Insights from Shanghai and its innovation ecosystem

By Stevie-Ann Dovico, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

stevie pic 2015China’s development over the last 30 years has been amazing. The speed in which things can happen in this country, the paper thin margins, global focus and move towards world class innovation signals it is destined for further growth. Here are a few of my key insights following the MBA international module in China:

There are over 300 policies from across all levels of government to encourage mass entrepreneurship and innovation in China, as well as over $8.2m USD granted to these areas. This includes the provision of land and facilities (Innoparks), managing and backing incubators, angel investors and venture capital institutions, tax benefits and talent policies like the 1116 Plan, which financially compensates talented Chinese nationals from around the globe who return to work in Shanghai.

Looking at incubators specifically, there are over 1800 in China and 198 in Shanghai. Many of these incubators actually started as property development companies that recognised the saturation of the industry and moved into innovation to diversify their assets. If we compare these numbers to Australia, where we have roughly 25 incubators/accelerators nationally, the gap is huge.

Easy access to capital, lack of quality projects and talent
Government and speculative funding in China has created easy access to money, while quality talent, particularly in business entrepreneurship, remains a key challenge. This is where synergies form with Australia. We surely have the talent, with great innovation coming out of our country. Startups like Atlassian, Freelancer, Kogan, Wotif have all achieved significant scale and success in a relatively short amount of time. However, Australia has some of the lowest VC funding in the world, and a relatively small market, so increasingly we are seeing these businesses leave the market for overseas. With China having both the market and the capital, this presents a significant opportunity.

Generally speaking, there is a strong desire to adopt Western business models in the Chinese innovation space, although we found that there is a huge variation in business practice depending on the type of organisation.

Some companies we visited like iSpace and their partner incubators in the tech innovation space were more innovative in their practices.

One incubator cited that they believed the success of Silicon Valley was due to ‘freedom of thought’, which bolsters creativity and innovation. This was really interesting and in my view, very progressive given how controlled communication is within China. We also saw more of the Google style modern offices, with foosball, “hangout areas”, table tennis and bean bags. This signals to me that Shanghai is really embracing a ‘new way’ of working.

Other businesses we spent time with cited more traditional ways of working and highlighted key issues stemming from bureaucratic processes. For example, at a one global manufacturer we visited, we found it took over 36 process approvals just to make a hat. Employees were apprehensive to share information between departments, causing massive inefficiencies.

In the pre-departure ‘bootcamp’, we sat through lectures warning us about the importance of hierarchical seating arrangements and the way to give business cards. I found it a little unnerving to be honest, as Australia is more of an egalitarian culture and this kind of formality is not general practice.

However in reality, we went to over 30 meetings in 3 days and in the majority  of our meetings, we didn’t sit in these traditional hierarchical positionings. We were actually told by the companies not to make things formal and that meetings were casual and this was a relaxed environment. Additionally, rather than swapping business cards, we swapped ‘Wechat’ QR codes.

The proliferation of social media in the Chinese market and the breadth of capability of apps, which are essentially platforms for all sorts of capability, amazed me. Studying cases like Wechat and Alibaba was really interesting, as these applications are multiplatform, dynamic and integrate many needs into one place. A truly human-centred application of software development.

Conversely, the impact of public policy on employment runs deep. As a consequence of the 1 child policy, millennials in China have a different work ethic to those of the earlier generations. They stand to inherit the fortunes of their parents and grandparents solely, and this has a huge impact on truancy in the workforce. This spurs a further issue around a lack of employee training. Many employers do not feel the need to invest in training and their employee value proposition, because turnover is high. This vicious cycle perpetuates the lack of employee engagement and is detrimental to the sustainability of businesses.

Even the exit process was cited as merely handing back a name badge. Which suggests to me that employers may not be willing to listen to feedback. Perhaps it’s a “saving face” thing, where the employer doesn’t encourage a feedback rich environment? Perhaps its even a matter of the fact that culturally, employees are not willing to be critical of their company and superiors openly?

Hukou: In order to limit mass rural migration, the Hukou policy was introduced. This means that having citizenship in China doesn’t automatically give you citizenship into Shanghai. This has an impact on working families. If a parent applies and is granted citizenship for Shanghai, and they have children, unless their children are also granted citizenship, their children must leave and go back to their parent’s hometown. This affects employee retention. Citizenship for Shanghai is almost as difficult to get as getting country based citizenship.

Overall, China is a really interesting place; the more I learned, the more I was confused, and the more I realised I had to learn. Its complexity runs deep, but its potential is huge. What an amazing journey!

