A voyage, not a destination

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Last autumn, friends and family of students from around the world converged on Iese's campus in Barcelona to share a day of ceremony and celebration. The class that graduated that day was a smaller group than the one that began the global executive MBA in May 2003, one-quarter of the class having deferred the programme during the intervening months. Those remaining relished the opportunity, on graduation day to share their experiences, their sense of camaraderie and accomplishment.

We were jubilant and relieved but, most of all, we were thankful to those who supported us in our absences over the past 18 months and had waited for our return. We all knew that without such support far fewer of us would have graduated.

Graduation itself was a ceremonial affair, complete with the familiar procession and speeches,as at most US universities. The ceremony was particularly entertaining for those in our global class hailing from countries where universities do not hold such ceremonies.

Four months have gone by since that day in Barcelona and only now do I feel that some "normality" has returned to my life. The length of the adjustment has made me realise just how profoundly everything - from my social life to how I plan my work-related affairs - had been affected by the requirements of the programme.

Persistent habits were established - posting to newsgroups discussions during the day and regular chats with my team after dinner. Even now, lest I succumb to television, I find myself in front of the laptop in the evening (to practice my Spanish). Between Christmas and the new year, I even took my laptop with me on my motorcycle tour along the western coast of South Africa(my first vacation in two years).

While I have found some study habits surprisingly difficult to break, I have found it equally difficult to revitalise friendships. Of the many friends around the world to whom I have sent year-end greetings, only a few have thus far managed a reply. I expect my inability to see them over the past few years is partly to blame.

Now I am back in Johannesburg, refreshed, and it is my goal in this final journal to reflect upon my experience from a different perspective than before. But where do I start? I have decided that the best approach would be to respond to some of the recent questions that my friends and colleagues have asked me about the Gemba.

What has changed in your life? This is probably the most common question and also the most difficult to answer. How does one measure the impact of an altered awareness and perspective?The only unsolicited feedback that I have received from close colleagues is in the form of subtle praise regarding my leadership style.While this may be very subjective, I do feel that my approach and capacity for addressing challenges both internal and external to the organisation have changed in a fundamental way. Would you do it again or recommend it to others? With hindsight, I would not recommend entering such a programme while taking on new professional responsibilities (I had come to South Africa as chief executive officer of Solvay Pharmaceuticals only three months before the programme started). The personal sacrifices were too great and I should probably have deferred the programme for a year, as several other students did.

I recommend the programme primarily to mid-career professionals with an international outlook who seek and are open to personal growth or transformation in order better to fulfil their leadership responsibilities. Those who seek an MBA qualification with the primary or sole objective of improving their career prospects or remuneration could certainly find better, more focused and less taxing paths towards that goal.

Has the Gemba had any influence on your career path? No - neither was I expecting any immediate influence. But since I am no longer based at company headquarters, I am encouraged by the fact that my initiative and successful participation in the programme has helped to ensure that I have not been "forgotten" in South Africa. The programme has also reaffirmed my decision to enter general management in mid-career and I remain confident that this is a worthwhile investment in terms of my career with Solvay.

Any regrets? Yes- over the past two years, I have had to make compromises and set priorities. My obligations to Solvay and the Gemba were often at personal expense. Surrendering holidays, for example, meant being unable to visit family and friends. I also regretted not having a "student life" alongside the student workload. Full-time MBAs are very fortunate in being able to make full use of their campus "home" and Barcelona is a wonderful city with a very high quality of life.

What were the best and worst aspects? The best aspect of the Gemba at Iese is the teaching, not only the quality of the faculty, but also their approach. Subjects are taught from a pragmatic CEO perspective and take the human element into consideration. While this might be expected in the personnel management or ethics courses, it was equally prevalent throughout the programme. As a non-financial person, this approach gave me the most valuable new insights into management accounting and finance. The hands-on company visits and guest lectures, especially in Silicon Valley, were also a real highlight.

My low point was in the second module, brought on by a combination of heavy workload and a particularly difficult period in South Africa. I was also somewhat disappointed by the China module in that it primarily focused on the experiences of western companies in China (rather than how Chinese companies do business). A bad case of food poisoning may also have biased my views about this module.

What is your relationship to the programme to now that it has ended? Owing to the intimate size of our class and the investment that Iese continues to make in the Gemba, I anticipate many projects and opportunities for interaction. Our class continues to keep in touch through internet newsgroups sponsored by the Iese Alumni Association. Several projects are planned, including an alumni venture capital fund and a continuing education module in India.

Did the programme meet your expectations? I did not come to the programme with any specific expectations. From the onset, I have regarded the Gemba more as a voyage than a destination. As such, I expected to discover the unfamiliar, to be challenged and hopefully make a few friends along the way. I knew the route would be challenging and I wanted it to be a personal, global journey that would be fun.My wishes were fulfilled.

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