Month: May 2016

Cultural Proficiency

Alejandro Leano

Alejandro Leano,
Full-time MBA 2015

Cultures. Different cultures, a plethora of them actually. We know they exist; we think we know about ours. We know some better than others, and there are just some we do not know anything about. In today´s global world, it is increasingly important to know about world cultures so that we can better understand how to interact with them. Cass knows to what degree this is important and incorporates into its MBA programs modules that expose its students to the global way of doing business. The London Symposium, The International Consultancy Week in Iceland and the diverse International Electives are explicit examples. I mention the London Symposium because cultural interaction is a two-way avenue. It is therefore equally valuable for those coming from abroad to understand “Londoners” culture, as it is for Cockneys to grasp each and everyone of intercontinental customs.

In today´s digitally literate and proficient world, competition it tough. This hinders the possibilities of having open access to the wide range of opportunities out there. A professional assignment in Iceland, a foreign land synonymous to the arctic, is not only unique but priceless. We had access to a wide range of companies to choose for whom to work for during that week, addressing all of the cohort´s backgrounds. Yes, it could always be better, but what was offered to us was a great choice that required ample planning, research, outreach, and liaising.  Personally, having the chance to work with an entrepreneurial set of minds in Iceland, and above all, have them openly share their experiences was of immense value. And, yes, you do obtain as much as you invest in.

I am currently planning my entrepreneurial venture and as a risk averse person it is not so easy to take the leap. It is so refreshing to hear from legacy entrepreneurs “yes, you go bankrupt, so what? It’s some more work and then you move on. Which is the next opportunity?” There is so much pressure to get every step right and we forget that many of the processes are iterative with learning from mistakes. In my native Colombia we say perder por aprender es ganar, which means: losing for learning is winning. It is true. Looking at things in hindsight always seems straight forward and obvious. Nevertheless, it would not be so, had we not undergone those so-called mistakes. While in Reykjavik, not only did we have the chance to get our hands on a real life challenge that a start-up´s future depends on, but we also got to struggle with it, dissect it, get frustrated at it – viscerally adopting it as our own problem – and reach a point where our colleagues

image-2(yes, by colleagues I mean the entrepreneurs, our fellow MBA students and the faculty members) could remind us of our strengths, point out learned methodologies, and help us reinforce the resilience to find the light at the end of the tunnel.

That experience shows you how it can be done despite tough circumstances. For sure, we were in a cradled environment. The real world may perhaps be slightly more difficult, but we should not forget the same tools and resources are there. It is just a matter of finding them and negotiating how to put them to use in our direction.

One last thing I would like to end on is a story… about storytelling. Ever since I was a boy I much enjoyed listening to stories. This may well be what alienated me from enjoying to read. We used to be able to sit in a park or public transportation and simply exchange a few story lines with strangers. All that has now been substituted by social media. Rather than wailing for times that have gone just like the Sony Walkman or VHS’, I would like to encourage you, whichever means you use, to tell stories. Position yourself as you need to.  I was pleased to find this in Iceland. In every corner.


Be it Icelandair´s advertisement, the rotten shark or Hákarl restaurant, the junction pub, or Efstdalur the organic – watch walking meat while you eat – cow farm, Icelanders always had a story to tell and a joke to crack. Is it about their culture? Never would I have thought that this far away icy nation would have such things in common with Latin American culture. This nests a million and one opportunities to network, find something in common and soon enough the sky is the limit and you could be on your way to being the next financial ‘Unicorn’. I am looking forward to the Elective about this subject. I will leave you with this proverb:

He who ignores he is unenlightened is asleep, wake him up. He who ignores he is shrewd is blind, open his eyes. He who knows he is unenlightened is lost, guide him. He who knows he is shrewd is wise, follow him.

I saw in these successful Iceland entrepreneurs those who, knowing they are shrewd, are a step ahead of where I am – where I would like to be. Find those individuals for your specific career aspirations and follow them always keeping current on cultural etiquette and an open eye.


Until next time.

Alejandro Leano, Full-time MBA 2015

An Icelandic Saga about the President, a Volcano and my Missing Laptop…

Iceland – Day Zero

Good morning folks – blog time. Today I am writing to you from a height of 33,000 ft. Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean while on board a British Airways flight to Iceland. BA800 to be exact actually, and rather annoyingly I’m penning this entry on a 4inch IPhone screen because I somehow managed to leave my laptop at the x-ray machines in Heathrow Terminal 5. Damn!

Luckily, I was raised by a family with a reasonably positive outlook and have therefore managed to identify at least 1 positive from this 1st world problem – the week ahead can only get better from here!

Not that this week needed the help however. Today, the talented and keen members of the Cass Full-time MBA travel to Reykjavik for a week long industry placement with selected Icelandic companies. We have been invited by these companies to work with them and help solve real business challenges. Translation: there will be no theory, no case studies – just practical application. Brilliant.

Or is it? Where are we going again? Iceland? That’s right.

Iceland and Challenges? Hah! The irony of such a posting at this present moment is I’m sure not lost on you too, even if you had spent the entirety of last week submersed in the Blue Lagoon.

Iceland’s sensational exposé in the Panama Papers last month, and just at a time when the country was preparing to open its doors following their post 2008 Financial Crisis exile from world markets, has forced itself into the international limelight once again – and for all the wrong reasons. This time, at least for now, it is their government in the cross-hairs.

No doubt that the pressure that forced the resignation this month of their previous Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, will inevitably implicate other government leaders and businesses within Iceland. (Post script: President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has just recently been implicated in the mess too) I’m sure that many local people, still feeling the after effects of Iceland’s role in the Financial Crisis, would be preparing for some serious turbulence ahead. Iceland’s metaphoric seatbelt warning sign is well and truly illuminated. What a time to be here!