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The road to effective leadership

By Emily Hensby, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

EmilyHensby_ThumbnailWhen friends and colleagues ask me why I am undertaking an MBA at the University of Sydney Business School, I respond with humble yet lofty aspirational statements like, “I want to grow and develop” and “I want to really push myself”. But here’s the thing. There is nothing fun about that moment when you realise that you can take the growth road or the old road. The moment when you realise that you can change, and that change is up to you. For me, these were some of the most humbling moments in the epic journey that is Mike Jenner’s Leadership Practice and Development, the foundational course of the University of Sydney MBA.

The course itself is gives you the essential tools you will need to become an effective leader. And let’s be clear – leadership here is not about taking charge or being the first or loudest. It’s about getting things done through other people – influencing, motivating and enabling others in way that preserves respect for you and others, and being someone that others want to be around!

To learn about influencing, motivating and enabling others, it’s essential that we come to understand how we ‘land’ for other people. What is it like for others to be around me? Beyond learning and practising tools like active listening, giving and receiving feedback, conflict resolution and building teams, the course also commands a heavy dose of self-reflection.

I’m sure a lot of my classmates would agree, this can range from being slightly uncomfortable to downright confronting. Our class leader and learning facilitator, Mike Jenner, is the biggest advocate of a ‘feedback rich environment’ I’ve ever witnessed, and at the end of the course, I can now understand why. There is no growth without a feedback loop. The two are inextricably linked.

There were parts of my own behaviour that I was oblivious too. There were ways I was (and still am) landing for other people which I wasn’t at all aware of. The ONLY way this came to light for me was through getting feedback from other people – and the gracious nature of others to care about me enough to be honest with me.

And there comes the point of choice. My team members, colleagues and associates had taken the step of telling me areas of my style that could be more effective. They’d opened up a door to seeing myself in a way that I hadn’t. Did I enjoy that moment? No, I didn’t. Did I sit with it for a while and feel a little deflated that the ways in which I had thought I was helping people most wasn’t landing as effectively as it could? Sure did! Did I then decide that I’d like to be the most effective person I can be for those around me, knowing to do that would take change, action, time and work? Absolutely.

The biggest insight of all I got from the Leadership Practice and Development unit is that for me to be the most effective leader I can be, I need to let go of the notion of leadership as controlling things and to see leadership as a practice of facilitating things. My team member is facing a challenge – I can actively listen instead of trying to solve their problem for them and robbing them of the opportunity to do so. I’ve got a conflict of needs with my colleague – How can I facilitate a win-win outcome? I’ve got a team member not meeting expectations – How can I facilitate them to solve the problem of how they are going to meet the expectation?

Ironically, as I continue to embed the best practice skills from Leadership Practice & Development through consistent practice and feedback loops over time, I will be using less energy to get things done than I ever have. I’ve read it and heard it a thousand times before – and now I’m really coming to understand it – that committing to empowering and enabling others around me to be the best they can be, is perhaps the best decision I can ever make for my future success as a leader.

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14 steps to deal with feeling overwhelmed – I’ve got 99 problems but an MBA ain’t one

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

Timothy-CastleThe single biggest insight I have learned from the MBA so far is this – it’s all about mindset. If I go into a day, situation or interaction thinking, ‘this is going to be stressful’, then chances are it will be stressful. It’s about setting myself up with the opportunity to succeed starting with mindset. Get that right, and a whole wealth of possibilities open up.

Practicing an enabled mindset gives me the opportunity to reframe the challenge. For example, coming into the MBA, one of the things I was worried about was juggling multiple commitments, whilst getting the most out of the program without feeling overwhelmed.

What I’ve realised is it’s not about eliminating the feeling of being overwhelmed, it’s about acknowledging the emotion when it’s present and utilising all the resources at my disposal to better support my journey, starting with mindset!

Here are 14 actions that I have found helpful.

