Mind over data

By Belinda Coniglio, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

Belinda - Blog Photo

Sunday 28 August 2015 6.15am, my flight landed from Europe – it had been whirlwind family reunion in Italy, business trip to Expo Milan 2015 and brief reprieve from study between completing Innovative Strategies for Marketing and commencing Data and Analytics.

Armed with a day cleanse from Pressed Juice on my cab ride from the airport to the Business School, I braced myself for what I anticipated would be the most difficult MBA subject. I had returned from Italy early to complete the course, tempting as it was to stay in Italy – the thought had actually crossed my mind in a coffee shop in Florence!

Surviving Financial Management earlier in the year gave me faith that I could surmount anything – even with jet lag, the first class didn’t seem that bad – economic drivers and learning how to graph series of data in Excel seemed easier than the caffeine and sugar withdrawals I was experiencing that afternoon (although I was feeling the impact from 3.30pm that afternoon and sneaked a sleep on the couch in the Business School’s foyer!)

That was until Professor Tony Webber started to talk formulas, regression and linear functions which brought back memories of year nine maths and failing microeconomics as an undergraduate: twice! The only lyrics running through my mind during the weekly data music quiz were Justin Bieber’s “what do you mean?”

I realised that my lesson was probably more one about mindset than the course content after Tony counselled that while he understood the complexity of the course (for me) and that the concepts take time to learn, when mastered, they are really valuable to know!

Tony is not only a data guru but an exceptional coach who spent additional time explaining concepts which had a direct correlation on my results – no wonder he is one of the University’s leading professors! Another correlation was the increased caffeine consumption and decline in green smoothies, juices and soups over the duration of the course and the exam approached, illustrated in the graph below, using the skills I learned in the course!


Interested in hearing about your lessons or insights that may go beyond the course content – have you had to shift your mindset?  What has helped you to achieve results in difficult circumstances?

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Leadership Re-Imagined with Catherine Livingstone

By Therese Juda, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

LinkedinPhoto ThereseIt’s what you think that counts.

This was the key insight I gained from the MBA Leadership Re-Imagined talk given by Telstra Chairman Catherine Livingstone.

Ms Livingstone has held key leadership positions in companies undergoing tectonic change, including Cochlear, CSIRO and now Telstra, sharing with the audience key enablers in the change programs she has led.

What you believe guides what you do.

Cochlear was transitioning from a ‘department within a department’ to a highly visible public entity when Ms Livingstone took the helm. Initially the organisation struggled to achieve their 20% per annum growth target, as it grappled with agency issues and ‘fiefdoms’ that had evolved under the previous department structure.

The key to changing what people were producing was to align what they believed, acknowledging that belief systems guide a persons’ actions, big or small.

By embedding a value system as an integral part of the operations, Ms Livingstone noted that this made breeches of the system easier to call out, as it depersonalised them. For example, if in a meeting a course of action was proposed that didn’t fit Cochlear’s mandate of ‘built to last’, it became common practise for other attendees to call this out and refer back to the Company’s agreed values.

Three little letters can cost millions.

Norms, such as the universal values Cochlear implemented, are powerful ‘reference points’ on which people base both conscious and unconscious decisions. The example Ms Livingstone gave of CSIRO’s change program hinging on the words ‘in’ versus ‘for’ illustrated this point.

The CSIRO was facing an uncertain future when Ms Livingstone arrived, with funding from the Federal Government substantially decreased. The problem seemed to be not what the CSIRO was producing, but how they were communicating it, culminating in a lack of advocacy for the organisation.

This lack of advocacy was found to boil down to a seemingly minute distinction. The scientists and technicians working within CSIRO saw themselves as working ‘in’ the organisation, rather than ‘for’ it.

Initially, I wondered if the organisation was getting bogged down in semantics at the expense of uncovering the real issues. On further reflection I saw how if a person saw themselves as being provided with equipment and labs by CSIRO, but no uniting mission, then their discussion and influence of their work could be limited to their particular discovery. In an organisation with high levels of specialisation and limited engagement, silos can emerge, fragmenting the organisation’s influence and effectiveness.

Ms Livingstone noted that silo mentality was a significant issue at the beginning of the change program, but by engaging in continuous, multi-level conversations, a unified vision was established.

The emphasis of the change program on these multi-level conversations recognises the role of ‘co-authorship’ of change, seeing the role individuals must have in creating change if it is to endure.

The conversations had within the organisation need to be repeated, with Ms Livingstone mentioning an average of seven iterations required until the message is received by each person. The consistency of these messages are vital, as I imagine for an organisation filled with logic-driven scientists, any inconsistency would damage the credibility of the message of unity.

