Author: Radhika Narasinkan

Vietnam International Consultancy Week: where theory meets practice

Having arrived in Hanoi via Hong Kong at 8.30pm the group set out to see Hanoi in its evening glory.  The cacophony of sounds greeted us – the call of street vendors and music from bars to the chatter of crowds drifted over us. A barmy breeze carried the scents of food and smog that arises from densely populated cities – it was the moment to savour the city.

We are here for International Consultancy Week – a highlight of the MBA curriculum.  The aim is to give students an opportunity to consolidate what they’ve learnt from blocks one and two and apply this to a real-world setting, but in a completely different context – political, economic and cultural.  We would be working with one company on a business challenge for one week, and present our recommendations at the end. 

This process begins a few weeks earlier when we are asked to choose from a list of companies and the proposed scope of work.  For me, it was an opportunity to stretch myself and identify an area that I am not familiar with to get some real experience in. 

My top pick was Bao Viet – the number one insurance company in Vietnam with 25 per cent of the life and non-life market.  This was Bao Viet’s first engagement with Cass and the business challenge was to develop a marketing strategy to enable the company to maximise a new online sales channel to generate growth and revenues.

I was pleased to secure my first choice and felt it lent itself to helping me achieve some personal objectives to apply my learning in both a new context and different industry.

As new groups formed based on the choices the cohort had made, we moved to quickly ensure that we were positioned to prepare ahead of us leaving for Vietnam. Working full-time and managing family commitments does make it a challenge to coordinate and ensure that group meetings take place; this is especially the case as the International Consultancy Week comes quite quickly after the block two exams and we have other modules sandwiched in between. 

However, the group was able to meet remotely a couple times to prepare and we were also very fortunate that we could reach out to our main contact at Bao Viet – Tam and our ‘on the ground’ contact, Chris. Speaking to Tam helped us refine and agree a scope before we went to Vietnam and speaking to Chris helped us understand the culture and expectations and ways of doing business in Vietnam.

I would certainly encourage future cohorts to do the same if there is the time as it will stand you in good stead.

The individuals we were working with at Bao Viet were excellent and while we had a translator, Phoung, to help us, we were fortunate not to require her translation skills as much as some of the other groups required. Nonetheless, we considered Phoung an additional member of the team from whom we sought advice that helped us position our presentation effectively with our client.

On our first day, we focused on getting to know our client and ensuring that the scope was clear.  There were high expectations from our client and we were both excited and a little anxious about this.  Simultaneously, we were figuring out how to work as a group and get a sense of each other.  While we know each other, most of us hadn’t worked with each other before but there wasn’t time to go through a process of storming to form! 

It was five intensive days of getting to grips with the problem, splitting into smaller groups to conduct primary and secondary research to respond to key questions and then come up with a credible set of proposals to present on the Friday afternoon.

The experience was quite unlike anything I have been through before due to the different context, but also insightful about how to identify and draw on individual and team strengths.

For example, following some discussion, we all agreed to be involved in the presentation. Of course, there were momentary speed bumps, but this is part of understanding how to work with different personalities. We worked very well as a team and I believe this was down in part to some of our earlier preparations.

Other areas of learning, included how to make a positive impact early and ensuring that we made a good impression so that we had some currency to draw upon when we needed help from our clients. 

With our excellent Bao Viet colleagues, Phoung and Professor Cliff Oswick

As a group we were keen to ensure that we provided an insightful and useful product for our client and Bao Viet was keen and interested in our recommendations. In some respect we were able to validate some of their early thinking on how to progress this project and we were able to provide some ideas that they hadn’t considered yet. 

None of us were insurance specialists, but the MBA equips you with the necessary principles, theories and frameworks that enables you to consider and resolve problems.

Radhika Narasinkan
Executive MBA (2019)

 

I climbed the highest peak in Indochina to test my leadership skills

The leadership expedition following the International Consultancy Week is part of a Cass MBA programme initiative to develop an explorer mindset – one that encourages students to respond to changing business environments.

These principles alone intrigued me and I was keen to experience this learning outside of the typical ‘office environment’ where the rules are relatively familiar even if there is change.  The adventurer in me was certainly up for putting myself in an unfamiliar situation.