  1. Sketch out a time table, understand what’s required and when. This provides a road map of where your energy is best directed.
  2. Create an environment that allows for the MBA to take priority. Start as you mean to go on. Manage expectations with others, with your boss, with your co-workers, with your family, your husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend or pet. Be honest with them, doing an MBA is a big undertaking and it will mean you need to give it dedicated time and focus. It may mean leaving work early or having a few hours on weekends to get really engaged with the material. Integrating this expectation early on will create a framework that allows you to get the most out of it and work to your best.
  3. Avoid overcommitting – learn to say no. Most highly successful individuals have one thing in common – they know how to say no.
  4. Learn how to ask for what you need. Often it’s easy to feel overwhelmed; the ‘to do’ list is getting longer and we have less time to get more done. It’s about delegating, asking for favours and pulling strings. It’s about having a ‘not to do’ list so you can be really focused and productive on getting the things that matter done.
  5. Ask questions, and if in doubt call someone. It’s better to ask early on and clarify your understanding than to spend hours agonising over the possible meaning and interpretations of an exercise.
  6. Share your successes. We are all different and so all have different ways of producing the same result. If you find something is working for you, don’t hold it back. Share it with others and you might be helping them. The more we share, the more we learn and the greater our versatility.
  7. Experiencing the feeling of being overwhelmed doesn’t mean you suck. Time to reframe the feeling. Being overwhelmed is an emotion. Experiencing that emotion doesn’t mean you aren’t capable. What it means is its time to ask: Am I looking at this with an enabled mindset and what can I do right now to get closer to it?
  8. Understand this is all part of the journey. This is what’s meant to happen. This is where the learning and growth takes place.
  9. Be kind to yourself. Cease the judgemental mindset that is holding you back from moving forward.
  10. Break it down. Segment the task into bite-sized, achievable chunks.
  11. Carry a notebook with you everywhere. It is when we least expect it that our best ideas come to us.
  12. Respond to things as they come in. Do not delay what is easily actionable.
  13. Focus on one task and do it properly. Multi-tasking is not the answer.
  14. Breathe.

For further information on setting yourself up for success, view The Making of a Corporate Athlete in the Harvard Business Review.

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Taking a step back to become a better leader

By Emily Hensby, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

EmilyHensby_ThumbnailCan the public sector and the private sector work together more effectively? Can we as leaders go beyond our own perceptions and biases to make truly great decisions that impact society in positive and sustainable ways? What characteristics should a company director have? These were some of the key themes discussed during The Hon Nick Griener AC’s thought provoking breakfast talk delivered at University of Sydney Business School in July.

As future leaders from both the public and private sector, he encouraged us to step outside of the preconceptions we might hold about the purpose and value that each area brings to the table, and challenge the status quo. He prompted us to consider how we can use these new perspectives at the intersection of the public sector and private sector to achieve better quality outcomes for society. Communication and understanding are key.

As a current MBA student, I was inspired by Nick’s commitment to always striving to make high quality decisions through debating the merit of a proposal or plan in light of its contribution to the national interest – a high bar to set, but necessary for large scale projects or policies where the public and private sector’s interests need to not only combine, but be driven by an even higher purpose of what’s good for the society.

He prompted us to always step outside of what we know, and what we think we know, to ask if we are committed to a cause because it matches the expectations of our organisation or politics, or if it really is the best solution to the needs of the issue.

Nick also challenged us to think about the purpose and role of governance in organisations, recalling that in his days as an MBA student at Harvard Business School (in which he earned a High Distinction!) that Corporate Governance was barely a concept. He spoke of companies needing to apply corporate governance principles in a way that suits the scale and risk of their organisations. Interestingly, he cited one of the most important characteristics for company directors is to be courageous – to have the fortitude to do what’s best by the shareholders and the company, and to not be too hung up on applying the Corporate Governance guidelines to the letter.

Nick’s speech inspired me to think outside the walls of the organisation in which I work and think about the impact that even small decisions have on the customers and communities our organisations serve. If we can find the common ground between serving our customers and serving our communities, perhaps as future leaders we can all contribute to creating more impactful and sustainable solutions.

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Sassing up the Sums

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

Belinda - Blog PhotoI will be honest – I failed microeconomics in my first year of university and swiftly transferred from a Bachelor of Arts/Economics to straight Arts.  Even though I survived trust accounting as a lawyer, I was dreading Financial Management and from my MBA interview, flagged this subject would be a struggle.

Not all MBA students are from a financial background – yet finance is essential to business success. From day one, Professor Guy Ford assured the class that the course was not about rote learning mathematical formulas or tedious Excel calculations. While skeptical, I was captivated when learning that we would be assessing the performance and value of John Singleton’s communications firm STW. Marketing and communications, two of my many passions, made finance sound sassy and gave me a fresh mindset.

Guy has a wealth of finance and education experience, and a quirky teaching style, using humour and story-telling based on real life case studies to engage students. Using practical anecdotes and analogies (my favourite was determining if a marriage or partnership would result in increased personal value), Guy taught us that understanding financial statements is about having perspective. And of course, that ‘cash is king’ and ‘debt is the plug!’

