… But Aren’t All Great Leaders Self-Aware?

By Douglas Foster – Current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program and ‘Leadership Practice and Development’ unit coach.

doug-no3-1-of-1One of my favourite cartoons was in a newspaper several years ago. It’s of a CEO standing around his team of managers declaring, “What we’re lacking is street smarts. Does anyone here not have an MBA?”

The irony is not lost on me that 6 years later I am a fully-fledged MBA student at the University of Sydney Business School. How my life has changed.

What is perhaps changing less is the perception of what an MBA delivers. Last week the AFR released an article with the results of a survey on prospective MBA students around the world and what they wanted out of an MBA. From a list of 17 desired skills, students identified Leadership, Critical Thinking, Entrepreneurialism, Negotiation, and Communication as the top five they wanted to develop. Self-Awareness was 17th.

At first it’s not hard to see why. Each one of the top five above would be considered fundamental to a range of jobs and careers that an MBA graduate might aspire to. And very few organisations would have Self-Awareness as part of a PD or as a KPI. Yet ranking Self-Awareness as 17 out of 17 desired skills seems to me to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of skills and how they are developed.

In Leadership Practice and Development (LP&D), the first unit of the University of Sydney MBA, we learnt that there are two fundamentally different parts to skill development. There’s cognition and then there’s interaction. Cognition is about theory and concepts: objective truth. It’s developed through knowledge transfer: lectures, books, videos. But the moment you transition from understanding (eg. analyzing solutions to a strategy problem) to interacting (eg. attempting to persuade others to your way of seeing the world), influencing is involved and having an acute understanding of your tendencies, strengths and areas for development becomes critical to achieving the outcome you want. Self-Awareness.

Leadership, Critical Thinking, Entrepreneurialism, Negotiation and Communication all have best practice cognitive elements that are important to know. But unless you’re locked away in a reaseach lab, isolated from other people, getting stuff done requires leveraging that knowledge in an interactive setting. This depends on your ability to influence, which is massively impacted by your individual personal style.

Self-Awareness can often be overlooked in the same way building core strength is not an obvious essential to building arm muscle and leg muscle strength. Without a strong core, stability during an exercise can be poor, and muscle development is inefficient or leads to injury due to poor technique. No professional gymnast begins by jumping on rings without building their core strength.

Leadership is much the same. Like the core, self-awareness combines with your conceptual understanding of leadership theory to develop your leadership effectiveness. Just focusing on knowledge would have your leadership effectiveness remain a concept. So just as all great gymnasts develop great core strength, all great leaders develop their self-awareness.

LP&D, facilitated by Professor Mike Jenner, leads with Self-Awareness. Incoming students are exposed to a raft of personality instruments (Myers Briggs, Gallup StrengthsFinder, Belbin Team Roles) even before they start class. What really sets LP&D apart though, is that for more than half of class time, students are in action, individually and in teams, engaging in influencing behaviours with each other.

Through the coaches in the unit, students get immediate personalised feedback, not just about the individual skills being coached, but also about how they are being in the interaction: body language, tone, assertiveness, expression. The course requires students to notice what they do, how they do it, and how it lands for others. For some students the opportunity to be a more influential leader is through increased assertiveness, for others through increased connectedness. Without Self-Awareness, you don’t have a map.

Even after LP&D, every course within the University of Sydney MBA contains some element of team work. The Financial Management unit will teach you everything from accounting principles to how to analyse the financial performance of a company but you’ll still complete a team project with classmates to test your ability to influence the financial outcome. Not even a CFO can implement a financial strategy without influencing the Managing Director, CEO and senior managers.

And because the University of Sydney MBA is part time, catering to full time professionals, everything learned at night or on the weekend can be immediately taken back into the workplace to engage in real life Action Learning.

