Kel YK Chou, Aviation & Aerospace Vertical Leader (Asia Pacific), Expeditors
The MBA Journey – My Reflection
What can an MBA do for you? This is always a big question in the minds of many professionals. Many people I have met have varied objectives in mind to pursue an MBA. Some see it as a route for advancing to the higher stage in their current professional careers or as an enabler to switch careers across industries. Several see it as a means to complementing their current professional or engineering skills with business and management skills. While there are others seeking self-actualisation or to network with ambitious professionals from a myriad of industries. These are all valid objectives. What is more important is that these objectives must be relevant to your given context and your own professional goals. Having completed an academically rigorous MBA programme with Manchester Business School (MBS) while managing a busy career and a young family, it is my delight to share with you my reflections on the MBA programme.
What is your motivation and purpose?
This is an important question. Conducting a secondary research on Google would offer you many various perspectives on why one would pursue an MBA, it is nevertheless important for one to deeply reflect the underlying purpose of your motivation for it. You need to have an ownership of the reflections of the specific purpose with reference to your own career and professional development goals. Many MBA programmes would require one to submit a “motivation” essay as part of the evaluation process amid other requirements. The stronger your convictions based on your own derived reflections, the greater your resolve to complete the rigorous programme. Begin with the end in mind as they say it. This would bode well when you faced the academic rigour and other challenges in the programme. A strong conviction would keep your passion alive to fuel the journey.
What programmes should one choose?
There are a wide variety of programmes available in the market; from full-time to part-time and from all parts of the world. Top rated progammes that are well accredited tend to be relatively expensive (>SGD$50K) as compared to affordable ones offered by private education institutions with tie-ups with universities abroad. Some are triple accredited by the three largest and most influential business school accreditation associations: AACSB, AMBA & EQUIS (only 68 business schools out of >13,000 business schools in the world are triple accredited) while a very large majority are not. Conduct your primary and secondary research. Evaluate this against the following parameters:
- Affordability. Expensive programmes tend to offer more exposure with greater opportunities for networking and interactions. Ideally, go for a scholarship if you could apply for one else choose one that gives you the most optimal value considering the cost against benefits. Do review Forbes’s ranking to ascertain the Return-On-Investment (ROI) for the various programmes available. Sponsorships would be ideal but do consider the needs to fulfil your obligations thereafter.
- Value delivered. Evaluate from the Financial Times Global MBA rankings what value do you gain after completion; rankings alone do not say it all. Conduct the primary research by speaking to students and potential employers as well. There are tangible and intangible ones. Great programmes deliver intangible value beyond what you would expect assuming if you adopt the right mindsets and attitudes – the “Growth” mindset to learning and development (see the article here from Jeff Haden). It teaches you life skills beyond the business skills that culminate into new positive habits.
- Relevance to your career goals. Ensure that the modules taken help to complement and/or strengthen your current value proposition given the motivations and purpose established in your reflections.
- Duration of programme. A programme that is short does not mean it is necessarily good. Evaluate what are the courses and experiences that you would go through and assess if it matches with your aspirations.
- Opportunity cost. Full-time programmes imply that one needs to forgo the income. This is a huge opportunity cost. Part-time programmes require one to balance work and family commitments against study commitments. That is unequivocally a very challenging task as well, speaking from my personal experience. Each has its own merits. Choose one that meets your needs.
What are you expected to deliver and commit?
From my reflections, this would depend on your goals on and off the programme. If you seek for a pass degree, one could cruise through by working based on a minimal effort approach; this naturally has its negative implications. On the contrary, if you seek to do well, you will need to put in significant effort. Do not undermine this. Several friends I know dropped off from the course.
Given the context that I was in, I devised an operating system comprising new habits to accommodate the heavy study commitments vis-à-vis my other commitments. On a daily basis, I would spend time planning for my studies, reading material such as academic journals during lunch and planning for my upcoming assignments; annotating my reflections and thoughts in my Evernote app for my assignments and thesis. In the late evenings, I would read the textbooks and study guides after putting my children to bed. On weekends, I would spend time revising my work or work on my assignments in between shuttling my kids to school. Even at specific travel holidays, I would be dedicating some time to reflect on my work or work on specific assignments. Consistency and discipline is key.
Group projects on and off the workshops require one to prepare in advance, actively participate and work in a team environment comprising diverse international cultures. That is where you develop leadership skills and hone your practical skills as you work on real-life case studies and problems in a myriad of industry settings; allowing cross-proliferation of experience and knowledge sharing. You will need to effectively build trust and develop relationships; to form, storm, norm and perform in the numerous groups that you will be put into to deliver the desired outcomes that you seek within a stipulated timeline. This would be “learning by doing” and in many instances, you would have the opportunity to evaluate, analyse and create interesting ideas based on the insights beyond the textbooks and academic journals. Technology offered by whatsapp and other communication software is an enabler to reach out to your “virtual” team members.