A person’s understanding of their workplace and their place within in it will guide their actions, therefore it is essential that leaders know what their staff believe, and honestly examine if it is conductive to the organisation’s success.

Successful evolution of these beliefs requires open and consistent communication that includes everyone in an organisation, and will take time.

It follows that the right behaviour will produce the right results, and leaders need to be prepared to ‘stay the course’ as is Ms Livingstone’s refrain, to allow time for individuals to hear, comprehend and embrace new norms and create better performance.

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China – from copy to create, learners to leaders and imitators to innovators

By Natalie Cope, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program and BOSS Emerging Leaders MBA Scholarship Recipient

150226_SydneyUni_SH03_11200There can be no question that global, economic, strategic and political influence is shifting towards Asia. The meteoric return and economic re-emergence of China is unquestionably a defining feature of the increasing influence the region wields. In this rapidly changing world order, Australia’s future stability and economic prosperity will hinge on our ability to keep pace, be malleable and deepen our ties.

But when people speak of and consider China, it is often only in reference to the numbers, scale and the economic opportunity. That it is an Asian giant, a global powerhouse and an economic phenomenon. They highlight statistics and reference the population of 1.36 billion people as little more than a potential customer base (of which 300 million are now considered middle class).

While the scale, numbers and economic possibilities are not mistruths, to construe the opportunity purely in economics is to overlook important aspects of the “China opportunity” and what is a remarkable socio-cultural and intellectual metamorphosis. Without proper consideration, it will be the undoing of any business and their desire for success.

It is so important to stop and absorb the (often times intoxicating) energy, to appreciate and understand the history and character and strength of the people who are driving this story. To acknowledge that it is an atmosphere created as a result of a competitive environment of unimaginable proportions. Despite the incredible and increasing wealth in China, the reality for many remains challenging. China is still in the process of strengthening its social safety nets, and the population largely continues to exist in the absence of an institutionalized modern welfare state. The stakes of failure are therefore great. Livelihoods are defined by an ability to maintain pace, to keep pushing, to be innovative, and often times ruthless.

It is this environment that is driving an era of innovation and creation that is a defining feature of modern China and changing not only China’s but also the global playing field. The resilience, grit and determination of the people behind this story is seeing China quickly mature from a country of copy-cats to creators, from learners to leaders and from imitators to innovators. China is driving innovation across business models, product development and technology, examples of which were abundant and on display during our time in the country on the international business project. This constant evolution and adaptation is being propelled by the aptitude and willingness of Chinese companies and businesses to be the first, the fastest, and the best – to understand their customers and deliver not only on what those consumer preferences are, but by predicting, and informing the trends of what consumers don’t yet know they want and need.

If Australian and global businesses wish to include China in their global growth strategies, which is increasingly not an “if” but a “must” then they will need to pay heed to the above, and understand and be prepared for an increasingly sophisticated and competitive landscape. They will need to constantly reinvent themselves; to be nimble and move fluidly and adapt as the market shifts and changes at an often uncomfortably rapid pace.

It was apparent no more so than on this most recent visit, that to play in the China league will take dogged determination, work ethic and unrelenting patience and commitment. It will take considerable investment and smarts. Playing in China is not and never will be an away game. While a haven of opportunities, China is not for everyone; but it will reward the bold, the resilient, the prepared and the curious. An incredibly important step (amongst many) on this journey is to first stop, draw breath and take time to build relationships and better understand China’s history as well as its business, cultural, political, ethical and regulatory environment. Good luck!


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The Blessing in Disguise

How to take advantage of bad leadership and move closer to your goals by channelling your internal strength.

By Timothy Castle, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

Timothy-CastleOnly recently have I come to realise that there’s a big power in accepting what is and not getting caught up in what could have been. When we accept what is, we live in the present. When we obsess over what might have been, or what could happen, we get stuck living in the past or the future.

In the business world, leaders make decisions that shape the future of their organisations all the time – some of them are good and some of them are bad. And it’s just a matter of time until a decision that someone else higher up makes which will impact you in a way that makes you feel wronged or isn’t quite what you were expecting.

Now here’s the thing: it’s how we react in the face of this that can define what happens next.

I have a choice. I can either spend my energy trying to resolve and battle with the politics, or I can gather my internal strength, look forward with absolute focus and use my energy to move in the direction that I want to go. This might be pursuing other opportunities. It might be a new role. It might mean starting my own business or taking some time off. But what it isn’t, is standing still. It isn’t counterproductive to my reputation and it is a blessing in disguise. It’s the company telling you something and you seeing how that fits with your journey. When we learn to accept what is, its empowerment. You can use this information and how you react to boost yourself forward by taking control of your life and deciding the next move.

