Expect the Unexpected! Doing an MBA (part 2)

Of course the MBA journey is different for everybody.

And, of course, the key learnings are different for everybody.

On Saturday 21st April, at Henley’s MBA Open Day, I was part of the alumni panel. I was surprised how many of my fellow alumni mentioned that some of their key learnings were similar to my own.

The MBA is not just about tangible learnings such as setting up a successful strategy, programming processes, winding your way through workflow diagrams or – heaven forbid – fathoming finance!

The MBA is also about intangible learnings such as your own personal development. And that’s not a bad thing – your personal development acts like an umbrella for all of the tangible modules.

So, just like with the English weather: be prepared for the unexpected and bring your umbrella!

Some major eye-opening moments, and thus key learnings, during my MBA journey relate to the so-called “blind spots”. Trust me, seeing the blind spots has nothing to do with going to Specsavers…

Key learnings or the ‘aha’ effect

Key learning #1: Becoming unconsciously competent

I enjoyed learning that there was a difference in my own knowing that I had a skill, using that skill consciously, and ultimately using that skill like second nature (unconsciously). This is also called the hierarchy of competences.

During the MBA journey, not all of my ‘expert area’ assignments felt as easy to me as I had expected (e.g. International Business). Modules where I had no previous hands-on experience, however, produced not only the best marker feedback but were extremely fulfilling (e.g. Reputation & Responsibility / Relationship Marketing).

Therefore, I realised that I had – in some areas – mastered the level of unconscious competence, while in others I was still at the bottom of the competence ladder – the unconscious incompetent level. Room for improvement – a good thing!

Key learning #2: Listening vs talking

In our first workshop, we were asked to talk to other people. I took this too literally and did the talking, not the listening. Some of us (myself included), feel that if “you don’t tell first, someone else will” (cf. Edgar Schein, Humble Inquiry). Therefore, I jumped into telling mode, overenthusiastic and helpful, yet totally missing the point the other person might want to make, just like how a good Formula One racer wants to get that pole position (Ferrari fans, anyone?)

Which brings me to …

Key learning #3: Providing help vs making others dependent

The biggest eye opener was actually a comment from a fellow cohort member: “Weeeeeell, it’s great that you help others but ask yourself this: are you really helping them or are you actually making them become dependent on you?”

I had not expected to talk about unfathomable depths at all (and no, I’m not talking about finance here!).

Don’t worry – your MBA journey will not be a couch session with Sigmund Freud. There will still be enough spreadsheets, diagrams, TED talks, statistics, frameworks and models, assignments, exams and the big dissertation at the end.

However, you may – like me – come away with a clearer view of yourself and a new-found relationship with yourself and your skills and how you use them.

In my particular case, the following proverb sounds like the exact visualisation of my key learning #3, the helping:

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

Sooooo –  this obviously suggests that I help someone better if I teach them how to [insert chosen skill here] instead of giving them a [insert finished product here].

That is, alas, not very sustainable if you are a self-employed consultant like I am.

If I taught all my clients to “fish”, then they won’t need me in the future, right?

And that’s where I will save a report on how I took all of my above learnings to make the jump from theory to practice in the next and final part of this blog…

For now, I suggest you pack your brollies!


What you know vs. Who you know vs. Why do you do this at all – is it really a “versus” or is it a holy trinity?

why how whom

Finally, my MBA dissertation topic stands.

It is about the challenges for freelancers in an increasingly competitive environment and the choices for them to select the right mix of ingredients for a sustainable career – in terms of knowing why, how and whom.

Do skills matter, do freelancers need to develop their knowledge – corporations have entire departments focussing on learning & development….

Is it better to be a generalist or an expert/specialist? Are freelancers expected to be jacks-of-all-trades, being their own CEO, CFO, CTO, CMO and CSO (and in a way their own HR Manager – schizophrenia not required, I’m talking about learning and development  here i.e. the what you know)?

Or is it really about who you know – someone that acts as your “door-opener”, word-of-mouth-free-of-charge-marketer? Is it the quantity or the quality of your network – and how about the strength of weak ties (Granovetter)?

