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British-born Antony Szafranek studied business and information technology at the University of Leicester before taking a job at Marconi, the UK-based telecoms group and part of the former GEC conglomerate, at the height of the dotcom boom. He stayed on after the bubble burst, and the company was refinanced and later sold to Ericsson, the Swedish telecoms company.
In 2006 he joined Rolls-Royce, the engine maker, and the 34-year-old now works in its marine business in Singapore as vice-president of business development and strategy. He has recently completed a 16-month global executive MBA programme at the UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) Anderson School of Management and the National University of Singapore (NUS).
Why did you choose this course?
NUS was a natural choice as the leading university in Singapore, which is currently my home, and UCLA Anderson is a world-class business school. I was attracted to the combined UCLA-NUS because of the global outlook (a case of east really meeting west).
What did you hope to achieve?
I wanted to gain insight from other industries that I could apply in my day-to-day work and fresh and challenging perspectives on business. We gained access to world-class teachers (Richard Rumelt, a leading strategist, teaches at UCLA Anderson). The guest speakers such as Ronald Sugar, former chairman and chief executive of Northrop Grumman, the defence company, and members of the executive team at Apple, the technology company, were a great bonus, allowing us to understand how they became so successful in their careers – something we might not have had the opportunity to do at work.
The course offers a global perspective – there are six segments, four of them in different countries (Singapore, Los Angeles, Shanghai and Bangalore). The visits to companies in these locations give you a sense of what it means to operate in divergent business cultures.
Was making contacts a factor?
Certainly. The tasks helped to forge unity with our classmates. All segments were tough, but the component in Los Angeles proved to be the most mentally and physically demanding – we did close to 200 hours worth of classroom and homework in two weeks. This shared experience proved to be very bonding.
Did you worry about taking time off work?
My company was supportive. Nonetheless, I kept in touch with the office and my team, through email and the occasional call when I was away studying. The week prior to my study leave could be extremely busy, balancing the reading and pre-module assignments with working to ensure the business was prepared for my absence.
Was disruption to family life a concern?
My wife was amazingly supportive. I always tried to allocate fairly time for study and spending time with friends and family. There were, however, times when this was not always possible. The geographical diversity and emphasis on group work of my classmates meant we often needed to take conference calls early in the morning or late in the evening. You certainly learnt to make the most of any free time you had.
Were you concerned about colleagues being resentful?
Once people knew I was doing my MBA, they asked for my advice about undertaking a similar programme.
Did you gain anything unexpected from the course?
I gained a greater cultural awareness and appreciation of the need for a mix of skills and personalities in a team. The global nature of the programme – it attracts participants from many countries, including the US, Columbia, Chile, Russia, Japan, Denmark, the UK, India, China, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand – heightened my understanding of how and why certain cultures behave.
Also, the students’ diverse backgrounds and professions – from industries such as banking, electronics, healthcare, marine, information technology, defence, wholesale foods, telecommunications, entertainment, consulting, retail and real estate, hotel management and even a musical director – enabled me to think beyond my industry experience and understand how cross-industry best practice could be translated into my day-to-day business.
Any tips for others contemplating such a course?
I would advise them to talk to their partners, friends and employer. Make them aware of your ambitions, how the course will help you and the commitment requirements, and hopefully this will go a long way to gaining their support.