When everything’s going fine, it’s easy to get swept up in the company’s vision, and as you get promoted with more incentives thrown your way, you can lose focus of what’s important to you. It’s not until a decision is made that you don’t agree with that you feel wronged.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you aren’t correct in thinking that you’ve been wronged. What I’m saying is that it’s where you focus your energy that’s important. Do you spend it fighting and proving that you were wronged, or do you take it and focus it somewhere productive?

Use it as an opportunity to listen to yourself and recognise that what they’ve actually done here is save you time. Rather than stringing you along any further, they’ve actually done you a favour.

You just have to shut out the noise and be absolutely clear on what you want. That is where you should put your time and energy. As you do this, you will begin to move in a direction that is more self-fulfilling and has more meaning. The key is to recognise when it’s time to do this.

By taking the combination of Leadership Practice and Development, followed by Innovation in Strategic Marketing, it has taught me how to manage my mind-set and be clearer about what I want to do when these blessings in disguise present themselves.

I am currently reading The Art of Work by Jeff Goins and recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about finding your purpose.

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Ayurveda, Agra and Awakening!

By Belinda Coniglio, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

Belinda - Blog PhotoMany have asked about my journey to India to attend Stuart Watkin’s Awakening Yoga Retreat, as though India remains an untouched mystery.

I did not know what to expect before embarking on my journey, maybe because I hardly gave myself time to think about it let alone pack the correct attire – ladies are still required to wear loose clothing that covers their entire body. As I sat in Critical Analysis and Thought Leadership, the half way point of my MBA, questioning my personal and professional direction, I decided to book the last spot on the retreat and fly to New Delhi the next day.

The retreat was held at the Anand Prakesh Ashram in Rishekesh, a spiritual town at the foothills of the Himalayas made famous when the Beatles visited in 1968 and stayed at Maharishi’s Ashram.

Observing the rules of the Ashram, I woke daily at 5am to mediate, practice yoga, chant and attend a Hindu fire ceremony before breakfast. There was no access to wifi and we were encouraged to limit telephone calls, consumerism and observe silence between 9pm and 9am. I explored the region in my spare time, trekking to Shiva’s temple, bathing in a waterfall at the confluence of Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers (Devprayag) where the Ganges begins, and visiting the Taj Mahal – possibly the greatest love story of all time. The magic of India and the stories of the people I met on my journey – each searching, discovering, creating or healing gave my own life perspective and clarity.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson though was about dharma, a word that has no exact English translation. The essence of dharma is accepting your path, your duty – mine is to serve and to make a difference to people, even if that is only one person – that person may go on to change the life of many. Our teacher, Stuart used an analogy about a street sweeper in India, sweeping because it is his dharma to do so.

Immense importance is placed on food (Ayurveda is the traditional diet and medicine that includes eating seasonal produce for your body type), culture (yoga, sound healing music, dance, colourful saris) and love for the family. These are the currencies that add value to their lives. I hear that even the School of Inspired Leadership (SOIL) has included yoga practice at the Asana Pranayama Bandha Mudra to encourage mindfulness as part of their MBA program.

The story about dharma reassures us to keep our faith and reminds us that we are each truly on our paths to realising our “dharma.”

What is your dharma? 

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Look at the person, not the books – Thoughts on risk appetite and investment in China

By Therese Juda, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

The rapid pace of China’s industrialisation and resulting leaps in GDP has created a glut of capital. During our recent trip to China, one venture capitalist remarked that there is too much money, chasing too few quality opportunities.

Given the centrally-managed aspects of the financial system, varied accounting practises and challenges in exiting investments, here are some thoughts on how to understand attitude to risk in China.

Western rules don’t always apply

One of the guest speakers, a Professor in the Business Faculty at Fudan University, described a few of the Chinese’s Government’s regulations concerning bond issues and default.

He mentioned that default on bonds issued is not allowed by Central Planning Authorities, and that most investment opportunities are project-based, rather than whole of company. This presents a challenge for investors assessing the risk/return balance for a particular project as traditional modelling suggests the yield of an investment is largely compensation for the level of risk you’re taking on.

I appreciate the protective effect this regulation has on individual investors, but wonder if this provides a kind of perverse incentive to take on the highest return investments, without scrutinising the details of how viable the actual project is – driving up the returns companies need to offer to gain funding.

Look at the person, not the books

The question of due diligence Western-style, through analysis of financial statements and projections, was top of mind when our Venture Capitalist speaker described a failed investment he had personally made.

The speaker had invested personally in a project that failed, and lost the capital he had invested. The failed company was audited by local authorities who found that only 10% of funding the company had received made it to the company’s bank accounts.

Investors around the world know that this is not a situation unique to China, but what I was struck with was the speaker’s statement – ‘I am not a policeman; we do not check such things’.

