Author: Akane Vallery Uchida

The last hurdle before reaching the Cass MBA finishing line

 

The BMP, less known as the Business Mastery Project, is the final puzzle piece of our Cass Full-time MBA and simultaneously the biggest one.

What is the Business Mastery Project?

The name itself is puzzling. If you are wondering ‘What on earth is a BMP?’ let me make things clear for you. It’s our version of a dissertation or thesis.

So why can’t it just be called that?

The thing about the BMP is that apart from being worth 50 of your 230 credits and therefore clearly a defining part of your MBA experience, there are so many variations to it and no two BMPs are ever the same.

The BMP can be broadly divided into three types: a desk-study project that is closest to an academic research paper, a company-sponsored BMP that is set as an internship, or a business plan that may be used as a basis to kick-start your start-up.

If that’s not wide enough in scope, I heard one of my MBA classmates, Ross Kelly, who was researching on LP Fundraising for early stage Venture Capital firms, say “I think mine is a bit of all three.”

Our course director, Dr Paolo Aversa, told us that the BMP should be a work of passion, since for many of us, it might be one of the last opportunities to really dig our teeth into a project outside of work.

I took those words to heart and truly believe that this was the most important thought in my decision-making process.

Starting on a project idea

Throughout my MBA, I have learnt to flexibly apply concepts to a variety of situations. While many want to silo situations, as MBA students we learn to keep an open-mind.

Thinking about digitalisation and evolving business models have been constant topics throughout our MBA and it seemed perfect to link these to my area of interest: creative writing, the subject of my other master’s degree.

After several iterations talking to classmates from both my MBA and MA, I had managed to distil my thoughts into a BMP title: “The impact of digitalisation on the publishing industry: How is digitalisation changing the publishing industry’s revenue model for authors?” It was putting a business spin on a creative product.

I chose Dr Alessandro Giudici as my supervisor; he had co-authored a paper on digitalisation in the publishing industry. He helped me in the early stages with suggestions of academic research to start my literature review (I’d have fallen into all sorts of rabbit holes otherwise, like reading an 18-page research paper just on the definition of e-books).

Although I got to this point rather quickly, it took me months to tackle initiating it. Only once I had done some preliminary research, did I start to get a sense of where I was going with it.

It took a few back and forth discussions between myself and Alessandro to finalise the project. In the end, my BMP developed into a qualitative study with semi-structured interviews of recently published authors and a case study on the London-based alternative publisher Unbound.

Unlikeliest outcomes during my research

I had come across Unbound through one of my favourite books, “The Good Immigrant”, and was intrigued by their model. I was lucky that the London Writer’s Club–a newsletter I’m signed up to–was organising an event with one of their editors which allowed me to hear their thoughts.

After having secured the publisher’s side of the story, I wanted to interview authors who published with Unbound as well.

Following a few cold emails, the ones who replied were the unlikeliest candidates: Andrew Grumbridge and Vincent Raison, the two men behind the Deserter blog and podcast, “an aspirational lifestyle website for those with a predilection for doing f*** all.” (Their words, not mine!).

I had supported their crowdfunding campaign on Unbound and their book was now in the typesetting stage. Not only did they reply to me in detail and provided me with all that I needed for my case study but they ended up inviting me to join them for drinks at Brick Brewery in Peckham Rye to the opening of a free photo exhibition on the Dulwich Hamlet’s 2017/18 season.

So, despite neither liking beer nor football much (yes, I’m a complete failure as a German), I found myself exploring a brewpub in Peckham Rye to have a beer with some authors I cold emailed for my BMP.

And it’s become one of the best most memorable nights of this summer.

That’s possibly the most unexpected outcome of my BMP.

I used my network from my MA to find a few other authors willing to volunteer some time for this project. I was surprised at how forthcoming everyone was. They weren’t just being nice to me; my research resonated with them. It wasn’t a theoretical concept but a real-life issue that was at the heart of the writing profession.

In early August, I handed in my first draft and thought I was pretty much done. I was wrong.

Submitting my BMP

After a week of peace (burning up in the heat that was the 2018 European heatwave), I received the feedback. Alessandro’s comments were practical and to the point, guiding me in the right direction but leaving the interpretation and execution to me. After the second iteration, I knew my work was done. And thanks to a late-night open printing shop near my house, I got it printed and bounded, ready for submission on Aug 27th.

…and now we wait!

It’s been over a month now since I submitted my BMP and I don’t know the final outcome yet. But whatever it is, I rest secure in the knowledge that I’ve done something meaningful that will stay with me forever as a tangible outcome of my MBA.