If you’re thinking about an MBA, it’s important to know what you want to get out of it. Find the right university that caters to what you want and what you don’t want, and what educational approaches are going to help you develop your career. I chose the University of Sydney because I know that as all great gymnasts develop their core strength, all great leaders develop their self-awareness. And thanks in large part to LP&D, University of Sydney MBA graduates rarely ‘lack street smarts’.

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Speak your truth

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


Everyone’s story is unique, and your truth is different to mine. The UN Women National Committee Australia MBA Scholarship from the University of Sydney Business School will have a unique meaning for you.

I applied for this MBA because I knew it focussed on personal transformation, self-awareness and self-management, and was a qualification that would expand my horizons.

Almost two years on, the knowledge, opportunities and networks that the program has afforded me is creating the platform I always hoped for in order to achieve my goals: to work alongside organisations that mirror my values around diversity and inclusion, and have the means to impact change in corporate and social Australia, and beyond.

A year ago I found myself at a 10-day silent meditation course. People meditate for a number of reasons of course – how to be happier, or in more control of their life. Me? I was there because the Leadership Practice & Development subject encouraged me to look inwardly and reflect on who I was as a person, not just as a leader. I came to the realisation that somewhere along the way, I had become all things to all people and in turn lost myself.

I wanted the means to re-connect with the authentic me. Much like this MBA, I found myself signing up to something I knew was going to be incredibly challenging yet rewarding – and it delivered.

I now recognise the experiences that shaped me into a person who placed such high importance on “fitting in”, starting from my first experiences at school when my family moved here from India. I didn’t speak English and struggled to fit in. With my older sister’s help this eventually eased, but at the age of 5, my confidence levels had already plummeted.

Fast forward a quarter of a century, and the same kid who so desperately wanted to be under the radar, was being asked by the UN Women National Committee Australia to speak on their behalf at the national HeforShe launch campaign being held by Vodafone Australia. The opportunity was amazing and terrifying at the same time.

Half an hour of drawing attention to myself, speaking alone on stage about a topic I feel so passionately about – diversity and inclusion. Pressure was on! How to connect with a room of strangers and make them care about what I care about?

It was so simple, and yet challenging. I had to quiet the concerns of that inner child so focussed on fitting in, stand up and speak my truth, not worrying about how that truth would be perceived. The results were incredible – many of the attendees told me that sharing my personal and professional experiences helped them to transform my call to action into one that genuinely resonated with them on a personal level.

In May this year, through the University’s networks, I was given the opportunity to become a Global Ambassador for Rare Birds, an organisation aiming to create 1,000,000 more women entrepreneurs by 2020. These, and the many other opportunities I have been presented with through this MBA program, combined with my personal history, continue to shape who I am and what I stand for.

The question is, how will your history shape you? How could this MBA and scholarship shape your future?

If you are looking for an MBA that challenges you, pushes you out of your comfort zone, asks you to find your truth, and provides you with opportunities to speak it by working with the UN Women National Committee Australia and so many other incredible organisations, then apply now.

Only you can make your voice heard, and only you can make your truth count.

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My (surprising) MBA journey so far…

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

al_image_bwBeing awarded the UN Women Australia National Committee MBA Scholarship came as a surprise. Little did I know that this would be the first of many. My advice if you’re considering applying? Park any hesitations about your likelihood of success and have confidence in how valuable your contribution could be. To the same potential applicants, I would also say prepare yourself for some surprising experiences.

The excitement I felt when I started the program was something else that came as a surprise. To be involved in a program with an abundance of opportunities inside and outside the classroom, there’s a real buzz on campus. With this comes a genuine community around you, ready to support you throughout your journey – which I feel strongly is of great value.

You’ll be surprised at how perspective-shifting the studies can be, I really was.  Our cohort has just completed our first subject and we all agree that our eyes have already been opened towards our goals, strengths and values, much faster than we ever expected.

The biggest surprise?  The calibre of your fellow students.  You will meet industry game-changers working on projects and in roles you didn’t know existed. From CEOs to thought leaders – I may have even met Australia’s next female Prime Minister. They are insightful, impressive and fun people to work with and also learn from.

