Margaret Cording: "Be resilient. No one gets ahead by never taking risks or making mistakes."

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Margaret Cording is professor of strategy at IMD business school in Switzerland. She is also regional director of the school’s Singapore hub, and responsible for growing IMD’s executive education business in Southeast Asia and Oceania. Her research focuses on effective strategy execution.

Prof Cording has a PhD in strategy from the University of Virginia and an executive MBA from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. A native of Los Angeles, she previously held several senior management positions at Chase Manhattan Bank (now JPMorgan Chase). She has also taught at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University in Houston.

1. Who are your business influences?

Donald Layton, who is now the chief executive of mortgage finance company Freddie Mac, inspired me on a daily basis when I worked at Chase Manhattan. He was vice-chairman there and encouraged me to constantly reach for excellence. He taught me how to make decisions based on data rather than intuition and how to build a business. He also reminded me that in the business world, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but if you make a bit of progress every day then before you know it you will have something fantastic.

2. What is an average day at work like?

It’s coffee first and then I read the Financial Times before going to IMD. As regional director, I deal with a wide range of issues on a daily basis – new executive education business development, programme design and delivery, building a new IMD Southeast Asia Executive Education Centre in Singapore, recruiting faculty and staff and working on my research. I also travel extensively in Southeast Asia to work with executives and develop new business for IMD. My colleagues in Lausanne start work around 3pm Singapore time, so my days often go on until 10 or 11 at night because I work so closely with them. I normally fit in some time for exercise and for 30 minutes of my favourite TV shows before going to bed.

3. What would you do if you were dean for the day?

Many business schools around the world are currently pursuing a plethora of initiatives to try to deal with all the changes in business education. I believe the dean’s responsibility – like that of any chief executive – is to set the school’s strategic priorities and secure the resources to fund them. As dean, I would first focus on which initiatives to cut rather than which to add. The future of business schools depends on successful execution today and focus is a critical factor in that.

4. What academic achievement are you most proud of?

Getting a paper published in 2014, in the Academy of Management Perspectives. It took me 10 years to get that paper accepted for publication by a leading journal. The paper is about the role of organisational integrity in the post-merger integration process. One of my co-authors is a world-renowned strategy researcher and he told me that all papers that seek to shift an existing theoretical paradigm take a decade or more to get published. We felt the message of this paper was very important so we did not give up despite repeated rejections. I was proud of that.

5. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

The powerful role of humility in business success - I first learned this when I worked as head of foreign exchange sales with Chase Manhattan. As a result of a series of mergers, we were the market leader in the global FX business. Our mantra was, “arrogance is our number one enemy”. Every day, we strived to be better than the day before. We needed to be humble to achieve this because it meant coming face-to-face with our weaknesses. We celebrated our strengths of course, but we got continually better by being open and honest about our weaknesses. This, I think, is the definition of humility: seeing things as they really are, warts and all.

6. What advice would you give to women graduating this year from business school?

I really can’t improve upon Sheryl Sandberg’s advice: sit at the table. Bring your energy, passion and commitment to your organisation each and every day. Be resilient. No one gets ahead by never taking risks or making mistakes. Get up after each defeat and sit at the table again. A business career is one of the most challenging – and rewarding – careers one can pursue. Treat it as a privilege.

7. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?

I try to be attentive to the different communication patterns used by men and women. This helps me to focus on the clarity of my communications and intentions and raises my awareness of how those are being perceived. It helps to develop relationships that extend beyond the business agenda – to get to know the person. An executive coach once said to me: “There is a difference between effective and efficient communication. You need to invest more into each relationship.” I also try not to take things personally because it is rare for the other person’s intent to be personal.

8. What is your favourite business book?

Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman. His core message is that you should take time to really think. It is so important but easily forgotten. One of his recommendations is to turn your email inbox off for two hours. I have used that tip and it really improved the quality of my attention to what I am doing. It is not necessarily the quantity of thinking that counts, but the quality.

9. What are your top tips for networking?

I’m a member of several academic networks, including the Academy of Management, the Strategic Management Society and the Women’s Energy Network. My tips would be:

1) always be responsive to other people’s requests for help and connections;

2) be real and personable, and;

3) approach networks by thinking about what you can contribute rather than what you can get out of them.

10. What is your plan B?

I would like to study social anthropology, in particular how to build and lead a healthy community of people. I would be interested in looking at the behaviour of groups rather than individuals - Asia would be a fascinating region in which to study.

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