able to share with us the necessity to quickly adapt or be left behind. After listening to the talk and getting a tour of one of JLP’s flagship stores, I was pleasantly surprised reflecting on how different areas of strategic decision-making were all intertwined in operating such a large and successful corporation.

Being provided with back stage access to so many unique and important speakers from such different fields of business was instrumental to our views in how business is run in the global hub that is London.

Great Insights from Sir William Sargent

A wise person once told me the phrase “work hard, play even harder” and after four exciting but rigorous days of business, the closing celebration party at The Ivy Soho was a perfect opportunity to mingle with newly formed connections and have some fun. What we didn’t expect was a faculty flash mob executed to perfection but this is just a perfect example of how Cass Business School upholds the motto.

The Ivy Soho Closing Party!

In reflection, my personal conundrum of trying to experience too many items while dining out is still a challenge with no tangible solution. On the other hand, participating in the London Symposium opened my eyes on how businesses from different sectors across this fine city operate and attack challenges.

As I transition to my next career upon completing the MBA, I know that it will take a combination of different skill sets and frameworks to conquer unique business challenges that lie ahead. Thinking with an open mind and exploring every opportunity is something that myself and every student can take into the future.

Beautiful Trafalgar Square on final day of London Symposium

Tony Song
Full-time MBA (2018)

May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been and the foresight to know where you are going

It’s Monday, half three in the morning and Liverpool station begins to awaken with early travelers who, like me, will catch the first train to Stansted airport.

Ironic how I really wanted to go back to Spain to forget London’s cold mornings and short evenings. After this last month of hard work —the strategy project,  last block’s integration week, exams and the Irish consulting project— I was hoping for a holiday, but now that the time to leave has arrived, I feel a lump in my throat. “After all, it won’t be easy to leave you London, I am even going to miss this terrible Pret a manger coffee”, I think whilst taking a sip.

In spite of all the hard work, these last few weeks have been amazing, perhaps the best MBA experience so far. A few days after sitting the exams, we all boarded a plane bound for Dublin for our last all together experience and the last project I will experience with the rest of the cohort before we cluster according to our own elective preferences.

More than 15 companies from different sectors and ranging in different sizes; startups, companies in expansion or in maturity stages, with different capitalisation levels, they were all waiting for us to arrive and to begin on the consulting projects in which we were to help them face their particular business challenges.

For this project I chose to work with a software company who had developed a data base designing tool and needed our help to define a launching plan. We were to identify the best segments to target, improve features to match potential customer’s needs and identify the best ways to monetise it.

The truth is the first time I knew what SaaS (software as a service) stood for was, in fact, a few months before during the Digital Technology projects and without any doubt one of the MBA subjects that I enjoyed the most.

As you can imagine I’m not an expert in the field, but it was precisely for this reason that I wanted the project, after all, I came here to learn. Luckily there were two tech cracks in my team: Arpit, who worked as a Software Designer at the Royal Bank of Scotland and as a Software Engineer at Ericsson before joining JP Morgan to be an asset manager; and Shawnik, experienced as a business analyst and consultant at TATA and graduated as an electronics and communications engineer.

The remaining team members, Mich and Ali, offered valuable experience from their vastly different backgrounds. Mich has experience on the renewable energy sector. Ali is the only one in the group I had worked with before in previous projects during the MBA. I remember one of the first conversations I had with him, it was September, at the Artillery Arms, the bar next to Cass. After listening to all the places he had worked at, conducting businesses in more than 65 different countries and his achievements as an author, with three published books and multiple articles in different magazines and newspaper, I knew he was someone from who I could learn a lot.

In spite of my limited knowledge about the software industry, I have worked as a consultant helping people to start up and aid companies to grow and profit. As in this case, each of the projects in which I worked were different, so I had already overcome the fear of starting from scratch. Furthermore, with the great team I had on this project I knew we were going to do a great job, and we did indeed.