Hold on to your hats!

Our cohort has been split into teams of 5 people. Each person was hand-picked by the participating organisation to work with them. As I mentioned above, this isn’t a token gesture by these companies, they are hoping to gain a real edge within their market by matching our talents and experiences with their specific business problems. We are very lucky and the breadth of companies is impressive. Digital start-ups, tourism operators, fashion retailers, supply chain specialists and many more are all looking for help. For example, some businesses are looking to grow and expand, others want to launch new product lines and are looking to improve their internal operational efficiencies. There are clearly some really interesting projects to be involved with.

Let’s just hope that when our plane touches down in a few hours I, along with the rest of the cohort, are ready to go and we hit the ground running! Actually, I’ve just thought of another positive – running is MUCH easier without a 13inch MacBook Pro on your back.


Iceland – Day Four

Today is our penultimate day with our Icelandic companies. Our team, consisting of George, Shiba, Ankur and Alejandro have spent the last 3 days with a digital start-up called Activity Stream. Its time for us to decide on an appropriate course of action for our company.


Broaden your perspective… the view from our office.

The problem is simple enough – which industry should Activity Stream develop their product for next? They have a fantastic platform, which allows for a very sophisticated level of operational intelligence. The answer to their problem however isn’t so straight forward.

Our team are arguing. We tried to approach the task systematically. Drawing on our partially completed MBA and personal experiences to date. We tried to understand Activity Stream’s capabilities. What is it that Activity Stream do that their competitors can’t? We tried to look at the industries they could operate in. What type of business would actually need Activity Stream working for them? We approached it with the rigour and detail you would expect after 6 months of intense training in business theory.

We developed spreadsheets, we created models, we spoke from our own industry experience and we spoke to those in our networks for more. We were doing OK. But as a group, we were arguing. So, I left to get a coffee. We hadn’t had a break since breakfast.

I returned and the place was much calmer. Perhaps it was me all along. At this point it is worth clarifying that I still didn’t have a laptop to use and, like any tradesman without a tool, I found myself anxious and unable to contribute  constructively to the documentation, shouting largely unhelpful directions to our group members. The idle time did give me time to look at the problem from a  wider perspective however, and, also a time for some reflection.

I found myself looking at the 5 of us working diligently. (Well there were 4 actually working at this time – I was still finishing my flat white.)

Now I realise I did say that we were arguing before but it wasn’t all that bad. The coffee break had allowed me the time to see that despite the tension, we were constructive and it wasn’t at all malicious. We were arguing because we were passionate about delivering value for our client. We wanted to be sure we were giving them appropriate advice. It wasn’t lost on any of us that we were in Iceland, working with a 2-year-old start-up, a pioneer of their technology in many ways, making decisions that would likely have a significant impact on this company and its employees for many years to come. I caught myself in this bizarre moment a little stunned – I was immensely proud to be involved in such a great group of people and I couldn’t believe how far we had all come, as individuals and as group, during our MBA experience at Cass. As I savoured the gravity of this moment a little longer I took another sip of my coffee and begun to feel a little chill down my throat. It was as if my coffee had turned cold. Oh wait a minute, my coffee was actually cold! Right, where’s my pen and paper? Back to work.


Iceland – Day Five

Aside: When I was planning this week long blog, I had originally planned to use this last entry to write about hiking up Iceland’s infamous volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, that was planned for Day Six. However, given that readers could most likely read elsewhere on the internet about what it is like to hike up this beast I elected to cover our final dinner party instead. I had also assumed, incorrectly as it turned out, that this evening’s events would simply be a standard affair and not worth documenting too much.  I was quite wrong.

Harpa Concert Hall in Reykavíc

Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik


Our industry projects culminated Friday evening in a glamorous event at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik. And, as fate would have it, tonight I met the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. (See? Its probably better I write about this than the hike? Of course!)

I didn’t just meet him actually, I had dinner with Ólafur and we even shared a few conversations. I am pretty sure I missed the lecture on Icelandic diplomatic protocol at high school so with a reasonable degree of arrogance I talked to the President about the company we had been working with and what I thought of the Icelandic people and culture I had been exposed to while in Reykjavik. He then talked to our entire table at length on Iceland’s business reputation within Europe, the state of the European Union, on Brexit and his opinions on the green economy, of which Iceland has been somewhat of a pioneer within. I was impressed at his willingness to discuss detail and his understanding rooted in academic theory. Understanding tempered with practical experience, economics and social theories. To some this may sound like I am being a bit big-headed. The reason I say this is because it is refreshing. It is refreshing because in this new world of three word slogans  and rapid fire staccato diatribes, (ex Aussie PM Tony Abbott and Donald Trump you are clearly in my sights), to hear one of our leaders explain in detail, and with a willingness to discuss their reasoning, is fantastic! It hardly goes without saying that Ólafur made a great impression on me.

I didn’t agree with him on all points though, if you are interested. For instance, I’m not convinced that Iceland’s green initiatives and economy can be so easily replicated in other countries around the world. Iceland’s very fortunate to have had many natural resources, political stability and isolation from the rest of the world that has given it ideal conditions to experiment and grow. The Tyranny of Distance, so often referred to when describing Australia’s unique development, also can be applied to Iceland. It is important to acknowledge the unique opportunities a remote, resource rich, politically stable and economically wealthy country can take advantage of that others can not. The world can indeed learn a lot from Iceland’s approach to the green economy, however countries not as ‘lucky’ cannot be expected to be as successful or as willing. Its all relative.

Still, it was great to hear him talk and I appreciated the frankness of the conversation. What a great way to end the week.

Actually, tomorrow we climb the volcano so its not over yet.


Sam Cook, Full-time MBA 2015, Cass Business School

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