Whenever anyone asks me about writing and the publishing industry, you will see a fire light up in my eyes. This is the fire that people want to see, the fire that makes you interesting to others.

My advice when choosing a BMP topic is to not get too caught up with having it directly relate to your job or expecting it to open doors for you. If it does, great! But if not, don’t worry, just make sure it’s something meaningful to you. The rest will follow.

Full-time MBA (2018)

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)

The road to Toronto

I was recently asked whether six months down the line, the Cass MBA was what I had expected it to be. My answer was ‘No, not at all.’

Well for one reason, I wasn’t quite expecting to be heading to Toronto with my MBA classmate Varun Venkatraman next week. We will be representing Cass as one of only three teams to make it to the Ben Graham Centre’s 2018 International Stock Picking Competition Finals, hosted by Ivey Business School. Better yet, we will be the first European business school to do so!

Having just visited Dublin for International Consultancy Week and Israel/Palestine on the agenda for my international elective in early May, I definitely hadn’t planned to add any further trips during this hectic period; juggling MBA studies, job applications and working on my Business Mastery Project.

Yet here I am, squeezing in another trip to Canada.

When I told my mum, she marvelled, ‘Stocks? That’s so not your thing. That Varun guy must be very special if he can get you to do something like that.’ That surprised me in two ways: despite her general pretence of not really understanding what I do in my job in financial markets, my mum actually knew I don’t care much for microeconomics and stocks.

And secondly, she was absolutely right about Varun, he was the only person who could have made me sign up for this. So how did we end up here then?

Rewind to October 24th when the Stock Picking Competition was first announced via email, barely two months into our MBA. I remember reading about it, taking note of yet another interesting challenging experience to gain during the MBA and quickly hitting the delete button. Stock picking wasn’t in my sphere of interest at all. But I undoubtedly knew who’d be all over it: Varun.

In life we develop many types of friends and I dare say the older we get, the less likely we have people we call friends just out of circumstance. We know the difference between work colleagues, acquaintances and friends, and even though we might publicly use those terms more loosely, most of us reserve the title of real friends for the special people in our lives.

Unlike in kindergarten, the mere fact that you ended up sitting in the same row is reason enough to become friends. Very rarely we find that one person who we can bestow the title of ‘best friend’ we so innocently gave to people when we were little.

Funnily enough, Varun was the equivalent of that kindergarten kid sitting in the same row; alphabetically next me so that I sit right in front of him during all exams, he was also in the same group as me through induction to Block 2. The Cass MBA Gods (most likely our Course Officer Tony Whiteman) made it easy for us to find each other. And we’ve been pretty much inseparable since.

So when this competition came around, I was quick to dismiss my own participation but also to encourage his, telling him to apply alone because I knew he’d be more than capable of handling this challenge independently.

However, as the deadline grew closer, he grew more encouraging for my participation. He wanted someone to bounce ideas off but also to critically check his logic, someone with a different way of thinking and unafraid to express it but whose opinion he equally valued enough to listen to.

We both come from the financial industry but at opposing ends of the spectrum, Varun from private equity, myself from foreign exchange in financial markets, and born in the same year just 10 days apart but on the other side of the world; our friendship is defined by having enough common ground that connects us but so much that sets us apart that we approach problems in very different ways.

Another month into our MBA and we saw more and more examples of how our collaboration brought the best out of both of us, I increasingly understood why he wanted to have me on his team. I also recognised that this was a unique experience I was never going to have again; one I could never do outside of the MBA and never without Varun.

Reminding myself that that was what the MBA was all about, I jumped at the offer the next time he asked me and was signed up for the competition with him.

For the first round in mid-January, a couple of weeks after our exams, we were given a list of stocks to pick one from that we would analyse over two weeks and recommend as a buy, submitting a report to a panel of industry professionals and academics.

Never having done anything like it, I couldn’t imagine how I could possibly contribute to this. I must confess I rather resented doing something that would make me potentially feel helpless and highly dependent on someone else’s experience. After a decade of work experience, it can be hard to accept doing something that pushes you completely out of your comfort zone. But Varun had it all covered. He knew what he had to get done and also knew where I would be of help.

Picking a company based in Germany meant that my German background became useful, sifting through company history and industry material in German. Understanding the very unique German legal structure and its implications made us recognise specific challenges of our company and how this would affect its value and potential for an outside investor. Using Bloomberg to extract the relevant data was another way I could help and I gradually saw my efforts contribute to the bigger picture.

