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Kristina Koch is an MBA student at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management and a former competitive ice hockey athlete for the Austrian Women’s National Hockey Team, where she competed in two world championships in 2004 and 2005, winning gold in 2004.
Originally from Austria, Ms Koch has studied sports management in Finland and worked for the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), a worldwide governing body for the sport. After working at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Ms Koch left the IIHF to volunteer for three months in six different African countries, which she blogged about.
Ms Koch will shortly be joining the Financial Times MBA blog to share her experience of business school.
1. How do competitive sports compare to studying for an MBA?
There are many parallels between playing competitive sports and getting your MBA. First and foremost, discipline is one of the key attributes of any successful athlete. The ability to set a goal and work towards it, uncompromising and with full focus, these are skills that are equally useful and applicable in a rigorous MBA programme like Rotman that requires you to work hard over sustained periods of time.
Furthermore, sport is a great preparation to the competitiveness you encounter in an MBA. It gives you the drive to deliver in a fast-paced environment and the ability to deal with pressure and perform when it matters.
Most importantly though, hockey taught me how to work in a team and achieve results together as a group. There is no way you can win a hockey game on your own; equally, there are times in the MBA when you need the help of others. On the other hand, through sports you become dependable because your teammates need to be able to rely on you. This is crucial in an MBA and a high degree of reliability makes you a valuable member of any MBA study team; and of course, later in your professional life.
Last, being an athlete makes you realise that you cannot be great at everything: some score goals, some excel at preventing them. I see this a valuable lesson to learn before an MBA as you will understand how to leverage your strengths within the programme and accept that you simply cannot excel in every single class.
2. Why did you choose to apply to business school?
On a personal level, I simply craved a chance to learn. It is an incredible luxury to just learn, develop my skills and explore my interests. I also liked the challenge: I don’t have a strong quantitative background and I wanted to see how well I would do.
On a professional level, having previously worked at a non-profit sports organisation, I had an increasing interest in the business side of sports which is a hugely growing industry that needs people who understand both sport and business. For these reasons, I felt this was a great time to do my MBA.
3. Why did you choose Rotman?
When I was doing my research, Rotman really stood out for one big reason: diversity, be it in terms of gender, ethnicity, experience or nationality. While diversity is a big buzz word in business education today, Rotman seemed to genuinely appreciate non-traditional backgrounds. Half of the students are from abroad and my classmates come from all kinds of industries: opera singers, professional football players, Olympic medallists. I strongly believe this makes the ins and outs of classroom learning so much richer.
4. How would you describe the gender dynamics in your cohort?
About one-third of the students at our school are female and it is common for there to be only one woman in your study team for the term. However, it is a great opportunity for self-development and I have learnt how to voice myself if I want my opinion heard. Rotman is committed to empowering students and has an active Women in Management club (WIMA), as well as the Women in Business Initiative, which has programmes tailored for each stage of a woman’s career.
5. What are you finding the most difficult?
The first half of the programme is very intense, leaving little time for activities outside of school. Being new to Toronto, I wanted to explore the city and its many neighbourhoods, however it was hard to combine that with the coursework. This was a downside but looking back it was offset by the skills I learnt and close friendships I formed with my classmates.
6. Who is your ideal professor?
I admire Sheryl Sandberg who I first noticed through the famous TED talk she gave in 2010. I would love to hear about her experience working in the White House, at Google, Facebook, McKinsey and all the other reputable organisations she’s affiliated with. She has been able to consistently make a name for herself in environments that traditionally have not attracted many females, particularly not in high-profile positions, and she appears to be a likeable person who sincerely cares about the people she works with.
7. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?
One year I had a summer job as a research assistant at a university in Austria. The professor I worked for had written many books on business and was also teaching at Harvard. She advised me to always aim high. So high in fact that you have to really stretch and challenge yourself. Sometimes you may not even be able to reach all the goals you have set for yourself yet you will go much further than had you just aimed low.
8. What is your favourite business book?
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis was a great read. It describes how the low-budget Oakland Athletics built a winning baseball team through the use of statistics and data analysis and demonstrated how great the pay-offs can be if you are willing to innovate and go against conventions in sports, or business for that matter. In an industry that is as deeply rooted in tradition like baseball, it takes guts to take a bold step and try something new. If you want to be better than everybody else, you simply have to do things differently than the rest of the pack.
This quote from the book describes it well: “Managers tend to pick a strategy that is the least likely to fail, rather than to pick a strategy that is most efficient. The pain of looking bad is worse than the gain of making the best move.”
9. Which websites / apps would you recommend for businesswomen?
A recent great find was the website Makers: Women Who Make America, which features outstanding female leaders sharing their stories in short videos. It is addictive and inspirational. I am also a big fan of TED, I have worked for TEDx organising committees in the past and caught the bug. Their online talks are an entertaining way of learning new things and a great way of tapping into the ideas of fascinating minds.
10. What are your top tips for networking?
Most recently I have been attending Toronto’s Lean In circle which I think is a fantastic way to connect with other female professionals. I also attend events of the Canadian Women in Sport (CWS) network and I go to Toastmasters. Volunteering for a cause you care about is a great way to give back but also to build your network. And naturally, joining a sports team (in Canada that means a hockey team!) is always a great way to meet like-minded people.