Jeanette Cowley studied for her MBA at Cass, graduating in 1982, and is pictured with Steve, who she met at Leeds University in 1980 and married 32 years later. She is now the Managing Director of Go For Growth. We chatted for our continuing #Cassat50 series.
Why did you come to Cass?
I think, quite simply, I wanted a good job! I contracted TB during the final year of my undergraduate degree and had to take a year out to recover. By the time I was studying for my final exams at the end of the 1970s the job market was in a bad way. At University I had experienced a couple of terrible interviews on the milk round where the interviewer could not answer basic questions about how the business was doing! So, I decided that a commercially oriented Masters degree would help translate my first degree in social sciences in to the world of work. In particular, I thought the addition of an MBA to my CV would put me in a better position in what was a tough and changing market.
I had received offers to study at the LSE and Manchester Business School but, and this might sound bizarre, my choice to go to Cass came down to the interview process. I liked that it was difficult to get a place on the course because I was coming relatively straight from University – I only had nine months off, to earn money to pay towards my postgraduate degree. I came down from Manchester for an interview where they asked a range of probing questions like: What will you get from attending the course and most importantly, what will you bring to the course? I really enjoyed how the interview made me reflect on my motivation and skills – so I chose Cass over the other options.
Plus, I wanted to live in London! Theatre was my passion in my twenties and, at the time, Cass was based in the Barbican, where they had a fantastic theatre. I wanted to experience all aspects of living in London, and also hoped being in London would mean more opportunity for part time work to help pay off my hefty postgraduate loan.
Since moving down to London to go to Cass, even though I’ve worked in many countries, I’ve always had my base in London. You could say I’ve lived here forever – or at least since 1980!
What was your experience of studying at Cass?
I absolutely loved it – particularly because the other students were so diverse. Many of my cohort had worked full time in what I considered to be proper jobs with real careers for quite a number of years, and for them the MBA was either a sabbatical funded by their company, or a personal investment in their longer career. I have a working class background and had worked since the age of about 12 in part time jobs: running errands for small business owners, then working in a discount shop and for Great Universal Stores – that sort of thing. However, back then, I was still quite new to professional work so being with this group of students was a real eye-opener. It was really interesting to study with people from such different backgrounds.
The second highlight of the course was the tutorials: they were very feisty. I think Cass, more so than my undergraduate degree, taught me to really listen, and how to ask probing questions, especially when you’re with people with such different experience. That skill in hindsight was extremely useful when I became a negotiator and involved in dispute resolution. At Cass we were encouraged not to hold back in tutorials: but it was important to give evidence based responses. People would come back to you as well – so preparation was important. Also, I loved working and living on London. For one of my assignments I completed a large piece of coursework about the brewing industry: I analysed early microbreweries. It was the first time I’d combined quantitative and qualitative research methods. Being based in London provided the opportunity to do this research. The fieldwork turned out to be really helpful later on in my career, when I joined Grand Metropolitan (now Diageo).
What is your favourite memory from your time at Cass?
I seem to remember laughing a lot about the way data was presented as facts! At Cass I always thought there was lots of wiggle room for interpretation in the case studies we were asked to look at: maybe I have a warped sense of humour! Throughout my career I have been heavily involved in conflict resolution with teams and individuals and I think my experience at Cass taught me to be challenging and really curious in a way that has helped throughout my career.
The other memory is that I loved my graduation ball. I actually still have the green and purple dress I wore to the ball! When I knew you would ask this question I got the dress out of its dust-bag in the spare room to have a look. I’ve only ever kept a couple of things from back then: one is a black velvet dress I used to wear to the Bowie Rooms in Manchester and the other is this one! It’s got a huge peacock across the shoulder. Well it was the 1980’s! I had a lot of fun at Cass as well as the hard work of course.
How has studying at Cass changed your life?
I can’t say for certain. However, reflecting on that original interview – where I had the question about why should Cass accept me, I think my experiences at Cass gave me courage. Completing the MBA at an early age taught me how to ask questions of people who were more senior and had much more experience without feeling inferior.
The first evidence of this courage was pretty audacious! Mid-MBA I contacted Ford Motor Company, who I didn’t work for, and asked for money towards my MBA. My tutor suggested it although I don’t think they had a sponsorship programme at the time. In any event, the Industrial Relations department at Ford agreed to pay me a small sum of money in exchange for a piece of consultancy work on their recruitment process. That piece of work turned out to be my thesis. After the MBA I actually went back to Ford at Dagenham for about three months to help them think about how to use the results of the research. What a great experience.
Also, my memories of Cass still encourage me to refresh and question what I know and what you think I know. I believe you really have to keep your development going: both personal and professional. So I would say this early experience has affected me throughout my career and is still a part of who I am. With this in mind, four years ago I decided to revisit my area of expertise and took myself back off to business school to study for an MSc in Behavioural Change and Coaching. My research into how senior leaders sustain momentum is central to my work today and I am sure the idea in some way stems back to my time at Cass as well as many years working across a number of sectors.
And now you run your own business?
Yes. I had the idea in the back of my mind for about 20 years (I had never said out loud) – that if I ever sat on the Executive Committee of a FTSE 100 company I would start my own business. So when I was headhunted and got the opportunity to do just that, I went for it! Then, when the time was right, I took myself away to the States for a couple of weeks to think through my strategy including what I wanted and really cared about for my own future and in business. That’s how Go For Growth, focusing on personal and business growth, was born.
My own focus at Go For Growth is on individual and group development as well as dispute resolution and mediation: I am a coach, mentor and mediator. I also give my time to the International Women of Excellence and from time to time I am asked to run workshops or speak at events about how to build trust, resilience and resolve conflict. In my spare time I swim (I learnt how to swim front crawl last year). I am also an avid singer songwriter.
Most importantly, at the moment I am writing a series of articles on reflective leadership and have just started writing a book entitled – Breathe Out: How do you want to spend the next 20 years?
You can contact Jeanette by email firstname.lastname@example.org.