When we submitted our report, I knew I didn’t want it to end here. Although I had gotten so much out of it I knew how much this meant for Varun. Seeing him rise to the occasion, I wanted him to get the recognition I believed he deserved. And long before the results were revealed, the dates were set in my calendar and I waited hopefully. When the confirmation email came on 21st February informing us as one of the top three finalists to present to a panel in Toronto, we took half a day to celebrate our achievement and then were ready to crack on.

When I signed up for my MBA, I went in with an open mind, ready for every new experience, expecting or even demanding the unexpected. In spite of this, I couldn’t have foreseen finding that invaluable friend who would challenge me and help me grow, taking me all the way to Toronto.

 

Full-time MBA (2018)

No rest for the wicked MBA students

Anyone who worked in Foreign Exchange as sales or trading on a markets floor will know that once you’re in it, there’s no break.

From the New Zealand Open, on what is Sunday evening European time to the final closing on Friday evening, you live and breathe FX —alert to all and ready to react. On the weekends, you’ll be following the news on anything that might trigger a market gap open. And you’re loving it!

People like me are picking up the phone (yes, phones!), heart-rates soaring, shouting over each other to emphasise the importance of our client and deal. But the world I described is without a doubt rapidly moving towards extinction as technology takes over and reaches new efficiencies. It’s good that way and a reason why I’m doing an MBA.

But I’m unashamed in saying that for many years, that world and its people were my biggest love, passion and pride. One privilege that I gained working up the ranks was that by the time I became a senior team member, I could leave the juniors to hold the fort between Christmas and New Year to switch off during that short window when the FX market allowed itself to go to sleep.

I don’t mean not going to the office. I mean completely switching off, following no news and having no idea where FX rates were —World War 3 could have broken out without me knowing it. Those were the days where my biggest achievement would be rolling out of bed to take my dog on a long walk.

This Christmas, as a Full-time MBA student at Cass, I looked back to those days with nostalgia. Because while life as a Cass MBA student may not require the sort of alertness that makes you bark out prices at a moment’s notice, it also doesn’t let you switch off. Ever.

The most obvious element dampening Christmas is the lingering dark cloud of exams.

Can I step forward and use this as a public forum to express my grievance at exams being scheduled on January 3rd and 4th?

Yes, we had six exams over two days with just over two weeks since the last day of university attendance. You can only believe someone high up hates us and wants to see us suffer. Or is this another attempt to challenge us and train our perseverance?

My suitcase that should have been filled with Christmas gifts was a carefully crafted exercise of figuring out which textbooks and notes were worth taking up the weight. Moaning didn’t help either as all I got from my mother was “I don’t know why you do these things to yourself…” followed by a deep sigh as if I was the one who was spoiling Christmas for her. My stoic uncle only remarked how all exams in his PPE degree at Oxford followed the holidays to keep students on their toes and years later now, not being the one taking them, approving of this method of discipline. No sympathy here.

So all I could do for some comfort was to turn to my fellow classmates, many of whom collaborated on exam preparation. I did partner up with my closest classmate to prepare for Strategy and had a couple of others who taught me how to get through the Analytics for Business once I was back in London. Without any results yet, I don’t know how successful their effort was but, whatever the outcome, I thank them for their patience in teaching this girl who’s allergic to the word statistics.

While that’s the immediate concern, there’s also the Strategy project that’s increasingly nudging and poking us from November onward. Unlike most of the projects I’ve worked on, this project forced us to face the outside world putting our networking skills to the test to source a business that wants to do a consulting project with MBA students. At the onset, the Strategy project is just another analysis piece set in the real-world.

We quickly realise that the biggest task and challenge lies in the first step of convincing that one company to work with us. Panic spreads in the first week of December as many face rejections which may be better than the lack of response from companies others experience. We had to prepare how we would approach businesses and how we wanted to present ourselves. I prepared a Power Point presentation outlining our project including short bios of all our team members which I sent out to companies who showed the first signs of interest.

Myself and my team were lucky enough to have narrowed it down to two good potentials by early December, providing enough meat for the first monthly report due on December 10th. The monthly reports, separate from the final report and analysis, are a good way to feel that constant pressure on our back.

After briefly exhaling having submitted our first report, we reminded ourselves to keep the communication with the companies alive because they couldn’t care less about our monthly report deadlines. And then we started counting. It’s five weeks until the second monthly report is due but in two weeks it’s already Christmas and no one does anything that week. And then we had exams and who was going to do anything in the first week of January anyway? So we really only had three weeks to create anything meaningful; two weeks in December and one week in January.