This is what I am trying to find out with my qualitative research for my dissertation – based on the wonderful framework called the “intelligent career framework” (DeFillippi et al, further discussed by Parker et al and finally taken towards the freelancers’ world by Dutch academics van den Born and van Witteloostuijn)

I am going to look at these “drivers of freelance career success”, in other words, the knowing why (your personal capital – your identity, personality and values, the reasons why you do things, your motivation), knowing how (your human capital – your skills, experience, competencies, knowledge) and of course your knowing whom (your social or relational capital – network, relationships, reputation, alliances).

The trick will be not to be subjective. I mustn’t turn this into an either / or scenario but tickle out views from my interviewees that may even suggest that there’s a little more than the three knowings mentioned above.

Or, as someone at a networking event at the IOD said yesterday: It’s not what you know it’s whether you know how to use it. And it’s also where to use it and when. From a future perspective, as strategies only make sense looking forward, not backwards, there’s also the topic of not running out of motivation or steam – as my previous post said: the loneliness of a long-distance runner…. freelancers also suffer from loneliness, underlying values such as belonging might be something you miss when you’re a sole trader. As a consequence, I believe the why is really important – your personality, and your personal development – your emotional resilience especially.

As I embark on my research, I must, above all, remain objective and unbiased when interviewing the research participants. But all will be well in the end. And if it’s not well, it’s not the end yet, as we know from the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Just like my learning journey hasn’t come to an end either. It has only just begun.



Sprint vs long-distance or: can you see the real me?

Following from the loneliness of the long-distance runner posts and a conversation I had with a friend who runs marathons, I find another parallel in these two universes (sport  & work).

At marathons, people sometimes actually talk with each other on their long journey.

At 100 metre sprints, people definitely do not talk with each other.

In my opinion, this mirrors the African proverb “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”. (thanks to Richard Branson’s http://www.virgin.com/richard-branson/my-top-10-quotes-on-togetherness)

How would this translate into working for an organisation as a team or working as a freelancer/sole trader? What is better for personal development? Time to yourself to reflect or time with others to use them as a mirror to look at yourself in? Such would be the suggestion by Michael Ende in his book “The Neverending Story” where heroes looked into a magic mirror which showed them their “real me”. Many of them apparently expected to see a heroic perfect specimen of a man but the mirror showed them an absolute gruesome monster and they ran away.

So, my conclusion is that life should be made up of solo sprints and treks together in order to succeed with whatever goal you may have, whether it is to have professional success or to find out who you really are.

Can you see the real me



The four stages of competence

  1. Unconscious incompetence – the individual does not understand/know how to do something and does not necessarily identify this as a gap in their knowledge or skillset. Before trying to resolve this, the individual should accept that it is an incompetence that needs to be remedied.
  2. Conscious incompetence – although the individual may not understand/know how to do something, they have recognised that there is a gap in their skillset. It will require strength and patience, plus motivation to start the process by making mistakes when carrying out tasks as this will lead to the necessary learning process to remedy the incompetence.
  3. Conscious competence – the individual understands/knows how to do something, but cannot exercise the task without major effort or focus. In other words, they still follow guidelines or “manuals” in order to execute this skill.
  4. Unconscious competence – due to the fact that the individual had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and they can perform it “standing on their head”, it is a new skill that they are so confident with they can even pass it on to others.

So – during all those years of being an executive, running departments or businesses, creating new things or firefighting issues that had been lumped in my lap, I now realise that I have often applied techniques sub– or unconsciously and actually got the desired result.

I even applied models and frameworks that I had never been taught, albeit knew their names, only to find out now, during my studies, that they exist, some famous people usually lent their names to them and that they are apparently part of “the good leader’s/manager’s armoury”….

The trick is now to find out my blind spots – carefully weighing up self-perception versus third-party perception. Which skills do I think need improving and which skills do others reckon I need to improve?

The cross-section should be interesting….

The Journey


By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is bitterest. (Confucius, 5th century BCE).

On 24th February 2015, I decided rather spontaneously to embark on a part-time MBA at Henley Business School.

I strongly believe that I will come out at the other end with a better understanding of the gaps in my professional skillset. However, I am even more convinced that this is the beginning of a personal development journey more than anything. It is strangely scary and empowering. And surely there are others out there, who would be prepared to share their experiences from similar adventures? I very much look forward to hearing from you.


And what would be more fitting than an excerpt from the Talking Heads’ “Once in a lifetime”:

And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?…Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself
My God!…What have I done?!