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Going outward: The best learnings from business school take place in the unknown

Songqiao Yao_Head Shot

Back in the first term of the MBA, treatment I wrote a blog on tending to our inner self. With all the possibilities and opportunities at business school, it is easy to get lost in an ocean of activities and forget why we are here in the first place. Now looking back from the middle of the final summer term, what a year it has been! Interestingly, the most memorable moments and major learnings took place when I was so immersed in an activity or with a community that I almost forgot about myself. In addition, when I took a plunge into the unknown and let go of the need for certainty, new doors and ideas opened up.

Many of us come to business school with a preconceived notion of what we would like to do.  We could have had a business idea, wanted to break into a certain industry or plan to work on a blueprint or roadmap for an emerging market. However, I have learned that the ability to let go of the prescribed plan brings better opportunities. We often think if we would try a little harder, work a little longer and talk to a few more people, we would be on the right track, but sometimes they could be the wrong things to pursue in the first place. If it is a new product or new business, it is often about industry trends, market behaviour, and the company’s complementary assets. Being able to have the acumen to sense and read the external environment takes years of experiences to accumulate. Understanding the ecosystem and gaining knowledge from existing players actually, becomes a crucial shortcut to save time and investment.

What about the plan and what we wanted since the beginning of the year? Accepting that we live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world means that we need to be adaptive to change and ready to change plans. Often it is more important to fully understand a problem than to be fixed on a solution. Our Entrepreneurship Project started out to build a tomato processing factory in Sierra Leone, but after months of learning from other factory’s experiences and similar examples in Nigeria and Ghana, we realise that it takes more than a factory to solve the problems we want to solve. To reduce food waste and strengthen food security, building a modern logistics system and improve the small-holder farmers’ cooperatives will do more for the farmers than merely a processing factory.

The Skoll Centre recognises the “solution trap” that entrepreneurs often fall into and offers the “apprenticing with a problem” grant that allows MBAs to be fully immersed in a problem larger than themselves and have the humility to learn from others before coming up with a solution. This will help our EP project grow and be better embedded within the local ecosystem. There are so many players already in the field addressing similar problems, it’s best to be complementary and collaborative and learn from the precious existing local knowledge.

Business is all about people and relationships with different stakeholders. Going beyond oneself means to make genuine connections, being able to listen, understand and empathise from a deeper perspective. One of my favorite classes this year is Leadership Perspectives from Humanities. In the last class, the professor discussed notions of leadership from moral philosophers such as Max Weber, Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber. Contrasting from Weber’s notion that leadership is all about the individual leader’s ability to bring a group of people to achieve certain goals; Arendt believes that it is the people that enable the leader to manifest a collective desire for change. Buber further elaborated and explained that it is building the “I-you” relationships rather than “I-it” relationships that make us great leaders. “I-you” moments mean caring for the other people, deep listening and making a lasting connection rather than the transactional nature of an “I-it” relationship. Opportunities to make “I-you” connections at business school are abundant, but one needs to actively go beyond the self and the autopilot mode of performing daily routines that our mind puts us in. To get a lot of things crossed off our to-do list, we need to keep going ahead without paying too much attention to the others.

The best part of the MBA experience, as all my classmates would agree, is the people. We cannot take it for granted that the MBA is one of the rare experiences in our lives that we get to learn from 340 classmates from different countries and backgrounds, from former military commanders from Australia; social entrepreneurs from South Africa; to technology gurus from France and finance experts from Japan. The numerous small group projects exposed us to different ways of thinking and working across industries and cultures. One of the best memories of my MBA year is participating in the Impact Investing Competition with four other classmates from Kazakhstan, Switzerland, US and Canada. I believe the reason that we were able to out-compete all the other European schools is because of the diversity of both expertise and nationalities on our team.

At the beginning of the year, I mentioned a childhood goal of visiting the Antarctic to my other Skoll Scholar friends. I never thought it would become a reality, and now I am working with other organisations on climate change education, expedition and women’s leadership, some projects that I never dreamt to be able to work on. Taking that initial plunge, going beyond myself into the unknown enabled new possibilities to present themselves.

Have I totally contradicted myself? Not at all. I actually think going inward and setting the right intentions enables the right external opportunities to take place. Plunging into the unknown with mindfulness will make the adventure much more fun and full of learning!