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A personal board of directors

8 Sep

Well, it’s finally here. The end of the MBA. Now we have to go out in the world and do our thing, be great ambassadors, be fabulous, seize the moment, build our personal brands, our networks, our work-life-balance, and ourselves. You get the idea.

So it was with great appreciation that one of the discussions I attended today during our Capstone week to end the course provided some great, thoughtful advice on exactly how to BE amazing.

Build your own personal board of directors.

There. Now you know.

This might sound simple (or maybe it doesn’t; that’s OK too). The main focus was on thinking about how a good board of directors in a company challenges the leadership, brings different perspectives to the forefront, and shares their collective experience, networks and expertise to improve the business. Similarly, in your personal and professional life, having a good board of directors can help you better run “You, Inc.”, by doing pretty much those same things, but with you as the focus and CEO.

Some of the tips to building your board:

  1. Choose the most talented, not the most accessible. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the person you think can best fill a board member role, figure out who they are and use your existing network to get you there.
  2. A balanced board gives better advice. Aim for diversity of perspective and experience, so that you can gain insight for personal and professional issues.
  3. All board members have terms. Upgrade your board over the course of your career and life, to make sure they stay relevant for you.
  4. Your board isn’t there to make decisions for you. A good board gives support, input and direction but shouldn’t tell you what to do. Let them help you think through the consequences of different courses of action, and the risks and rewards they may bring. Acting, and facing the consequences, is your job.
  5. Be the board member you’d like to have. Remember that you may also be able to be a competent board member to someone else. Helping someone else grow will help you grow as well.

It’s incredibly exciting to be at this particular stage in my professional and life journey – post-MBA I think we are only just beginning to grasp the potential and the opportunities we’ll be faced with in the weeks, months and years ahead. But even if you aren’t on the threshold of a big event, I think this idea has great merit. Life is going to be challenging, and you shouldn’t tackle it alone.

Starting from Zero

14 Jan

There are, as you might imagine, many enduring traditions at a university like Oxford. For example, you can be refused entry to write your exams if you are not properly dressed in formal academic dress or sub-fusc as it is known. You can read more about sub-fusc at exams on my classmate’s FT blog here.

A slightly more subtle tradition is the numbering the weeks of term.  This was also the custom throughout my elementary and high school experience, so there was some happy nostalgia when I rediscovered the practice.  Less obvious however, was the need for a Week 0 or ‘Nought Week’ as it is sometimes known. This week was Nought Week here at Oxford. There are no classes, but students are required by the rules of the university to be present. It’s an official part of the calendar and school rules, and there is one every term.

So what happens in Week 0? I like to think of it as built-in ‘brain stretching’ time – that transitional period between vacation and work that we have all found ourselves wishing for on the Sunday night at the end of a vacation, right before heading back to work on Monday. This week, we’ve attended presentations about electives we’ll be able to take next term, and several classmates have been participating in the VCIC venture capital competition.

My particular ‘brain-stretching’ moment came in a small seminar room, where about 20 of us gathered to listen to a presentation about a community wind farm project in Mexico.  There are many unique features about the project, a partnership of the Yansa Foundation and a local indigenous community in Ixtepec, which has designed as a social enterprise.  Perhaps one of the most exciting things about the project was the plan to formally quantify and verify the social and environmental impacts, beyond GHG emissions reductions, that the project will deliver.  These certificates will then potentially become a traded commodity, as companies and potentially countries, look for ways to meet their commitments to support GHG reduction and climate change mitigation.

But how do you measure something that doesn’t have a convenient scale, like dollars or megawatts or milligrams? It’s the ultimate ‘starting from zero’ kind of problem. Economists and accountants traditionally branded these things as ‘externalities’ that were conveniently left off the balance sheet because they were so challenging to measure. But times have changed. Imagine my complete delight when an hour later, the very last elective presentation of the day introduced a new course on impact valuation – the technical process of defining social, financial and environmental metrics and quantifying them, with a view to fully integrated triple bottom line assessments.