We got in touch with those companies again,  politely courting them and slowly pushing them towards commitment. Of course they have actual work and may be planning the biggest shop opening of the year just when you think you only have three weeks to achieve anything.

How many emails are too many? What exactly do they have to say so that you are sure of their commitment? When do you press for next steps? All of these things went through our mind during the cheerful Christmas period. And before anything is done, it’s Christmas and the corporate world comes to a standstill. And all we could think of was that we now only had one week to get anything done before that second report.

In the midst of all of this, I was reminded that the deadline to submit my electives choices— that will determine all the things we do beyond Easter —was also on January 2nd. You panic some more because it hits you how two of your four core module blocks are already over and you’re nowhere nearer knowing what you really want to do. You also know that the electives build on what you’ve learnt in the first two blocks and while you’re leaning towards the topics that you really enjoyed in the first two blocks, you also think about the many things you might be missing out. You don’t know yet what Marketing or Corporate Governance is like as those core courses haven’t even started yet.

Some consider committing to a concentration which then limits but also guides your electives choices. I intentionally went against that because I wanted to leave myself free to any option that I found genuinely interesting. In the end my choices were a colourful mix across disciplines just as I expected.

My international elective will take me to Israel and Palestine, a learning experience I’ve been already excited about even before the MBA started. Once in the middle of Block 3, I changed one of my electives as my first experience with Marketing made me quickly realise the subject wasn’t for me. So although there’s a soft deadline on submitting your electives, the truth is that there’s still some flexibility around that if you ask Tony Whiteman, our course officer, really nicely.

So, here we are. Exams, Strategy project and electives. Anything else? Oh, yes, the Business Mastery Project, the Cass MBA’s equivalent of a dissertation. Similar to the Strategy project, around Christmas, it’s more of a approaching danger, like a stampede you see forming on the horizon heading your way with definite certainty.

The first deadline on March 16th is for the submission of my academic proposal. Ideally, at this point you already have an idea and a supervisor.  To have an idea that’s valid enough to submit, you better have done some initial research beyond just having a vague notion of it in your head, to at least convince yourself that it’s viable before you go and convince others such as your potential supervisor. While most will go ahead and use this opportunity to add another strong credential to their CV, gaining industry knowledge and valuable connections in that universe, others take this unique opportunity to follow a personal interest.

I may be the only one among my cohort whose chosen that path, as far as I know. I’m looking to combine my MBA learning with my passion in creative writing (which lead to my previous MA), researching the changes in revenue models for authors stemming from the digitalisation in the publishing industry. I started to have an inkling about this in November and tentatively mentioned a much broader and different version of this to my creative writing workshop group. All I knew then was that I wanted to work in publishing and working with authors. Very clear, I know.

Encouraged by their approval, I sporadically bounced the notion off a few other, including my MBA classmates. Articulating it to others and receiving feedback helped me define it further until I was ready to send an email to Paolo, our course director, who suggested Alessandro as a potential supervisor, on the basis that he recently co-authored an academic paper on digitalisation and Axel Springer. Being our Strategy project course lead, I knew I would love for him to be my supervisor therefore sent an email with the rough outline of my idea early January.

One email and one quick meeting later, my proposal reached its current shape and I am about to start the literary review thanks to his suggested readings. And somehow in this process, it’s already February 1st.

So while 2018 is almost by default a very ambitious year, there’s a reason why I actually don’t have any clear New Year’s resolutions. Because for New Year’s resolutions to happen, you need that little break in between to stop and reflect. No such option for Cass MBAs (if you do have New Year’s resolutions though, here’s some Cass advice on how to keep them alive beyond January). I woke up in September 2017 and I know already now that the next time I blink and open my eyes, it’s probably already August and I’m graduating.

 

Full-time MBA (2018)

Corporate culture, personal branding and authenticity – What the right MBA can teach you

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)

Can an MBA teach a lone wolf new teamwork tricks?

From the moment you walk into Cass as an MBA student, barely having exchanged a few platitudes and making the utmost effort remembering everyone’s name, you’re thrown into a team and before you know it, someone’s already shouting because you need to make a decision NOW before you all die on an alien planet. And then you die anyway. Have I lost you already? Welcome to induction week at Cass.

When I researched my MBA, I realised very quickly that teamwork would be a major aspect of it. Personally, I dreaded the thought of it. Throughout my professional life, I never had any problems working in teams but rather than real teamwork or collaboration, what I had mostly experienced were lone wolves that happened to sit next to each other, occasionally covering someone’s work during holidays.