I remember that last night before we presented to our respective companies. It was  a Thursday and my group and I decided to work around a big table in the hotel bar. From our position, we were able to see the rest of the teams, each of them had conquered a particular place to work, some of them where sitting on the big couches at the lobby, others pacing nervously in and out from the meeting rooms, some groups where even working in their bedrooms.

The bright side of working at the bar was that sooner or later everyone came around to have a break, so we were always in good company. It was not until two in the morning when we finally closed our laptops and went to bed.

Since I started the MBA this has been the fourth practical experience in which I have worked hand to hand with real companies, from a FinTech start-up to an energy trader. All of these projects have complemented the human values and professional skills I was looking for to improve when I arrived. Nevertheless, I will remember the Irish project with special fondness. Once again, it has been the people who I have shared this experience with what made the trip so great.

The good atmosphere made it possible for us to enjoy this experience to the fullest. I take with me all that I learnt from my colleagues and the team at the company that worked hand to hand with us, the good conversations at The Bleeding horse bar, the early morning jogging through Dublin’s streets, the hotel’s jacuzzi after a long day of work, the Irish stew of the Hairy Lemon, the meatloaf at The Old Storehouse, the Redbreast whiskey and the Guinness beer, the live music at Temple bar, dancing at Dicey’s, working long nights at the hotel with the team, and the satisfaction of a job well done and, above all, I take with me all the good friendships I have made.

 

Tristán Oriol Lapetra 
Full-time MBA (2019)

 

A conventional idea that’s had its day?

‘Don’t be intimidated by conventional ideas.’

Those were the words of our Course Director at our EMBA induction dinner.

There’s one conventional idea that I’ve found particularly hard to swallow: the primary purpose of business is to make profit.

Sometimes this narrative is explicit and direct, and sometimes it’s more subtle or nuanced. But it’s lurking. So it’s promising to see Cass starting to take steps to bring it into the limelight for some critical reflection.

Of course profit is essential for business sustainability. Businesses require capital to grow. Raising capital requires investors and investors require returns. That puts investors (and the profit needed to deliver the required rate of return) in the driving seat.  So yes, profit is essential for business sustainability. But profit no matter what?

The problem is not profit per se. The problem is profit as an end in itself, and the bigger problem is the pursuit of profit with disregard for the impact it has in reinforcing our social challenges and systems of inequality (or ‘negative externalities’ in economic terms).

The issue is how profit is made and how profit is used.

I’m not talking about isolated instances of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), ‘ethical duties’, greenwashing or developing morally conscious branding campaigns to appeal to millennials (while in the background the fundamental nature of the core business continues to have negative impacts on society). I’m not talking about being pressured to respond to a heightened awareness in popular culture of environmental and social issues in order to attract staff and customers (and therefore make more profit). I’m talking about building social purpose into the heart of business: elevating social goals to a strategic level, from ‘bolt on’ to ‘built in’.

This is of course already reflected in an array of existing business models in the ‘fourth sector’ like social enterprises, benefit corporations, community businesses, cooperatives and models of community ownership, which are growing in the UK and around the world. These alternative structures are part of the vision of a ‘social economy’, and there are forms of both debt and equity finance cropping up to support them, like social investment and community shares.

The problem is, these alternative models upset the neoliberal, capitalist apple cart that our current economic system is based on.

As our economics textbook put it: the ‘clear risk’ in governments becoming shareholders of banks following the financial crisis is that they could direct banks to prioritise social objectives over commercial ones. How outrageous!

Critical theory would have us ask: why are things the way they are, and whose interest does that serve?

Traditionally the corporate sector is paid enormous executive salaries and bonuses to deliver profits to shareholders, which works as a beautiful self-reinforcing cycle allowing the wealthy at the top to become wealthier.

Meanwhile, 14.3 million people live in poverty* in this country– that’s 22 per cent or one in five.

One. In. Five.

Sixty per cent of those people are in in-work poverty (they remain in poverty even while working). Is it just me that finds that profoundly shocking and completely unacceptable? Never mind the housing crisis, the environmental crisis … this list goes on. These aren’t faceless ‘negative externalities’. They are real people. Real lives.