Clearly, we have some way to go before this approach to valuation of resources, and products and companies is mainstreamed. But it’s encouraging to think that ‘zero’ is not really nothing, but may be the start of a really big something! Here’s hoping you too can find a ‘zero’ in your world that becomes a brain-stretching moment for this year.

The storm before the storm

6 Oct

No, that’s not a typo. That’s really what Freshers Week at Oxford feels like.  It’s a whirlwind of activities – social events, networking events, college induction, degree program orientation, examinations rules sessions, college formal dinners, and some plain old pub-crawling.  Brand new students, the “freshers”, are sucked into this cyclone of activity from the very first moments of Week 0.

Last night I attended my Newcomers Dinner at Linacre College.  In true Oxford tradition, we dressed up in our formal robes, and entered the dining hall.  Five long tables, with a mix of students, staff and faculty, all dressed up and eager to get to know each other. The 5 people who sat at my end of the table for 20 included a History of Science Major from Vancouver of all places, a DPhil (PhD) candidate in Archeological Science from New York City and one in Classical Archeology from Greece, along with a professor in Organic Chemistry, a Master of Financial Economics major and another DPhil student in Chemistry. And that was just my corner of the table!  Imagine the conversations happening at the other 4 tables, among about 100 people!

Walking home after post-dinner drinks and socializing in the Common Room, the student run bar and gathering place at the centre of college life, it was amazing to feel the energy in the streets.  Literally hundreds of people, some dressed to the nines in black-tie and gowns, others in jeans and T-shirts, all excited to be here, and ready to start a new term. I swear the air even smelled like anticipation!

Next week, Week 1 of the Michaelmas Term, is when classes officially begin.  That’s likely to be the second “storm”, and one that will no doubt consume a great deal of our time.  In the meantime, it’s Freshers Week! Pubs and friends await!

So this is what diversity looks like

26 Sep

240 students, 48 countries of origin.  These were the stats for last year’s MBA class, and from the looks of it, our class is poised to match them.

Over the past few days, we’ve been accumulating in Oxford in ever-increasing numbers, from just about every part of the world.  This week, we spent an intensive 2 days together at a career “bootcamp” designed to introduce us to some of the possible career options post-MBA.  This was our first chance to meet a significant portion of the class, and it seemed that all we did was ask and answer the “four questions” – what is your name, where do you come from, what were you doing before the MBA, and what do you plan to do after the MBA.

The “where do you come from” answers are my favourite. So far I’ve met people from Belgium, Canada, Nigeria, United States, England, Scotland, Norway, Costa Rica, Spain, Russia, Mexico, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, Japan, Chile and India.  And lots of us come from more than one place, having worked and lived and attended school in different countries from those where we were born.

What’s even more interesting is looking at our various backgrounds against the landscape of media coverage, political and popular opinion about who our countries’ “friends and enemies” are at any given point in time.  The backgrounds are extraordinarily diverse – the person who flew helicopters for the US military, the investment banker from Saudi Arabia, the clean-tech entrepreneur from India, the UN agency staffer most recently back from Africa.    We’ve been connecting online and in person, socialising and finding common interests, and already planning how to grow this energy into productive study groups, student clubs and other activities.

It’s tempting to wonder whether things will evolve over time into less aggregated groups, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. As one classmate said to me yesterday “When you get to know someone one-on-one, you can’t help but find the similarities between you.”  So far there are a few things that stand out that we all seem to have in common – we are excited about being here, we are determined to do well, and we are ready to change the world.

Oh, and we all like English pubs.

Free enterprise vs. red tape

23 Sep

OK, so this isn’t the title of my first business case or anything like that. It’s the contrast between dealing with different service providers here in Oxford.

So first, the “free market”.  One of the first things I attempted to tackle was getting a new phone number.  Step 1, find mobile phone provider that provides iPhone service. Step 2, get phone unlocked. Step 3, get new SIM card for phone.  It’s Step 2 that made me chuckle.