Perspective in financial management means understanding the factors – including cash flow, assets, equity, liability and risk – driving a company’s performance. In an era of disruption (which resulted in the transformation of the marketing industry and the need for communications companies like STW to invest in digital) it is perilous to look only to previous figures to predict market trends. With the pace that markets and traditional business models are changing, real time data is fast becoming a firm’s number one asset, driving the need to integrate finance across business areas, particularly marketing.

The shrewd CEO may be able to outsource number crunching, but will not survive a failure to understand financial concepts and drivers or extract accurate information from the finance team. For MBA students, the aspiring leaders and CEOs of corporate Australia, finance is more than reading balance sheets and profit and loss statements. Prudent financial management is as much about leadership as balancing the books. The commercially astute leader garners reliable data and understands the impact on business to make informed decisions that drive company growth.

How does your organisation assess value and achieve financial growth?

Are there synergies between leadership and financial management in your organisation?

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UN Women NC Australia MBA Scholarship Breakfast

By Lisa Tarry, Careers & Corporate Relations Manager MBA Programs, Management Education, at the University of Sydney Business School

Lisa TarryRecently I took an unexpected journey into my childhood, thanks to Julie McKay, Executive Director of the Australian National Committee for UN Women.

If you can imagine for a moment, a room full of over thirty women who have been brought together as part of the UN Women National Committee Australia MBA Scholarship selection process for a common goal; to discuss raising public awareness of gender and development issues. In fact, the room was so charged with positive energy, it served as a catalyst inspiring a meet up to consider why “a lack of female pipeline for leadership” is still used as an excuse today!

Julie did a stellar job of facilitating the session and began by asking each person to share what their hopes, ambitions and dreams were at year 6.

There were so many interesting stories, with marine biology featuring as a hot favourite, and I found myself reflecting on my desire to be a writer at that age.

The encouragement one teacher had given to my creative writing skills had helped me to see the work through the eyes of another.  I was too young to register how profound that was, but it’s stayed with me to this day and I can now see how important that moment was.

I went on to muse about the fact I had not actually become a writer (as were others in the room about their respective dreams) and I wondered if money were no object, would things have been different?

I was brought back to the present, as Julie noted the emergence of the importance of role models and how so many of us had been positively influenced by different people through the experiences we were sharing. We went on to consider how to foster inclusive leadership and what the differences between inclusive and ordinary leadership looked like.

The strong message that shone through was the need to re-think merit and how our perceptions of meritocracy are failing Australian businesses, in that there are simply not more women in CEO roles.

We looked at the ‘blind audition’ that certainly puts discrimination on centre stage. Before blind auditions became common in the 1970s, women accounted for only about 10 per cent of new hires at major U.S. orchestras. Since the early 1980s, about half of new hires at the New York Philharmonic, 40 percent in San Francisco and more than a third in Boston and Chicago have been women.

Whilst the usefulness of having targets and quotas have been questioned, what they have achieved is to force companies to review their process for choosing board members, and consider a wider pool than those they had originally canvassed. It can be argued it is the only thing that has seen transformational change.

Considering that our current environment in Australia does not support quotas, we finished by looking at what we could do in our personal and work life that could progress gender and development issues.

A few gems resonated with me, but in particular, one woman said she would continue to re-write storylines for her daughter where possible.  She gave us an example.  One day she took her daughter to see the Nutcracker, a two act Russian ballet by Tchaikovsky featuring Dr. Stahlbaum and ‘his wife’.

She cleverly realised how this could shape her young daughter’s view of women, and quickly re-told the story; Dr. Stahlbuam and his wife who has a PhD in Dam Construction!

“Why Dam Construction?!” we all cried, and the simple answer was that her daughter has never forgotten it and it’s true, neither will we!

The truth in this story could not be more evidenced if we look only recently to the work of Rare Birds. A woman travelled around to schools in Australia in 2013.  She asked young girls what they thought an entrepreneur was, the majority of them had no idea. The very few that did answered, “a man”.  She went on to create a book of Australia’s 50 Influential Women Entrepreneurs.

On my way home that evening, inspired by the session, I decided to open up iTunes University and listen to my Creative Writing Masterclass. I chose to listen to Arthur Golden, the author of the bestselling novel, “Memoirs of a Geisha” (1997).  It was engaging and insightful, but at the end during the Q&A, the question I’d been pondering all day was serendipitously addressed:

Question: “Mark Twain said writing is the application of your backside to a chair and I’m wondering whether you did other things as a writer or whether it’s something that is all consuming?”

