Corporate culture, personal branding and authenticity are just a few of the many buzz words you’re likely to hear if you’re seeking a career change or new role, and, words you’ll never be able to un-hear if you’re doing an MBA. Personally though, I found these concepts often too abstract and hard to grasp.

What does it mean to be “authentic”? It’s not the same as not lying, apparently, and also doesn’t mean you should just be an ass because you’re being honest. And what is your personal brand? It’s what you want to be known for. Easy to say. But when asked what it is for them, most of my fellow students would come up with answers such as being trustworthy, a team player or being authentic (back to that again!). Don’t we all want to be that (or at least appear to be that)? Do we all want to be the same then?

Throughout my MBA experience, I’ve been preoccupied with this and tried to make sense of what any of these things mean. Recently, I’ve turned to look at Cass Business School itself for answers. After all, shouldn’t a business school that is teaching us to become better leaders, be a role model for such things?

I started to think about what makes Cass special. What is it that makes it different from all other schools. Sionade, our Associate Dean, will tell you about the “explorer mindset” Cass tries to instill in its students; Paolo, our newly appointed Course Director will tell you about learning from Professors who are at the forefront of their research; and the latest FT European Business School ranking backs this all, with a ranking 11 positions higher than previously to 15th.

But if you asked me what makes Cass unique, my answer would be completely different. What I have experienced in my three months here is a culture of inclusion that fosters a family-like sense of community, care and dedication.

Perhaps it’s the size of our cohort that makes it possible. Saying our faculty is accessible would be an understatement. There’s a sense that each of us is known to our Professors. I remember in my third year as an undergraduate, walking into a programming class and being told by the Professor each week, “Sorry, this room is booked for a class.” At Cass, we are encouraged to be known by our Professors right from day one with our big name cards on display. Half of the class learning relies on interaction and our Professors listen to us as well as push back when it’s needed. There’s banter with Professors on Twitter. Sometimes it would just be funny comments and yet other times, it would be a full-blown discussion over corporate strategy to be continued offline.

On the day I came to Cass for my interview, I had prepared several pages of notes, thought about the right things to say and the right things to ask. The interview itself ended up being a much less formal experience than I had anticipated and if anything, one of the most stimulating and fun conversations I had in a long while (fellow students confirmed having a similarly pleasant experience with other members of the faculty in their interview process).

But when it was done and dusted, my mind was all ready to leave. That’s when the Admissions Officer stopped at the  sixth floor MBA office and introduced me to Tony.

Tony is our MBA Course Officer. Tony is important. I know that now.

But frankly, when I was there on interview day, I was rather confused as to why I was being introduced to this person and how this interaction was relevant. Wasn’t he some sort of admin person? Now, four months into my MBA, I recognise the importance of Tony.

Tony knows it all. Tony fixes problems. Tony is your man for absolutely everything. Ask any Cass MBA student and they’ll tell you Tony is amazing. Because he is.

When you say “goes above and beyond,” you should have a picture of Tony next to it. He may send around the silliest pictures of our group endeavours or most important updates about exams. He is there for us. There to share the fun but has your back when you need it. Ok, you might say, that’s just Tony. That’s how he is. And I’d argue, yes, it’s definitely a personal trait but it’s also the Cass culture that seeps through every level of the university.

When early in the MBA year, an email came around asking for students to volunteer to write for the Cass MBA blog, I seized the opportunity. I saw it as a way to engage more with Cass members, to reflect on my own experiences and to expand on my passion for writing.

When I signed up, I knew I’d be writing a blog, send it for proof-reading and someone at the other end would do whatever needs to be done before it can be put up in the public domain. In theory, it could have been a very faceless interaction. Just wanting to put a face to a name and to have a better sense of expectations, I asked the person on the other end, Khus, our Marketing Manager, to a quick coffee. He happily agreed and ended up having so many questions about my MBA experience, asking me what my thoughts were on the individual courses, my cohort and my Professors. He cared.