Equally, in my personal life, my preference of working alone is well reflected in my hobbies: I write fiction, play classical piano and run marathons. There are ways to incorporate others in all of these activities but I have never actively chosen to do so.

When I applied for my MBA, I made the conscious decision to address this weakness of mine. However I didn’t realise just how much teamwork would be required.

At Cass, not only do you have a team of eight you work with for all projects in the first two blocks (including an integration week after each block which is an entire week of just your team and your project), there’s a team for your Strategy Project, a team for your leadership training at Sandhurst, a new team for blocks three and four, various teams you’ll be in for your electives and probably other teams I don’t even know about yet.

In summary: there are a lot of teams and A LOT of teamwork is involved.

So why is there such an emphasis on teamwork and collaboration?

According to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s Corporate Recruiters Survey Report 2017, 4 out of the top 5 skills employers wanted from new hires could be grouped in communications skills , while teamwork skills such as adaptability, valuing others’ opinions, ability to follow a leader and cross-cultural sensitivity were all to be found in the top 10.
GMAC makes two observations:

  • Changes in today’s workplace occur faster and on a more global scale. To be successful, employers need business leaders who are solid team players and good managers: people who can both follow and lead, who can work with those from different cultures, who can quickly adapt to change, manage strategy and innovation, and make decisions.
  • Though employers place increased emphasis on teamwork and managerial skills this year, they still rank communication as an essential skill to have mastered (Graduate Management Admission Council, 2017).

This year, Cass Full-time MBA class is comprised of 73 students, 29 nationalities with no single region represented by more than 20 per cent. Students coming from so many industries, even the biggest group of finance professionals only makes up 23 per cent. It makes sense then to experiment and hone teamwork and communications skills in the uniquely diverse setting of this MBA.

As one fellow classmate put it: “It’s the crucial part of an MBA to learn how to lead a team and prepare ourselves to use the same skills to lead people once we step out of the classroom. We need to understand our leadership style and make a conscious effort to readily change it based on different scenarios.”

So that’s the thought then. Learning by doing. Work in teams and polish your teamwork and communications skills. But how exactly does it work in practice? Does throwing a bunch of people into one room, calling it a team and making them do stuff really teach you anything?

Now that our first block is over, I took some time to reflect on my experience working with my team for eight weeks. I was also interested in how others perceived the experience and asked my cohort to participate in a quick survey.

Although we’ve been together for just two months, our team already developed a strong sense of identity and looking at others, we often said we were lucky with the mix of people. I for one, had gone into this with a healthy level of scepticism and defensiveness, so I am quite surprised to find myself in this rather happy position.

I wondered whether this was luck or whether at the end of the day, pretty much any group could be happy and perform to a level that made them believe they were better off than others. Asking my cohort, 70 percent of respondents said they felt lucky with the mix of people while 16 percent considered themselves unlucky but thought they still made the best out of the situation. Yes, people who sign up to an MBA are a particular subset of society already and perhaps there are not that many things to clash on but I still find this to be a respectable result.

 

Using Tuckman’s framework of Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing (Tuckman, 1965), I then asked my cohort to identify where they saw themselves in the team development process. The majority saw themselves either in the norming or performing stage; promising after just two months.  Of course, not everyone had gotten past the storming phase with one respondent considering themselves “floundering like a fish out of water.”

More significantly, the majority had gone through some difficulties to get to where they were now. That’s to be expected and a healthy stage in team development to get to the other side. Someone mentioned “avoiding confrontation” as a problem and I can see how that would suppress the growth of a team which may be a reason for some (38 percent) picking out groupthink as a problem. Many commented on these conflicts as minor and I would probably count myself in this camp too.

However, some voiced larger concerns over individuals dominating the team and taking over the discussions, warning that it stifled progress by causing the team to be stuck in minute arguments. Clearly some frustrations built up in some teams.

Given the demographic mix of our cohort, some of this is unavoidable but it did make me sad and made me reassess my own behaviour, looking for ways I could possibly make someone in my own team enjoy the experience more. After all, I already was someone who was benefitting from this. As one student said, “to work together you need to honestly care about each other’s opinion. Don’t formulate pre-conceived ideas. Sometimes genius comes from unexpected places.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

However, what was more surprising to me however was that 62 percent of respondents thought they were victims of free-riding (assuming they weren’t talking about themselves). The optimist in me wants to believe that this high percentage is rather a sign of miscommunication and a proof that teams may not have reached the norming or performing stage just yet. MBA students have made a lot of sacrifices for this experience, so why would you be here just to free-ride and upset the rest of your team, when you’d at least spend another two months working with?