Most people start with government and the welfare system as the solution to social challenges, but while there are many opportunities for change in Westminster, the government only controls around 40 per cent of GDP. The rest is in the hands of business, and it’s our interactions with business that dominate our day to day experience.

There are positive signs of a shift in conventional thinking. Blackrock’s recent letter called ‘A Sense of Purpose’ said that ‘companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including the communities in which they operate’. In a similar vein, Deloitte’s 2018 Global Human Capital Trends survey showed that businesses are no longer measured solely on their financial performance but on the support they give to the communities in which they operate and their impact on society as a whole.

There is indeed much businesses can do to realign spending priorities away from bonuses and dividends to shareholders already firmly within the 1 per cent. For example they could: increase wages for their lowest paid staff, reduce prices so more people can afford their services, offer apprenticeships, cap the wages and bonuses of executives, procure from social businesses in supply chains, abolish zero hour contracts, and create affordable childcare for working parents.

Of course none of those suggestions come without complex trade-offs, but many of these options can generate a win-win. Take Michael Porter’s concept of shared value, where, for example, supporting marginalised communities to produce coffee beans on fair wages generates a sustainable and affordable supply chain for a coffee company while lifting a whole community out of poverty.

Two of my classmates recently asked me for ideas on how they could support charities, specifically disadvantaged children, and it got me thinking about we can do at Cass as students and faculty.

One of the reasons I applied for the MBA was to bring the principles of good business into the third sector and share them with the network of 600 community businesses we support at Locality.

Because the third sector has an unfortunate ‘conventional idea’ of its own – that business is greedy, uncaring and often corrupt. I’ve heard many a snide comment about ‘people in suits’, some of which were very justified and others which were simply a regurgitation of an accepted narrative without reflection. There is work to do to change the perception of business from a self-interested vehicle for free market capitalism to an agent for change.

But importantly, the education process can also work in reverse. We need to bring the social principles from the third sector into the world of business.

Because there are indeed things that business can learn from the third sector. Doing good and doing business can in fact be intrinsically interlinked. It doesn’t have to be either/or, it can be both/and.

What would happen if we removed the separation between ‘business’ and ‘not-for-profit’ and explored the grey space in between? As the Director of the Community Shares Company said: ‘the economy is not simply made up of charities and hard-nosed capitalists’.

The ‘social sector’ doesn’t have to exist in some kind of parallel universe far away from the world of business with the only bridge being CSR initiatives. CSR (done genuinely and well) is great, but there’s no net benefit in a business giving a cash hand-out to a food bank when it doesn’t pay its staff the London Living Wage; or a bunch of corporate volunteers from a bank going to paint a fence when the interest rates they’re charging on the charity’s loan means the charity can’t afford to hire a painter; or a confectionery company that sponsors a children’s charity when it’s core products increase childhood obesity.

In fact, this only reinforces and embeds the structural causes of our social challenges. It also keeps the third sector small – Dan Pallotta’s Ted Talk sums this up well.

The business models that foreground social impact need to be discussed and explored not just in third sector echo chambers, but in business schools. Not only to create new start-ups, but to adapt and transform current business models to build in genuine social purpose and explore what responsible business looks like in practice – to improve people’s lives and make profit.

(Needless to say I was thrilled to see a whole lecture dedicated to social business in our corporate strategy module!)

As MBA students, we can ask why things are the way they are, what can be changed, and how this can be done.

Rather than abdicating responsibility for business’ contribution to social challenges Milton Freedman style, or seeing the solution as a hand-out to charity, we can look inside our businesses to create more fundamental change.

We can challenge the conventional idea that profit is an end in itself. We can grapple with the complexities of realigning business models to include social outcomes. Then we can get to work in changing our own organisations to start giving business a genuinely deserved reputation as an agent for positive change.

Cheers to that!

*Living in poverty is defined as having ‘relative low income’, that is, people living in households with income below 60 per cent of the median in that year, after housing costs.

Tara Anderson
Executive MBA (2019)

 

« Older posts

© 2018 The Cass MBA Blog

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑

Skip to toolbar