What should not surprise you? How much you will get out of studying at a university with a genuine commitment to gender diversity. You will also be in the company of women passionate about this too. They are fearless public speakers, poised negotiators, inspirational debaters – truly remarkable women.    I wanted to complete the University of Sydney MBA to round out my existing experiences with business insights: but more than that, I wanted to be able to channel the information and contacts I made toward the shared goal of female empowerment.  This is exactly what the UN Women NC Australia MBA Scholarship offers.  With support from the UN Women you will get the chance to craft ideas about how to promote gender equality and play a role in the important work that UN Women NC Australia does.

What are you waiting for? I look forward to seeing you on the program!

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6 reasons why you might consider completing an MBA

guy-ford-photo_webBy Professor Guy Ford, Director of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program. 

There comes a point in many professional’s careers where a certain threshold has been reached and further career progression becomes difficult. It is at this point that people often start to contemplate whether or not a MBA is for them.

Career enhancement

Generally the most common motivation for undertaking an MBA is career enhancement. We interview candidates who have typically become subject matter experts in their field and who are accomplished at what they do, but they desire to contribute more widely to the organisation – they want to lead teams, be involved in strategy formulation, put together robust business cases, build organisational capability and penetrate new markets to name a few. They feel that an MBA will help to build the knowledge and skills to be able to rise further through the organisation.

Career change 

Another group of candidates are looking at an MBA as a vehicle for career change. They typically have an undergraduate degree in the sciences, social sciences, humanities or engineering, and would like to change their career path, discover more opportunities and potentially increase their salary.

Business establishment

Some candidates have built their own small businesses and feel they need a broader set of skills to be able to scale these businesses. Some are looking to build global capability. They have become tied down working ‘in the business’, rather than ‘on the business’. They are looking for fresh ideas and insights from other successful entrepreneurs. For this group, an MBA provides an opportunity to meet and work with a diverse cohort of people with a wide range of skills and experiences.

Develop leadership and influencing skills

Graduates of MBA programs tend to have developed sound business knowledge, but many programs fail to seriously address the development of the personal and interpersonal skills needed to effectively manage, lead and influence people. Our MBA program addresses these substantial gaps by placing an emphasis on skills development through our innovate, team-based, coaching-intensive program. We aim to build the personal resilience of our candidates so they can confront any difficult situation that may arise in their personal or professional lives.

Multiple diverse perspectives

Our program restricts each intake to 48 so we can select a cohort of students with highly diverse skills and talents. This is important as students learn to deal with real world problems containing considerable ambiguity. Diversity allows students to see problems from multiple perspectives, make sense of complex situations faster and see patterns emerge. We interview all potential candidates to ensure they have the mindset and capability to thrive in a world of endless change.

Experiential learning to find creative solutions to difficult problems

Building on the benefits of the student’s multiple diverse perspectives, our classes have been reconfigured to take the focus away from instruction in favour of facilitation. We want our students to interact and learn from each other, and our program creates a safe learning environment in which to test new ideas and try new things. Our students feel they are engaged in their learning because they are learning by doing.

Find out more about the University of Sydney Business School MBA at an upcoming Information Session. Register at mba.sydney.edu.au

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Innovating with a Customer-Centric Focus

leo-bartch-cohort-7By Leo Bartsch, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

In a time when new crazy ideas seem to explode each week, thinking about the customer seems to be taking a back seat behind the shiny lights of disruptive innovation. Is customer-centric design worth looking into in a business? Or is it outmoded by big data and better algorithms?