In my ten years of Professional experience, I’ve come across plenty of marketing people and none of them were particularly bad nor did I ever think that they did an inadequate job. But they were all marketing people who remained in their marketing domain without any visible real passion for the product itself. I know that Khus cares about Cass and us.

At some point, I sent a piece that was over 2,000 words. I thought I’d get some feedback on it via email, some changes maybe. Instead, Khus set up an early morning meeting with me to discuss the piece in more detail and handed me a printed version with line by line edits by Khus and team member Mai, respecting all my ideas, only improving the language and structure. I never expected this level of engagement. It’s even deeper than the interaction I had with some of my editors when I was a reporter and I’m loving it.

When looking at companies to work for, we’re often told to talk with people there to see whether the culture they are trying to portray is truly the culture they are living. Come to Cass and you’ll see the culture of dedication is not only lived by the faculty but is reflected through all other teams that support this institution. When I look at my next job, I’d love to see this sort of culture and I know that it is one of the things I will take away from my MBA. A good culture can exist and be lived through the entire company.

Working your way down from corporate culture, personal branding comes next. There’s no one better to teach you about that than Paolo Aversa.

Paolo has personal branding down to a tee. By the end of term one at the latest, you will know what Paolo stands for, what he’s passionate about and what he wants from you. Whether you like his style or not, you’ll learn to respect it because you can see that he’s all in 100 percent, all the time. He’s passionate about Formula 1, strategy and teaching strategy.

When you sign up to his course and login to the course page, you’ll discover a Spotify playlist students can contribute to and a filmography of strategy-related movies. He’ll encourage you to get engaged with him on Twitter, talking about the lectures, talking about strategy, talking about anything to get us all involved beyond just the classroom hours.

Some of it may seem silly to you. You may even think all you want from your Professor is to teach you strategy and nothing else and it might just not be your kind of thing. But there’s something about Paolo’s energy, coming at you every day that you won’t be able to deny. What’s driving him is his deep-rooted desire to make Cass better. And you’ll find it in so many of the Cass faculty. They have their own individual style, unique to them and yet fitting the Cass family, whether that’s Laura Empson, the face of professional women in finance or Arthur Kraft, the most laid back accounting guy.

And what makes it really work is their authenticity. I don’t always think Paolo is right. We do have our fair share of confrontations but at the end of it, I still respect him because I know he comes from a place of personal conviction. That’s a trait that’s visible in so many at Cass. I saw Sionade in an interview on YouTube for the very first time when I was deciding about applying. She struck me as very kind and open. Marianne, our Dean, is always buzzing with energy when you see her walking down the corridor, always a smile on her face looking straight at you.

Everyone must have some sort of a welcome dinner at the start of the MBA with some speeches and there’s nothing special about that. What was special about both Sionade and Marianne, was that I felt like they were opening up their heart to us. The vision they shared with us about Cass and our future came from a place of love and hope. When you love something, you are authentic.

I often get asked by friends who are intrigued by MBA courses, what we actually learn from it and what the classes are about. I sometimes have a hard time telling them the full story. I could list all the courses I did in Block 1 and 2 and it wouldn’t even reflect half of where my learning comes from. Teaching and learning in an MBA goes way beyond what you learn in the classroom. It comes from the institution as a whole and from everything everyone shares with you each day.

Experiencing concepts such as culture, personal branding and authenticity is another part of the learning that will never be found in any of my textbooks. I didn’t actually look too far for my MBA and rather got lucky to have ended up in the midst of all these dedicated people who are teaching me so much. If you look for an MBA, look out for that.

Don’t just check league tables but rather look at the people and think about whether you could learn more from them over reading books. Look at whether they are the people you want to tell your family and friends about. If you’re lucky enough, they’ll become people you want to stand up for and defend in front of others because you know they’ll do the same for you. They will be a second family you’ll invite to your Christmas party. Learning what a good company can feel like; therein lies a lot of the value I see in my MBA.

 

Full-time MBA (2018)