As the speaker went on to describe how investment opportunities are sought through region-linked business and personal networks, I gained a new perspective on how the choice to invest is made.

The themes of interconnectedness and long-running relationships speak to the fabled ‘guanxi’, a Chinese term referring to deep personal connections built between business partners.

Before ‘guanxi’ is possible, the choice is whether to do business with this person, and this is assesed via ‘xin-ren’, a trust equation made up of both cognitive ‘head’ and affective ‘heart’ aspects (Read more in: Building effective business relationships in China).

The utilisation of these deep links to source investment opportunities spoke to me of the heart aspects – you are doing business with people who went to the same university, who move in similar circles and thus ‘get’ you, and are bound to deliver on their promises to you at a deeper level than simple contracts and liability limited companies command.

It might sound counter-intuitive to invest millions based on personal relationships, but any lenders reading this know that character trumps capacity when assessing loan default risk every time.

Gotta roll the dice to get a shot at the big time

Hearing about the importance of the character led me to wonder – if the project does fail, will the owners be able to get funding for their next venture?

The Venture Capitalist speaker seemed surprised at this question, stating that after a failed project the owners are seen as a more attractive future prospect, as ‘you have to take risks to get a chance at the big house and dreams’.

Does this mean failure is rewarded? In the context of the amazing innovations we saw at Goodbaby, a baby goods manufacturer, I realised in reality this position supports people willing to take risks to be first.

My time in China has given me a new appreciation of how nimble a company needs to be to thrive in such a complex regulatory environment, and a completely different perspective on how to assess risk and make investment decisions.

China’s economy is now moving towards innovation to sustain its growth, and will be well supported by a risk system that favours the brave – those willing to fail, in order to create something new and be first.

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The importance of knowing and owning your story

By Timothy Castle, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

Timothy-CastleRecently I have been intrigued by the number of times I have been asked ‘so tell me what’s happening?’ in relation to my career by a potential employer, mentor or advisor. I have recognised just how critically important it is to be able to articulate my story at a moment’s notice and that it’s an increasingly valuable skill to have on my tool belt.

So many times in this world we have opportunities to shine, to share details of our story with others that can elevate our careers or make transitions into new fields more seamless. A key driver of whether transformation happens is the relevance of the information we reveal and if we’re memorable.

Another thing that got me thinking was over the past couple of months I attended a raft of start-up events all geared around securing investment. One of the key takeaways I got from all of these was that during the pitching process, there is a formula for success. Keep it short, sharp and hit the highlights first. It was then the light bulb went off, could this advice from some of the world’s top investment firms be applied to my own life to serve me better on my journey? Well in fact, yes it could. If I don’t take the time to understand how to authentically and succinctly convey my own message, I run the risk of losing opportunities to connect that could further advance my career. Companies spend millions of dollars a year and dedicate countless hours on marketing all to get the right message. It’s foolish to think that I don’t need to do the same, well, minus the millions of dollars. Ultimately, it is counterintuitive to my own business objectives and my career progression.

Similarly to the start-up world, where a product is geared towards certain investors at different stages of growth, so must we apply this same agility to our own story as career minded, forward-focused achievers who adapt to appeal to the markets at different stages of our growth.

What I’ve realised is how important it is to share my vision with others, yet if I don’t dedicate adequate resource to developing and crafting my own story, then my plan is flawed. Prior to this realisation, my default answer was to begin with my job title and work backwards from there, mentioning a few key achievements.

What I have found is that knowing and owning my story is easier when it’s broken down into three areas.

Future, Job, You.

Future – By starting out describing my aspirations first (future) I allow the receiver to understand my goal for the maximum amount of time possible. Therefore, they can start to figure out how they can help. I believe there is an element of psychology to this. By getting your listener to visualise where you want to be at the start, they imagine you in that job, role or company. So you have started with the possibility that it can happen and worked backwards through the obstacles almost like a top down approach. Rather than building it from where you are now with the mindset that if you do all of this then and only then might it be possible.

Job – People need to know who you help and how. This gets you to think about the very core of your job role. Keep it short and sharp and hit the highlights.

You – make it authentic and demonstrate what makes you different.

No longer is my job title my story – it’s about being creative with what I have so it can be delivered with maximum impact.

Your story, your journey and your goals – own it and love it, for this is the tool that’s going to transport you from A to B. This is the vehicle to practise with friends, family, even the local coffee shop guy and if you have the opportunity take it. Get that practise.

So the next time someone asks you ‘so what’s been happening?’ You can start with what’s about to be happening, move through your successes and finish with the key differentiator that makes you memorable.

Remember people love a story; they just need to know where they can fit in.

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