Arthur Golden: “I’ll be perfectly honest, I come from one of those families where I knew I was not going to starve, and I wasn’t going to have to earn money. It’s made the job of becoming a writer vastly easier because I didn’t have the distraction of having to go to the office every day, or having to worry about the pay check. I’m in awe of people who do both things at the same time, because for me, writing a novel was a complete immersion.

I had a family, a wife and children, and at the time they were little kids and that takes a lot of energy. That already seemed like a very full life to me. All that and a job seems very hard to me, but people do it, and it requires that much more diligence I think”.

Yes indeed, women do it, women do it every day, and women deserve the support to reach their full potential and give back to the world in a way that only women can.

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Overcoming Organisational Inertia through Project Management

By Bradley Rolfe, Unit Coordinator, Leading Project Management, The University of Sydney Business School MBA program

Bradley Rolfe Blog PhotoI have frequently had students and colleagues ask me what they think the relevance of project management will be as we continue through the 21st Century. They ask if an individual’s involvement in improved collaboration systems, increased matrix reporting, flatter management structures, and higher skilled teams, might all lead to an environment where the concept of an independent project management function to oversee their tasks will cease to be meaningful.

As a project manager for more than twenty years, I admit to being a little offended by the question! I have often responded with a flippant, “have they ever expected to stare at a pile of bricks and see it leap into a house?” The fundamental laws of the universe work in one direction. Things fall apart, they do not fall together, and it requires great and sustained effort on the part of many, many individuals to achieve success for the majority of projects initiated in the modern corporate sector (and it is unlikely that it has ever been any different). More importantly, it requires more than just a great effort, it requires that great effort to be goal-orientated (i.e. directed towards a common purpose).

In my calmer moments, when I have recovered from the offense, I do wonder about the ongoing relevance of my field. Will there be a function called project management one hundred years from now? Indeed, you would have been hard pressed to find a function called project management in any corporation one hundred years past. Projects as we understand them certainly happened, but there was not necessarily a discrete role called “project manager”. The chief engineer or chief architect on a civil engineering project, for example, would probably have had the responsibility for managing the overall project. It was simply seen as a part of their role. Likewise, I imagine, in many other areas. The notion of Project Management as a separate discipline has really only come about in the last fifty years, and it would be a fallacy to think that it will be a necessary occupation in the future.

Having said that, I can see sound reasons why project management as a discrete human practice, like engineering, law or medicine, will continue to thrive. Firstly, and fore-mostly, is the ever-increasing complexity of the modern organisation. Size is not really the driver here. There have always been very large organisations. Military organisations, for instance, have frequently numbered in the hundred of thousands, even in antiquity, and they were able to operate without the benefits of modern management systems. Instead, what they had was simplicity. They had a rigid, hierarchical and pyramidal command and control system in which every individual knew their place, what their function was, who they were responsible too, and who was responsible to them. To move an army in the field required the commander to provide an order to say, half a dozen individuals, who then provided orders to another half a dozen and so on down the chain. It is easier, in fact, to think of such an organisation as being a single person, the commander, and the rest of the army as an extension of their will.

A modern organisation could not be further from this (admittedly simplistic) model.  There may be a commander (such as a CEO), but they will not move their organisation in a new direction with a simple order to a few individuals. Changing the strategic direction of a modern organisation can be staggeringly complex. There can be hundreds and sometimes thousands of different kinds of specialisations within the organisation whose practices might need to adjust to support the change. Those practices are often built around very specific ways of doing things. Then there are the technological challenges; thousands of different applications, databases, operating systems and network devices strung together to provide the modern craving for information. To understand, let alone change, this dizzying web is fraught with challenges. Finally, there are the legal complexities of modernity (something our commander in antiquity would not have been at all familiar with!) There are privacy obligations, financial regulators, international laws, occupational health and safety requirements, and the list goes on.

What all of this adds up to is immense organisational inertia. So much effort is required to simply maintain day-to-day operations in the face of such complexity, that the idea of change can often seem ludicrous. It is a paradoxical situation. Managers strive for consistency in the delivery of their products and services, which in turns demands consistency throughout the organisation. They seek a standardised ways of doing things, reporting things, and managing things in order to maintain control. However, when competition forces the organisation to adjust, it is these standard ways of doing things that need to alter. This is the challenge to which Project Management is set: Guiding the organisation through change when the practices, technologies and legal frameworks that enable it are also constraining it. This mindset is not one with which the operational manager easily identifies (so busy are they trying not to let the house fall into a pile of bricks!) To my mind, it is the skill of working in the face of this complexity and paradox that will see Project Management survive as a unique discipline well into our current century. What those projects are, and the outcomes towards which they are directed, I am not prepared to guess!

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