At the most recent BOSS Emerging Leaders event, Innovating with a Customer-Centric Focus, these questions and more were answered. Hosted by Professor Guy Ford, Director of the MBA Progam, the speakers were Chris Severn of The Customer Experience Company, Erietta Sapounakis of Telstra, and Monique Rappell of the Australian Broadcasting Company. I spend a lot of time analysing my customer’s experiences, so I was really excited coming into the event to see how specialists from big corporates with the resources of Telstra and the ABC, as well as an expert with a more holistic view think about their customers.

So what is customer-centric innovation?
Chris believes the heart and soul of successful innovation is the customer, and that the heart and soul of the customer hasn’t changed for thousands of years. The experience is what truly matters to the customer. For Monique, another essential ingredient is empathy, finding a way to bridge the gap and truly understand the customer’s journey in their shoes.  Erietta tied both concepts together with empowerment, giving your people the right tools, processes and autonomy to give the customer the experience they are looking for.

What are the benefits of designing this way?
The speakers had many examples of huge improvements after switching to a more customer centric approach – not only in customer satisfaction, but in revenue!

Chris shared a story at a bank, where the service team was trained in how their products could help customers, and suddenly sales skyrocketed through the service centre! Changing a culture where sales had become a dirty word was difficult, but once the bridge was crossed, revenues increased.

Small business owners were clients of Monique’s bank, and had problems understanding the products on offer because the bank had made them too granular. Customers had a massive range of products to choose from, but didn’t have the time or knowledge to know which products were relevant for them. The bank tried to consolidate their offering, but struggled to improve things for their customers. In the end, the solution came from their own team, where a banker had built his own system to support his customers. They took the solution, found ways to scale it up, and saw a 400% increase in profits in 6 months.

What barriers are there to change?
Many companies are risk averse, and the bigger they are, the harder it is to effect change. There can be a cultural disregard for customer centric thinking, even in our language about the customer. For instance, the insurance industry often refers to the customer as “risks in force” – a term which doesn’t promote empathy for the customer.

Monique was involved in fixing a banking verification system, which came about because the CFO of the bank couldn’t get past the verification process in order to solve his account becoming suspended. Only once the customer’s struggle was highlighted at the highest level, was there enough drive to push for a solution. They looked at their process, and rebuilt it with empathy for what the customer was trying to do, and then worked from there towards an effective solution.

How do we make the change?
Use applied empathy to understand the customer’s journey. Get close to customers and reflect on their problem. Make the customer heard, even if it’s in a room with the CEO. Take decision makers on an experience safari.

Changing a risk averse culture
In Monique’s experience, large transformations don’t work in a risk averse environment. Breaking it up into smaller chunks of small wins allows you to consistently and frequently demonstrate success, which is important because risk averse decision makers need evidence in order to proceed with change. To succeed, decision makers also have to be able to accept that solutions can come from customers.

Erietta stressed the absolute necessity that there is a base of evidence. If the audience is resistant to the evidence you give them, find a different medium. For example, if they don’t easily assimilate customer feedback, use a review of a competitor’s related product or service.

Chris’s advice was to avoid attempting fail fast methods in a risk averse environment. Rather aim to learn quickly, by doing things like paper prototyping to rapidly iterate through ideas.

Is data the answer?
All three speakers felt strongly that while data could provide some insights or hint at problems, it can’t impart true understanding. The need for true empathy with customers means understanding them on a personal level, and not just numbers on a screen.

Final thoughts
What’s clear from this discussion is the immense benefit to the bottom line when successfully designing from the customer’s perspective. From established banks suddenly seeing 400% increases in profit in a division, to customer satisfaction swings of 60% in a call centre, to service teams suddenly turning from a cost centre to a profit centre. Chris shared this quote by Walt Disney which I think truly sums up a customer centric focus: “do what you do so well they people come back and bring their friends.”

If you reflect on your organisation’s interaction with your customers, do you think they’ll come back with their friends?

