Begin with the end in mind, Stephen Covey famously wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. When I began the accelerated development programme at London Business School recently, I did not imagine that reaching the end would require tightrope walking, group production of a music video and riding a metaphorical elephant.
I signed up for the programme for various reasons. I was a studious child who went on to study business and economics in Rome, but I never applied for an MBA. After graduation I set out on my path in finance and business, progressed steadily and never really took a break. So at the stage of my life and career when I went to LBS, the prospect of returning to the classroom for a four-week senior management course was appealing.
In my experience, most participants on the accelerated development programme belong to one of two categories: those seeking to identify their next career move and those who know where they are heading but want a “leadership roadmap”. I belonged to the second group.
There had also been a significant change in my job in the previous year. My former boss and mentor had returned to Australia and I had assumed his role, joining the executive leadership team. My employer, Hastings Funds Management, was experiencing strong global growth and there was no local coach with whom to navigate these changes.
My excitement was mixed with apprehension. Would the programme help me develop and add value to Hastings? Could I juggle classes and run the business away from the office? Last but not least, by the course’s conclusion I would be eight and a half months pregnant – and you cannot manage certain timelines.
The course comprised two two-week modules. I was quick to dismiss the notion that attending both with the same group of people was important, only to find out later that this would be key.
The experience began terrifyingly with a circle of introductions and first impressions and our first team task. I would have never imagined a balloon, an egg, a plastic cup and some sticks could teach you leadership and teamwork.
The first week was a baptism of fire. Together with leadership classes, we had coached sessions, with 360-degree feedback and a personality test shared with our core group. Having your weaknesses drip-fed to you over five days and discussing them with strangers promised to be as much fun as a trip to the dentist. To my surprise, it was one of the most enriching experiences I have had.
What gives meaning to your life is not only what you do but who you do it with. The five exceptional strangers in my group had no agenda, were experiencing similar business issues and provided great support. I have gained life-long friendships and a network with which I can discuss professional issues.
It is early days, but the programme taught me many useful lessons to help me succeed professionally. It has also provided technical models I can go back to when faced with a range of business issues. Organisationally, I have learnt a great deal about leading change. In business as well as in life, there is no shortcut to sustainable change. Like improving your tennis backhand, it requires self-discipline and practice. However, this is not enough and, as a leader, I have to inspire and motivate through a sense of purpose.
At a personal level, I can no longer use my character as an excuse not to improve behaviour (examples for me were listening more and work-life balance). The programme not only taught me how to address weaknesses but also that playing to my strengths is essential.
The experience has allowed me to step back from work and see the bigger picture. For instance, as an investment professional I had always seen marketing as focused on form over substance. Now, I know it is about getting the whole organisation closer to the customer. For the first time I am getting involved in this area.
My child arrived early, a few days after the end of the programme, and my LBS friends were among the first people I contacted. While I am not sure if work-life balance has improved since, at least now my son is joining my regular LBS conference calls.
Routes from Rome
Valeria Rosati grew up in Italy and studied business and economics at LUISS Guido Carli university in Rome. She has lived in London for 15 years and is executive director, infrastructure, at Hastings Funds Management. She is also a director of South East Water group and previously worked for Gleacher Shacklock, the corporate finance boutique, and investment banks Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers.