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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West meets East

By Nancy Nguyen, UN Women NC Australia MBA Scholarship recipient and current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

2014_06_06-3 MBA Nancy Anita Omar (0486) 100%I’ve had many firsts, but I didn’t expect to be the first UN Women NC Australia MBA scholarship recipient at the prestigious University of Sydney Business School in 2014.  What this meant for me residing in Perth was a commitment to a gruelling travel schedule. By accepting the scholarship, I had also signed up to become the first MBA fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) student.

For many, when you mention the word FIFO, most picture miners in their fluoro queuing up for the plane in the early hours of the morning. So what does a FIFO MBA student look like, and is it worthwhile when so many other Universities offer MBA modules online these days?

Aside from the fluoros and hard hats, FIFO studying is also hard yakka – juggling a demanding full time work load, fitting in the 10hr roundtrip commute between Perth and Sydney, and completing demanding MBA assessments, pushes both my psychological and physical boundaries.

However, I haven’t looked back! Since being offered the once in a lifetime chance to undertake an immersive MBA program, I have been able to be creative about my future aspirations, whilst exploring and optimising my leadership skills with a hugely diverse and impressive set of future leaders.

Growing up and working in the resource bias community in Perth, it’s easy to find yourself in some level of group think. Being in Sydney has allowed me to problem solve and appreciate vastly different perspectives – a real West meets East experience.

The MBA program has helped equip me to fight for what I am most passionate about, increasing diversity, particularly gender in senior executive positions. Despite being in the millennium, I continue to find that only a handful of women make it to top tier executive positions, and the gender pay gap of 18% continues to widen. The UN Women NC Australia and University of Sydney Business School MBA have given me hugely valuable networks and skills to help amplify my voice, critical to catalysing change in the male dominated resource industry in which I work.

It is without a doubt that completing the MBA will enhance my Board readiness, where I endeavour to make first hand changes to future organisations and societies as a thought leader. I hope many more women who feel the same about the lack of women in leadership will come on this journey with me!

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The priority skill for success

By Kate Bennett, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

Kate BennettOver the past few months I have been completing three separate courses of study, in three very distinct fields: leadership practice and development through the University of Sydney MBA program, kinesiology through the College of Complementary Medicine, and practical training with Lifeline to become a telephone crisis supporter.

Had I been asked several months ago about the priority skill shared by business, complementary medicine and crisis support I would have struggled to provide a response. In fact, I probably would have said something abstract (and completely off the mark!) like relationship management, effective communications or problem solving.

Never in my life would I have thought that the priority skill to succeed in all three fields would be something a lot closer to home: raw, unashamedly honest, objective and (most importantly) compassionate self-awareness.

To be honest, I’m not sure I really even understood the true meaning of self-awareness. I knew when I was angry, when I was sad, when I was being nice, when I was being rude… Surely that was being self-aware, right?

Not entirely. I would call this L-Plate, high level, superficial self-awareness. This is the kind of awareness that comes from observing your actions and emotions in a situation and recognising when you’re behaving in a way that either is or isn’t agreeable or socially acceptable (subjectively determined by your own beliefs and perceptions).

P-Plate self-awareness, on the other hand, involves heightened awareness of the behaviours you’re exhibiting at any given time, as well as an understanding of the impact that these behaviours are having on those around you, and (here’s the clincher) a willingness and desire to change.

Progressing to P-Plates requires a great deal of external data collection, enquiry and analysis – i.e. requesting feedback from others about your behaviour in order to gain a clear picture of how you actually present to the outside world. By building an understanding of the discrepancies between what you think you are doing and what you are actually doing, you can greatly enhance the effectiveness of your interactions with others.

The single most important skill difference between L and P-Plate self-awareness is the ability to graciously receive feedback and embrace it as an opportunity to develop and improve. If you view feedback as a criticism, or a personal attack on your ego that needs to be defended at all costs, then I’m afraid you will be confined to the restricted L-Plate speeds for quite some time!

Let’s say you do get these skills under your belt. Let’s say you are aware of how you’re behaving, you’re acutely aware of the how this behaviour impacts those around you, and you’re receptive to changing your behaviour in response to this feedback… surely that’s good enough, right? What more is there?

The full licence takes things to a whole new level – it begs the question why. Why are you adopting these behaviours? How do they serve you? What are they protecting you from?
The behaviours we adopt, and our response to external stimuli, are the result of a series of engrained beliefs we have carefully constructed since birth. We adopt behaviours to feel (or avoid feeling) a certain way, and so all our behaviours serve a particular purpose. The extent to which we’re consciously aware of this purpose, and whether or not that purpose is in our best interests, however, is not always certain.

It is very rare to have the opportunity to reflect on our own behaviours. In fact, often a sheer lack of self-awareness keeps us from even identifying the behaviours we’re exhibiting, let alone querying why we’re adopting them.

Fortunately, in addition to the analysis of professional behaviours through the leadership practice and development course, and the study of personal behavioural tendencies through kinesiology, my attempt to progress to a full licence has been facilitated by our Mental Clarity for Charity campaign as part of the Mindful in May challenge. This has required at least 10 minutes of meditation each day, and has given me a rare opportunity to reconnect with my inner self and reflect objectively on my outer-self behaviours. It’s amazing how much you can learn about yourself as soon as you switch off your mind!

I have developed a rather in-depth process of self-enquiry over the past few months, and have seen a definite progression in my level of self-awareness as a result. The questions I ask myself are:

1. How are you feeling?
2. How are you behaving?
3. What impact is this behaviour having on yourself?
4. What impact is this behaviour having on others?
5. Why are you behaving this way?
6. How are these behaviours serving you?

These last two questions are very VERY difficult to answer. Often I can spend days/weeks/months trying to get an honest response. However, when I do find one (generally when I turn off my mind and tune into my inner self) the value and transformation it unlocks is considerable. It’s amazing what we are subconsciously protecting ourselves from without even realising it, and how this “protection” can actually be limiting our ability to achieve what we truly want.

While it may be quite some time until I progress to a full licence in self-awareness, I have noticed the quality of my engagement with others has been much greater with even a conscious P-Plate effort. In fact, by being more aware of myself, I have become far more conscious of the enormous impact my behaviour can have on the lives of others. And this is where we draw the true benefits of self-awareness: when we are honest with ourselves, aware of how our behaviour is impacting others, receptive to change, conscious of how our behaviour is subconsciously serving us (be it positively or negatively), and courageous in pursuing a new type of behaviour, we are able to not only be the best versions of ourselves, but also to make the best possible contribution to those around us. Now that is true success.

And so, I have adopted one final question in my process of self-enquiry.

7. How can I transform these behaviours to ensure I am making the best possible contribution to the world around me?

Why? Because self-awareness (despite appearances) isn’t about self. It’s about being the most authentic and effective being you can be within your environment, about releasing self-created barriers to engagement so you can enhance the quality of your interaction and connection with those around you. At the highest expression of self-awareness, you are so attuned to yourself and your behaviours, and authentic in your dealings with others, that the focus moves from yourself and the confines of your ego and belief systems, to the greater good and the maximum contribution you can make to the world around you.

And that’s what makes self-awareness the priority skill for success, no matter what your profession.

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