Mount Fansipan is the highest mountain in Vietnam and the Indochina peninsula, located in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range.  As you make the climb – and if you are in any state to enjoy it – the views are incredible; the climb is well worth the effort just for this.

Amazing Views

The expedition is segmented into two: a day trek in SaPa, climbing through rice paddy fields; followed by a climb to the summit of Mount Fansipan.  Our expedition leader, Fernando Yáñez, made us organise ourselves, so that we all had the opportunity to lead during the trek.  With 11 in the group, it was a shared leadership endeavour and particularly pertinent when operating in an unfamiliar environment.

My opportunity to lead came on the first day of trekking up Mount Fansipan.  As a complete trekking novice and urbanite, the experience was enlightening and stretching, both mentally and physically. It is amazing how far the journey can take you physically and mentally in three days.

For all us there were different lessons and it is fantastic how one experience can add different dimensions to our individual and team learning.  Some of my key learnings from this experience, which could translate into any business environment are as follows:

  1. Communicating with others was fundamental to motivate, keeping spirits up so that the next step is not impossible to take.  In these times, humour and fun were integral to maintaining morale.  Instructing and sharing information to ensure team progress and decisions provided confidence and belief that we would make it!
  2. Being decisive was key in some of the situations we were in.  This isn’t just because we were empowered due to the position we were given, but required an actual willingness to take on the risk of decision making with the information we had.  In a situation where there is shared leadership, it was important to minimise debate, forget about egos and make decisions best for the group.
  3. Teamwork – it goes without saying that being a leader you are also part of a team and recognising the strengths that others bring.  As the leader, it is fundamental to ensure you are drawing on these individual strengths so the team is positioned to do the best it can.

A bit of courage and great team work

Empowering others to take on responsibility and roles became important to share the workload.  With the guidance of our expedition leader, we came to realise how little data and information we had to begin with and we needed to find a way of tracking progress such as pace and time, organise sufficient breaks on that basis and discuss these with the guide to make effective decisions.  By allocating roles that helped us collate this information, we were able to achieve this.

Courage and humility underpin it all.  There will be times as a leader we will not know enough about the terrain in front of us and there will be moments of self-doubt.  Our companies could undergo a merger or acquisition, have a new or unknown CEO at the helm or be going into a major efficiency drive.

The best that we can do is accept this situation quickly and adapt so that we can help our teams and individuals around us. With integrity and honesty, we can share what we do know and with humility to accept our limitations in such situations, asking for the help that we need to be better leaders.

And of course, there is nothing more satisfying than knowing that with your team you have managed to achieve your goals.

Making it to the Summit

 

Radhika Narasinkan
Executive MBA (2019)

 

From the classroom to the board room

Diversity is a topic that is riding front and centre –being acutely debated in the corporate context– whether it be the gender pay gap or women, black and ethnic minority representation in the board room.

At Cass one of the most important threads consistently woven into every module by every Professor is, to draw on the privilege of having access to the diversity and depth of global experience from the cohort. An Executive MBA cohort size of 39, comprised of 18 nationalities, 33 per cent women as well as individuals from a range of industries –advertising to transport, private and public sector– certainly affords that opportunity; and was certainly one of the most compelling reason for me choosing Cass.

Coming from a non-finance background, I was surprised when the Corporate Finance module took a reflective turn. One of the sessions turned to the lack of diversity in the Boardroom having a negative impact on maximising shareholder value.

The value to bring people together –from different cultures, background and perspectives– to encourage diversity of thought is not a new concept. But it is Lord Davies report of February 2011 which resulted in a tacit target that women should make up at least a quarter of FTSE 100 board membership by 2015; and Sir John Parker’s review of 2014 on whether company boards were keeping pace with the UK’s diverse workforce which have continued to make deadlines.

By 2016, the Female FTSE Report written by academics at City, University London, Cranfield University and Queen Mary University London, showed the percentage of women on FTSE 100 and 250 boards had increased to 26 per cent and to 20.4 per cent, respectively.

Sir John Parker recommended that companies should implement structures to help promote black and ethnic minority employees to the top; and all FTSE 100 firms should appoint at least one director from a minority background by 2021, and FTSE 250 companies to do similarly by 2024.