An issue that often comes up is the differences in motivations and aims which may be a cause of what others perceive as free-riding. As one respondent put it: “Some want to get a distinction, others would rather save time and effort for networking and professional development.” In our team, we quickly developed very direct and honest communication which would usually be led by someone asking something along the lines of: “How do you feel about this? What do you personally want out of this? Are you OK with what we’re doing?”

Overall, as a team, we do have similar motivations and our work during integration week was rewarded with a grade we were all satisfied with. We could have done better, no doubt. But I believe no one regretted the outcome. In an MBA setting, motivations are much clearer and easier to discuss. Once we get into the real world again, individual motivations can be much more complex and may not necessarily be shared. You can’t just ask “what do you want out of this?” and expect a straight-forward answer. I’m not under the illusion that these few weeks of working through conflict have provided me with all the answers. Still, it has definitely raised my awareness around these issues and I will think more about individual motivations before making any assumptions about others based on what I want.

If you’d ask me today how I felt about working with a completely new yet-to-be-disclosed group in blocks three and four, I’d tell you that I still dread the thought. I am however in a minority. The majority (73 percent) in my survey are excited to work with a new group of people in blocks three and four. The reason I don’t look forward to it though is a different one than at the start of my MBA.

“What has truly changed in the two months, is that I am comfortable telling people in my team when something doesn’t really motivate me or when I know someone else is better for the task.”

What has truly changed in the two months, is that I am comfortable telling people in my team when something doesn’t really motivate me or when I know someone else is better for the task. Equally, I’ve learnt to trust every individual’s performance and let them lead when it makes sense. For example, when you end up in a baking contest (yes, that happens in an MBA) and one person in your team tells you they’ve baked their own wedding cake. Then you can happily let go and just do what they tell you to. I am one of those who felt very lucky about their first team and , I can’t imagine it to be better or even just as good next time around.

Having said that, I approached my team for the Sandhurst leadership training last week with the same hesitations and was very positively surprised how much I enjoyed the experience working with this completely different set of people. In fact, several people in the survey commented on how good their Sandhurst teams were. Perhaps it was the different types of tasks that provided us with the right kind of stimulus after five weeks of academic study.

I am honest in saying that the outdoor tasks were an absolute nightmare for me. There were several occasions where I seriously thought about leaving this all behind and just head back to London and have a couple of quiet days off. I was paying for the pleasure of this torture.

What made me stay however was my Sandhurst team, who readily accepted the fact that this wasn’t my cup of tea and still recognised the effort I was putting into it. We don’t all get pleasure out of the same activities and knowing when someone is struggling, recognising it and acknowledging the effort they are making can go a long way. I truly appreciated everyone’s kind words that kept me going until the end. If I would have given up halfway through, I would have never known the sense of accomplishment I felt when I reached the end and for that I’m truly grateful to my team and a particular someone who told me how disappointed they’d be if I left.

 

“We don’t all get pleasure out of the same activities and knowing when someone is struggling, recognising it and acknowledging the effort they are making can go a long way.”

Sandhurt Team 8

That leads me to the final question of my survey: has all the teamwork you’re exposed to at Cass changed the way you feel about it?

Thirty-eight percent of respondents saw no change in the way they felt about team work of which 14 percent disliked teamwork to begin with. One respondent commented, “team work at Cass has reinforced my anecdotal rule that 30 percent of the team are good performers, 30 percent try but lack technical skills and 40 percent are substantially sub-par in skills and attitude.”

Two months of teamwork can’t convert everyone. What was encouraging however was that 57 percent of respondents said they saw more of the merits of teamwork than they had previously, and felt comfortable doing more of it.

As one student said “I have come to the realisation that working effectively in a team is perhaps more important than being individually brilliant for doing most jobs.” I’m certainly one of those who see teamwork in a more positive light. While I still dread working in a new team and having to face new personalities, I am likely to be more open and understanding to it than I ever was before. If that’s the result of just two months, I’m optimistic that while I may never be a teamwork-loving person, I will be confident to embrace any teamwork environment that comes my way in the future and be able to recognise the merits of it.

 

I’d like to conclude with a comment from one of my survey respondents that beautifully sums up the MBA teamwork experience:

“The biggest surprise for me was how often we actually operated as a team – where the total output of our work was better than what we (probably) could have done individually. I’ve yet to feel like I could have done better on my own (maybe the same, but certainly not better). We’re somewhere between storming and norming now – we see our flaws clearly but haven’t yet managed to overcome them. But we have a good group, and we all have each other’s backs. I’m nervous for my next groups – I feel like I’ve been blessed this time around!” (Anonymous,  Cass Full-time MBA, 2017).