When exams draw near, study plans have to be carried out. Forming study groups may be a productive endeavour for some subjects where extensive research and preparation are required to cover a wide range and depth within a short timeframe. In an examination for one of the core modules – Strategic Management, we had the pleasure of assuming the role of a General Manager of a business unit in Nike Inc for a specific geography of interest as well as the CEO of Nike Inc. We had to conduct the relevant market research and prepare in advance strategic responses with the appropriate justifications to a wide range of strategic questions that would fit nicely into the agenda for an executive board meeting in Nike. With only 3 weeks lead time to prepare prior to the exam, the experience was highly invigorating and intellectually stimulating for many of us given that all of us were busy professionals with our own careers and personal commitments.
Similarly, the final project stage was where we had the opportunity to pursue our dreams and apply the wide spectrum of business skills and knowledge in a stimulating real-life practical business problem of your choice. Some of us ventured into an entrepreneurial business venture while others worked on projects sponsored by their companies or worked on advancing academic knowledge in a specific management field or discipline. My team chose to embark on an Action Research project where we had to achieve two outcomes – a thesis outcome (advancing theoretical knowledge to contribute to academia) and an action outcome (business outcome specific to an entrepreneurial venture) which is synonymous to what one would expect in a consulting engagement with a client.
This technically implied that we have to deliver two concurrent projects along the same timeline by adhering to an Action Research methodology. The client is a banker/venture founder based in Jakarta and we worked closely with him to test, apply, reflect and refine the business model and implementation plans while concurrently working to expound and extend the specific domain of knowledge from the literature. It was a satisfying and exciting journey.
The core underlying principle is the need to be discipline; by adhering to the established commitments and to ensure an active engagement with the academic material. Since you have already expended time and money into the endeavour, one should do your best given your constraints. Excellence does not occur by chance; one has to work at it. The core philosophy in life that I particularly embrace is the pursuit of excellence, as exemplified in Aristotle’s quote:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
What did you learn? What is the value add?
Over the last few years, the greater business acumen gained fuelled my confidence to excel in a final project where my team delivered an Action Research project with a thesis and real business outcomes. As this is an adult learning programme that is anchored on a strong focus on pragmatism and practical application in real-life industry settings, the knowledge and experience acquired is a function of one’s investment of his/her engagement with it. Do not expect that you would be “spoon fed” to do well; this is graduate school and your achievements are a function of your ingenuity, ambitions and effort. Professors and peers offer deep theoretical knowledge and experience on how business problems are solved. The library and research databases provide a means for one to gain deep insights in the literature of management science and the approach to research work. This coupled with the internalization of the knowledge and your amalgamation with your own professional experience gives you the confidence to solve real-life practical business problems and challenges. With the right motivation and purpose, the efforts put in will sharpen your inclination and the mental capacity to solve a good spectrum of strategic to tactical business problems. By leveraging on the right mindset and platforms, you could expand your competencies beyond the realm of what is known to oneself; covering your own blind spots and venturing into the unknown “unknowns” as depicted in the concept of the Johari window. The latter is where new knowledge and/or business ideas could be created. I believe this is the realm where innovation or invention takes place.
Lastly, it is important to develop your professional network as best as you can from the available platforms in the programme. Stay active in the alumni events and activities. Your professional conduct and the portrayal of that in the course would be quintessential in building lasting and deep professional ties with your peers and the alumni which could bode well for your future endeavours. Over the past year, we had the opportunity to participate and network at functions graced by the Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr Teo Chee Hean, the British High Commissioner, Mr Antony Phillipson and the Mayor of London, Mr Boris Johnson. In 2015, we would be looking forward to celebrate the “Golden Jubilee” 50 years celebration of the business school in conjunction with Singapore’s SG50 in 2015 and meet with the rest of the alumni. This would be a remarkable milestone for the business school as well as for Singapore.
Earning an MBA is not the end of one’s learning journey; it adds to one’s invaluable working experience, creates lifelong networks and challenges your mind with new knowledge, consolidates existing ones and potentially enables one to create new knowledge and ideas. An MBA programme is only one of the many learning and development milestones in one’s professional career. While it does not make you an expert in all the management sciences that you have been exposed to, it definitely gives you an overview of the breadth of management sciences and a platform to leverage on the acquired knowledge to build upon and deepen the relevant functional disciplines. This overview enables one to partake in more robust decisions considering the wider strategic perspectives and the implications offered within the respective management disciplines.
The learning journey has to continue by adopting the same rigour, discipline and ingenuity. I would strongly encourage one to embrace the skills and competencies gained and apply them as best as you can in our careers or endeavours. After all, the ability to swiftly learn and continually develop new and innovative business models are the key enablers for sustainable competitive advantage in any firm. The key to unlocking that drive is to continually remain “humble” and recognise that despite all our own efforts, capabilities and achievements, there is always room for learning and continuous improvements.
To summarise, you should use the acquired knowledge, experience and networks to create value, follow your dreams and pursue a greater good for society. It is the pursuit of continuous excellence that will put you in good stead, as aptly put across by the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore:
“To the young and not-so-old, I say, look at the horizon, follow that rainbow, go ride it.”
Mr Lee Kuan Yew