It was therefore heartening to read in the FT this month, that 27 investors, with £10.5tn of assets, announced they were committing to “engage actively” with companies that do not make progress towards the 30 per cent Club’s target of 30 per cent of women on FTSE 350 boards and in senior management at FTSE 100 companies by 2020. The signatories include Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund, the world’s largest pension fund, and other leading global investors such as JPMorgan Asset Management and BlackRock.

It appears that the business case for gender diversity has been made –investors are actively engaging to ensure that companies that don’t have sufficient representation of women and BME are making progress towards targets.

Adding to this fervour are the new rules requiring Europe’s largest companies to disclose their boardroom diversity policies. These polices have the potential to reshape investors’ asset allocation decisions, according to market analysts. There are investment products which are being indexed to companies’ equality criteria. This means that there is a real risk for investors not taking diversity into account; and companies need to be cognisant that diversity may have a real impact on their performance.

And indeed, this is supported by a McKinsey study, published in 2015, of large publicly listed companies which found that those in the top quartile for diversity were 15 per cent more likely to produce better returns than their local peers.

Bringing this back to my cohort, we have debated and discussed challenges –as well as positive developments that we are facing in our workplace– to bring real examples to apply the theory to. Therefore, this has not been esoteric pontification about some abstract state that one cannot relate to. As a group of future leaders, we are testing and learning how to adapt and challenge confidently. It is our diversity that is our underpinning strength and we are gaining a richer EMBA experience for it.

Radhika Narasinkan
Executive MBA (2019)

 

References:

https://www.ft.com/content/a22a4906-fb77-11e7-a492-2c9be7f3120a

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/11/02/ftse-100-boards-do-not-represent-ethnic-diversity-in-the-uk-park/

https://www.ft.com/content/c81d422c-05a3-11e8-9650-9c0ad2d7c5b5

 

More:

Women break up groupthink, says champion of workplace diversity

Former mining chairman Sir John Parker wants a better gender and ethnic mix on boards

Cass Modular EMBA: starting block two

The last six months has flown by and I can’t believe that I have started block two of my Modular Executive MBA!  Everyone is feeling more assured that they know what to expect in terms of reading, coursework and exams.  As a cohort, we have bonded making it feel like I have 39 friends that I can count on to support me, have fun with and stretch me academically. Cass seems to have some magic formula or perhaps the equivalent of the ‘sorting hat’ from Harry Potter that enables them to attract and bring together exceptional individuals who complement each other.

After, what feels like a long break since exams, we launch into block two on a high and with much to look forward to. We have been informed that the 2017 Modular MBA cohort will be in Vietnam for our consulting week in March 2018. As part of the consulting week, Cass is offering students an optional professional development opportunity – a leadership expedition day in Sa Pa. The aim is to build and test our resilience, determination, collaboration and personal leadership: all of which are sought-after qualities in MBA graduates. The consulting week is a highlight that we are all looking forward to; and many of us have also put ourselves forward for the leadership expedition to test ourselves outside of an office environment. Personally, I can’t wait to immerse myself in this experience.

But coming back down to earth and block two itself. The first two modules, Human Resources Management and Business Economies dive straight to the heart of what makes organisations successful. Understanding the people – any firm’s most important resource – exposing us to economic principles that shape competition and firm performance in the marketplace.

David Macleod gave a compelling account of employee engagement as a way of improving a firm’s performance

Professor Nick Bacon organised three visiting speakers who gave fascinating insights into some of the fundamental components of managing people: David Macleod gave a compelling account of employee engagement as a way of improving a firm’s performance; Linda Holbeche illustrated linkages between HR to Business Strategy; and Marc Meryon introduced how to manage industrial relations.  Three eminent speakers in their field added depth to this module that you cannot achieve from a text book.

 

Linda Holbeche illustrated linkages between HR and Business Strategy

In Business Economics, Professor Andres Hervas-Drane brought to life concepts around prices and perfect competition by getting everyone involved in pit market trading. Simulating a scenario where some of us were sellers and others were buyers led to organised chaos with hardcore negotiations and deal making to rival the traders at the London Stock Exchange.  More fundamentally we experienced how the firm determines the market price.

Marc Meryon introduced how to manage industrial relations

November takes us to Corporate Strategy and Corporate Finance, both of which build on modules in block one. With more guest speakers and an interesting syllabus to look forward to: roll on next month I say.

 

Radhika Narasinkan
Modular Executive MBA (2019)

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