Full-time MBA (2018)

 

References:

Graduate Management Admission Council (2017) Corporate Recruiters Survey Report 2017. Available at: https://www.gmac.com/market-intelligence-and-research/gmac-surveys/corporate-recruiters-survey.aspx (Accessed: Nov 5, 2017).

Nilsson, P. and Moules, J. (2017) ‘What employers want from MBA graduates — and what they don’t’, Financial Times, Aug 31, 2017.

Tuckman, B.W. (1965) ‘Developmental sequence in small groups’, Psychological bulletin, 63(6), pp. 384-399. doi: 10.1037/h0022100.

Why do you want to do an MBA (at Cass)?

Why do you want to do an MBA? Why do you want to be part of this picture?

This is a question you should ask yourself over and over again. You should not only be able to answer this question in your application, to your interviewer, your employer, your friends and family but most of all to yourself.

Why is it you’re willing to pay £41,000 for the Cass MBA or even more so at other institutions, accompanied by the loss of salary, taking out a year or two from your career depending on the programme to face uncertainty ahead? Is this really what you want?

The reason this is important is because if you’re making a half-hearted decision, you’re not only wasting your time and money, but an opportunity for another amazing candidate who could have contributed to this class. In a place like Cass where the full-time MBA cohort is made up of just about 75 students, every single counts. Every single one of us is responsible for more than 1.3% of the success of the programme. So, think carefully before you take on this responsibility for yourself and others.

What are the right reasons to make the jump then?

Some people want to move upward in the hierarchy or possibly into a better company doing something very similar, seeking the academic credential to give them that little extra opportunity. I once thought that was the main reason why people went onto study for an MBA. I therefore dismissed the possibility of doing one myself a few years ago, as I saw myself steadily climbing up the ranks without those three letters. I had decided, it was too late for me to reap the benefits of an MBA. Looking at my cohort now though, surprisingly few are here for general career progression.

Why is it then that I’m doing a full-time MBA now, leaving behind a good mid-level managerial role with six-figure salary and possibly prospects of further promotions ahead?

In my case, it was realising after I had achieved long-awaited promotion, I had long waited for to materialise, I still wasn’t where I wanted to be; rather where I wanted to be was not  further up but actually somewhere completely different. It’s in that moment I recognised I needed a bigger change than what the inside of the building I was working in could offer. Like many in my cohort, what I’m seeking is not only a vertical move but a horizontal move (or diagonal? Who knows!). Whereto? That’s one of the questions I’d like to answer during my MBA. I think this is true for most of my cohort.

Some even venture into what our careers team call the triple jump: a change in industry, function AND location, not even knowing where that jump is meant to take them to. Challenging? Yes. Impossible? No.

The MBA is exactly the right place for that. A year full of opportunities and chances to discover new things through your studies, even more through your fellow students, professors and through all the networking activities you should undertake from Day 1 to ensure you maximise the return on this big risk you had the courage to take.

Once you’re certain about your first answer – “Yes! I want to do an MBA!”, then the second question will be: where should you do it? The first thing everyone will look at is the MBA rankings. I won’t deny I looked at those as a minimum criteria of places I would possibly want to go to. Cass Business School’s full-time MBA ranks 37th globally, 13th in Europe and 1st for London 1-year MBAs in the FT ranking. It also ranks 1st in corporate strategy globally thanks to our Course Director Professor Paolo Aversa. It was definitely ticking the boxes.

Now, as a small disclaimer, I am already a City University graduate having completed my MA in Creative Writing in 2016. That’s probably how I probably got my first glimpse of Cass Business School, even though of course, being a long-time Londoner, I knew of its existence long before.

It was however, nothing more than a name, until I participated in the CityStarters Weekend, which is aimed not only at Cass students but open to all City University postgrad students. It was during that weekend, pitching and working through a start-up idea, with people I had met for the very first time, that I felt the entrepreneurial spirit of Cass, embodied by Aurore Hochard (Head of Entrepreneurship Programmes at Cass Business School) for the very first time. I’ll never forget the positive energy, full of students and mentors, who made me believe anything was possible.

At the end of it, there could only be one winning idea, one team that took home £3,000. But there was no denying that all of us had grown a little bit in those 2.5 days. Ever since that day, Cass Business School had a special place in the back of my mind. Even if I don’t want to be an entrepreneur (or maybe I want to be and just don’t know yet?), having an entrepreneurial mind-set is useful in any setting.

