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When I received the invitation to write this piece, I was heading home from completing an elective module in South Africa and in the process of leaving my job. That moment forms a perfect snapshot of what the London Business School EMBA programme has done for me: it has taken me abroad (three countries in six months); given me a chance to study subjects of my choice in unusual contexts (a communications audit at a winery outside Cape Town); and helped me find a new impetus to leave my job, with a level of confidence I simply did not have 12 months ago.
I secured my place months before the programme began. Waiting to start was tough, but the first year flew by. Classes were fortnightly – two days with six sessions over four subjects, plus study groups and other events. There were continuous deadlines for exams, assignments and group work in term time, and for many of us the Easter and summer breaks were taken up with international assignments, which meant preparatory and follow-up work. The schedule is not for the faint-hearted.
There is a palpable difference now that we are in our second-year electives. Subjects are entirely of our choosing, and courses might be scheduled weekly, fortnightly or in intensive blocks – a term’s learning condensed into five days. Unlike the first year, when we took core classes as a single group, we mix with students from other programmes in our electives. Gone is the comfort of your 79 classmates, with familiar idiosyncrasies and attitudes, so the reliance on them in a purely social context grows.
The intensive nature of the first year helps the class bond quickly, which is important as we do not see each other in such a structured way in the second year. On a recent visit to the campus, it took an age to get from the station to the library as I bumped into so many classmates and stopped to catch up and gossip about our various courses and professors. The social element is a huge part of the learning. It is not networking per se, but building relationships that will undoubtedly form the foundation for future networking.
While my desires for professional development and further education were key factors in starting the programme, my main motivation was to broaden my horizons. It is one of those clichéd phrases that can be hard to explain to others who do not share the same desire. I suppose you could call it curiosity, or ambition, but suffice to say the exposure to new ideas has been phenomenal, and exactly what I was looking for.
Another often-used phrase in schools’ marketing material is “international diversity”. The London Business School is, rightly, proud of its diversity, which was a big draw for me: the statistics tell you that there are 31 different countries represented in my class of 79 students. But it is only when you sit down to lunch with your Russian, Romanian and Colombian friends that you realise what that really means. The cultures and attitudes, the experiences and perspectives are so varied that you are constantly learning – and for those of us who are native English speakers, we must constantly remind ourselves to talk more slowly.
The international theme does not stop there. In recent months I have been to Argentina, New York and South Africa for courses in strategy, entrepreneurship and organisational behaviour. Two of these were practical courses, and one was an exchange during which I attended lectures at Columbia Business School in New York instead of LBS.
All were excellent, but the highlight was the communications audit at a winery near Cape Town where, in the space of a few days, a group of five of us interviewed staff, assessed the existing communications programme and materials, and made suggestions for the next steps, which the chief executive endorsed.
These assignments are carefully structured to ensure that we neither act as, nor are expected to act as, consultants – hence the focus on auditing – but it is still a unique opportunity to combine the work experiences of everyone in the group with the learning and teamwork skills cultivated during our core classes.
And what about the clichés and myths that attend these courses? The EMBA programme is not full of arrogant, Type A men. Women are not treated differently (apart from the opportunity to apply for certain scholarships: a little positive discrimination to help achieve something close to gender balance). And you do not have to give up your whole life to the programme. Yes, it is demanding, especially for those who commute, with families as well as busy jobs. But you learn to prioritise and, most importantly, you learn to speed-read.
I am not unusual in my decision to leave work. A good handful from my class have done the same recently, some with and some without jobs to go to. The interesting thing is how few of us began the programme intending to take that sort of step – or at least not until graduation. I can honestly say that my journey is now underway, and I am looking with great anticipation down the road ahead.