None of the “official” mobile phone operators will unlock you phone for you, but when asked, they all were able to point me in the direction of a certain “news agent’s shop” that provides some value-added services, namely unlocking phones for anywhere between 10 and 20 pounds and 15-20 minutes of your time.  You walk in, you say you need a phone unlocked, they tell you up front before you pay if they can do it, and invite you to have a seat.  Mohammed, the mobile phone locksmith, does some magic with his laptop and hey presto! Phone unlocked, 20 pounds please. 

During my 20 minute wait, I counted about a dozen people who came into the shop for various things – cell phone charger, internet usage (they also have an internet cafe in the basement), printing, scanning, and cigarettes.  The bus driver ran in to grab a drink on the fly as the bus stops outside. A builder down the street came in to get a set of drawings and notes copied. And a lady popped in to pay the 5 pounds she owed from the week before, when she needed a charger in an emergency and didn’t have any cash.

Contrast this with my attempts to open a bank account, the definitive “red tape” experience.  I’d researched online, knew which bank and which account I wanted, and showed up to open an account with all the paperwork I thought I needed.  Not so! First off, a 20 minute wait in line, only to be told I needed an appointment to open an account.  Um, no I said account, not mortgage! But yes, apparently an appointment is required, and of course there were no more appointments left that day.  Come tomorrow, I was told, you won’t need an appointment tomorrow. Oh and by the way, we actually need a completely different document from the one we told you in our brochures.

So visit 2, back the next day, new document in hand, another wait in line.  First question – do you have an appointment to open this account?! At this point, I start looking for the hidden cameras, thinking this has got to be a joke in the making.  Not so! After recapping the previous day’s conversation, the person serving me agreed they could “squeeze me in”, probably because some other poor sucker didn’t have the right documents when he showed up for his appointment!  But then … oh no, this isn’t the right document either, it needs to be signed and dated and on letterhead from the university. Grrrrr!

A classmate also in the line took pity on me, and showed me the letter he’d received.  Having confirmed that in fact, this third piece of paper held the magic formula, I agreed to go and source this document instead.  In the meantime, I was able to persuade the bank to open the account “provisionally” for me, on condition that I would drop the magic document off later that day. 3 visits, 1 bank account, maybe. Wow!

There’s a lesson here somewhere.  I’m still trying to figure out what it is.  Off to navigate my way through another day…

8 new things before breakfast

20 Sep

Well, I made it! Oxford is now home for th next year. There’s more things to blog about than you can imagine, but here’s just a taste from the first 24 hours. It’s my 8 new things before breakfast:

  1. Luggage trolleys with brakes! This was a fabulous discovery at Heathrow as I headed down a steep ramp to the underground walkway to catch the bus to Oxford. Turns out brakes are far more effective than purposely crashing into the railings every few steps as a way to slow down.
  2. Tipping isn’t always OK. I tried to tip th bus driver for helping me with all my bags, but he gently informed me, “It’s your money, love. I get paid alright!”. I didn’t get his name but he was great at helping me get to the taxi stand, er, I mean “taxi rank”.
  3. Pear trees can be tall! There’s one I can see outside my window, of which I’ll post a picure next time.
  4. I walk slower than everyone else here. A woman pushing a stroller with a toddler overtook me on the sidewalk!
  5. In a city where building a new building probably requires a royal decree, reuse is taken to a whole new level. There’s a restaurant down the street housed in what used to be an old church! More pics on that to come as well.
  6. The Oxford University Press has the greenest grass I’ve seen so far anywhere.
  7. The zig-zag markings on the pavement aren’t weird street art by tipsy line markers. According to the highway code, it has something to do with no overtaking.
  8. Taking a shower involves pulling on a string to turn on a switch that turns on the showerhead and water heater. The string is by the door – on the opposite side of the room from the shower. I was already IN the shower when I learned this lesson!
  9. I love English breakfasts! I got to discover this at about 3 p.m. on my first day here, which by my calculations was about 6 a.m. Vancouver time, and therefore appropriate!

Well that’s it for my first post.  I am now internet-ready, so will be able to provide more updates in coming days.  Look out for a complete post on unlocking and activating a cell phone, uhm, I mean a mobile (gotta get with the lingo!).