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The future of work – why inclusivity and emotional intelligence will become more not less important for leaders of tomorrow

150226_SydneyUni_SH03_11200By Natalie Cope, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program and 2014 BOSS Emerging Leaders MBA Scholarship Recipient

We stand today at the beginning of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. The unprecedented advance in technology is disrupting our world as we know it and will continue to fundamentally shift and change the way we live, work, engage, relate and connect with one another.

Through rose coloured glasses, this revolution will not only change the face and nature of work by freeing people from the shackles of “jobs”, allowing the pursuit of more rewarding vocations – it also stands to improve the quality of life of populations around the world.

At the same time we are experiencing momentous socio-economic, geopolitical and demographic change that is resulting in more and more diverse, mobile and globalised societies. Look around you and for the first time in history you will find yourself working alongside four different generations. You, your boss, your direct report, your colleagues, your clients and your friends, were probably born in a different country (or born to parents who were), will ascribe to a different faith, will have varying ethnic backgrounds, and will potentially migrate in the future.

The advantages of harnessing diversity have been well documented. When the right enablers are in place, we know that diversity improves decision-making and problem-solving and can lead to enhanced commercial and financial performance in business, not to mention the potential and significant social and community gains.

While we stand to benefit from these technological and demographic shifts, challenges emerge for leaders in these times. The integration and increase of technology in our lives is leading to a reduction in fundamental important human capacities including compassion and the preparedness for cooperation. This is a concern noting it really is empathy and our emotional intelligence that enables us to appreciate different perspectives and to understand the people around us, including our teams, and thus how to help them reach optimal capacity and productivity.

To take advantage of our digital and global world and workforce, leaders of tomorrow will need to revert to human basics and focus on developing empathetic understanding and emotional intelligence and develop the art of being inclusive. In the current context, this will need to be developed alongside cultural competence and capability.

I do reject the notion that the impetus and need to focus on the development of empathy and emotional intelligence is a matter reserved for “leaders”. As individuals and global citizens, residing in a complex web of networks, we all have our own sphere of influence. We are therefore all leaders in our own right. Our greatness in this role will however depend on commitment to building these capabilities.

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Influence and Innovation: Insights for Disruption from Within

Belinda - Blog PhotoBy Belinda Coniglio, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

On 20 July 2016, I attended the AFR BOSS Emerging Leaders Masterclass held at the University of Sydney Business School CBD Campus.

What most attracted me to the event was the title – Disruption from Within. The corporate world is one where innovation can be slow to adopt and where “out of the box thinking” is only embraced as a last resort, long after conception of the idea (which is normally dismissed as ludicrous at the outset) and when the masses are finally on board.

A stellar panel, chaired by the University of Sydney’s Professor and Deputy CEO of the John Grill Centre for Project Leadership, Suresh Cuganesan and included presentations from Kevin McCann (former Chairman, Macquarie Group); Anita Oh (Principal, Boston Consulting Group) and Rob Sharp (Chief Executive Officer, Tiger Australia) who each shared how disruption within their company or industry changed the way that they did business.

For Macquarie this was how digitalising the banking experience allowed them to offer lower home loan interest rates and as a result, helped their business to acquire new customers. The CEO of Tiger spoke about how online retailing changed the nature of the airline industry (many probably do not recall the days before pre-paid meals, seats and entertainment online). And for BCG, it is how workplace design can be a transformative internal force.

Disruption has been the buzz word in business for the past few years.  From the panel discussion, there were clear synergies (applicable across each industry) that suggest it is really customer led design that drives disruption and innovation. The first is that disruption in not simply implementing innovation within your industry: it is looking to what has been done in other industries and applying it to solve company and customer pain points. Second, disruption requires thought (or ideas) leadership and the capacity to drive or influence industry change (also driving an increased demand for change management consultants).

With disruption on the mind of all in the room, I took the opportunity to socialise our own innovative product, developed as part of the University of Sydney’s capstone project for U-Bank: after all, consumer insights are the catalyst.  (Stay tuned to the AFR for an update on the Capstone)

Are you a disruptor? Share your ideas below!

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