Cass does have a focus on Entrepreneurship (MSc Entrepreneurship, CityStarters Weekend, Cass Entrepreneurship FundCass Entrepreneurs Network etc.) which is again reflected in its high ranking in the subject (7th globally and 2nd in Europe). This won’t only be helpful for people who want to start their own business. This means Cass is a safe place where ideas, creativity and individual business thinking are encouraged and supported. So, when the day came when I reconsidered business schools, it was the very first place I went looking.

Apart from that very personal experience, there are a few other reasons that made me want to go to Cass. As I mentioned before, it was high enough in the rankings to make the cut as a “good school”. This doesn’t only matter because of the quality of teaching or the facilities but because all the other people will be looking at exactly the same thing and your future cohort will be equally aiming high in the league table for institutions to go to. It shapes the calibre of people applying and coming in. As my primary interest was to stay in London or at least nearby in the UK, it put Cass high on my list too.

What made Cass stand out in particular was the class size. As I said, Cass’s Full-time MBA class is around 75 students. Compared to many other business schools (who shall remain unnamed here) that is absolutely tiny. Whether that’s a good thing or not may be up to your way of thinking. If you believe that makes the alumni network smaller, then you’re right. We might have less clout in the world. Fair enough. For me, it meant I would probably get to know every single one in my entire cohort easily and lasting bonds were likely to be born as we went through it all together. I already feel the especially strong bond with my first team (among them a British senior biochemistry lecturer, a PE investment analyst from New Zealand and a Turkish government competition expert just to name half of them and give you a feel of the diversity) that I’m working together with through Block 1 and 2.

I also believe that as a thriving school, eagerly making its way up the league table, would give quality attention and dedication to each student individually because the success of the school really depended on all of us getting through it and having a good story to tell in the future. If any one of us did extremely badly, unlike in a cohort of 500 students, it would matter.

My theory was only that, a theory, but one that has now been confirmed and proven every single step of the way. From the moment I sent out my CV for consideration (a step taken when you’re a late applicant and want to know whether you have any chance at all), the whole administration team was absolutely brilliant and supportive. Even as an applicant, I didn’t feel like a number but someone they cared about, someone they wanted to find out more about to know whether I’d be a good fit for the school.

My interview with Professor Meziane Lasfer was the highlight of it all. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t a brilliant undergraduate student back in the days, I never really connected with my professors, nor did I ever feel like it mattered to them. With Professor Lasfer, it was a completely different experience, starting with “I don’t want you to think of this as an interview.” No, it really wasn’t. It was much more a free discussion, a chance to get to know each other better and making sure that it was the right decision on both sides. I left the interview invigorated, wanting to get accepted more than anything else.

We’re almost at the end of our first Block (out of four) in our MBA now. The first few weeks is especially a time of immense adjustments in all our lives. Compared to many others in my cohort who had to adapt to life in the UK, a new apartment, a new everything, the changes for me were rather tame. And yet, it’s still a lot to take in. Just because we’re all MBA students, doesn’t mean we’ll all love each other and be friends. Just because we paid £41,000, doesn’t mean we’ll automatically enjoy every class we’re being taught. Just because we thought we knew why we’re doing an MBA when we applied, we don’t wake up every day feeling amazingly happy, thinking “Yes! This is it!”

But that’s ok. You will make friends, you will learn, you will be challenged (especially with the things you don’t necessarily like) and you will discover new things about yourself. That’s what the MBA is all about for me right now: feeling uncomfortable and out of my depth every day and yet having the necessary support from everyone around me (students, administration, careers team and professors) to get through it and come out the other end as a better, fuller version of myself. 

When I started my MBA, I had a look through all the electives and thought I had it all figured out. With every passing week, those thoughts have been changing and now I’m considering taking up a few I never even considered to be real subjects before. So, while you should have good reasons to start an MBA, beware that once you start it, it might be completely different. In a good way.

If your reason to study an MBA is that you wish for a change in your life, that’s a good start but also a dangerous one. Ask yourself: what is the change you really want? If you’re looking for a quick and easy fix for a bad situation, then I’d advise you to turn around right now and reconsider your choice. Because nothing about the MBA is quick, nothing about it is easy and it comes at a cost that is much bigger than just the £ price tag to it, if it’s not what you really want to do with conviction. If you run away from the problems in your own life, then an MBA is not for you. But if you know you want a change because you’ve been charging on, want to keep on doing so but possibly in a different way and haven’t quite figured out how, then this might be the place for you.

Akane Vallery Uchida
Full-time MBA (2018)

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