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How to manage difficult conversations

Florentina-Daniela Gheorghe, Skoll Scholar 2018-19, has spent the last year in Oxford studying her MBA. To end the year, she reflects on her own personal learnings and passes them onto you to take forward on your own journey.

I love to ask questions to deepen my understanding. I believe asking great questions is an awesome skill to have. This year, however, I discovered that I am an activist: I raise my voice in matters that contradict my values. And it happened a few times. I also had the wrong impression that many people think like me and I assumed that my MBA colleagues and I think alike. Instead, I learned there are endless perspectives that I need to acknowledge and that the ‘18-19 MBA cohort at Oxford Saïd are not as vocal as I expected.

Here are some stats: this year we were 315 people from 62 countries, average age 28, with 24% of us coming from finance, 17% coming from consulting and the rest 59% coming from 16+ other fields, with an average of 5 years of experience. Wouldn’t you expect these young people to make their voices heard?

In some sections, many were silent during lectures and didn’t ask clarifying questions. Some possible reasons: they didn’t want to disturb the lecturer’s flow, or they thought that their question might be “stupid” and might not bring value to the rest. Culture, personality and English proficiency also play a role. And then there were people who might have been experts in their field.

I experienced many times the impostor syndrome. However, it didn’t stop me from asking brief questions in class: it shows the lecturer where I am in my learning, it helps me clarify my thoughts and other people can benefit too. Even more, given my years of groundwork, I could potentially bring a new perspective on interpreting industry practices and academic research. I kept my computer open many times in class to make sure I get a gist of a concept like debt/equity ratio and use it correctly in my question, but that didn’t stop me from taking my understanding to the next level with a question. The worst thing that could happen was to leave the classroom without understanding the foundation of what was taught.

Question the default – Courage to ask Why

In a world in which “business as usual” – with profit as the single end goal – doesn’t seem to make sense anymore, we need courageous leadership who dares to question the default practices. I actively decided to practice this courage. Don’t be afraid to ask in impact investing class why we assume that tools of traditional finance can be transferred as they are into impact investing. Don’t be afraid to ask in economics and finance, why the perpetual growth assumption is not questioned.

Speak your mind

How many of us question the things we hear from lecturers and speakers? Being at Oxford, we had access to amazing speakers: in class, at the Oxford Union or at events around the campus. Amazingly reputed people come to Oxford, and that’s a great privilege. But Oxford also teaches you to speak your mind, not to get intimidated by the reputation of the speaker. We might have valuable insights. Politely acknowledge someone’s effort to share their story in front of a class of students and then speak up. Just remember to speak with humility!

Always remind people that every management decision affects people

It’s not about the merger post acquisition, it’s about two teams of dedicated people learning how to work together. Thinking about people can help you better understand the expected and unexpected consequences.

Speak with your heart but wrap your position in data: every time

I learned this the hard way. My friend, an editor with The Economic Times, showed me how to keep my emotions under control and use data instead to make the point. It does require a bit more (home) work. I tend to let myself taken away by emotions. When I hear something that contradicts my core believes, such as anti-refugee statements or opinions about “the poor’s ignorance”, my blood pressure goes up. Some perspectives out there really clash with my genuine belief that humanity is equality distributed in every one of us.

Be assertive  

When things go rough, remember to be assertive. One of the best take-aways I have from my year is the Even Fish Need Confidence (EFNC) framework that I learned during peer-support training: explanation, feelings, needs, consequences. Use this framework to communicate openly to someone who might use words that trigger negative emotional reactions in you: explain what happened (facts), express your feelings about what happened (vulnerably), state what you need (to make this relationship work), state the positive (and negative) consequences if your needs are (not) met. Communicating with this framework builds respect between people and reduces the risk that someone gets hurt. Difficult conversations are healthy and important. Constructive conflict, if orchestrated, can help everyone learn how to be a team player. It’s not an easy task to orchestrate conflict but it might be worth it. We are all on a discovery journey to become a better version of ourselves. Enjoy yours!

Daniela Gheorghe, 2018-19 Skoll Scholar.

How to manage business remotely

Whilst doing your Oxford MBA!

You run a growing social business and things are going well. But you soon realise that with a little extra business knowledge and global connections, your business could be so much more impactful.

So, you decide to take some time to study your MBA.

But what happens to the business? You think, ‘surely there will be plenty of time to run my business remotely, it’s the 21st Century for goodness sake, it’ll be like I’m practically in the office with all this technology at my fingertips’!

Well, sadly, most of the time this is where our Oxford MBAs can quickly get overwhelmed. In their hopes to do both, get an Oxford degree and run a successful business from 5,000 miles away, only one will prevail in the end.

So, what can we learn from those who have come before?

Mohsin Mustafa, Oxford MBA, Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Scholar, and Skoll Scholar 2018-19, offers some handy advice for any prospective MBA looking to keep their business ticking over whilst they take a year out to study. 

Some background…

I run a healthcare business in Pakistan. We have pediatrics Clinics and we run those clinics in partnership with schools where we provide preventative care services. My enterprise Clinic5 is three years old and we have a team of 15 people. One of the biggest concerns I had when I was leaving for the Oxford MBA was what would happen to the business in my absence. So, I would like to share with you my experience and what worked. For advice on this aspect I would really like to credit Sidhya Senani, MBA 2017-18 who faced a similar dilemma as I did whose advice was crucial in helping me plan my transition this past year.

What to DO:

Have a lead in place

Having one person to contact while you’re away makes it much easier for you to administratively manage affairs in your enterprise. Also having one second in command makes it easier for your other stakeholders (suppliers, clients, rest of the team) to know whom to contact in case they want an issue to be solved.

Pilot not going to the office for at least 2 weeks

This pilot helps everyone in the team see how things happen in your absence. If you’re the cofounder, its quite possible that you were always available, both in person and with your time, now that you would be gone for a year, the gap would be felt so it’s always better to first give a feeler to the team and troubleshoot the issues that come up. Trust me this will come!

Set aside dedicated time for a weekly video call.

This is very important. Face time with the team every week makes them see you still care about the work. It’s quite likely that the ownership you feel towards the business is much higher than anyone else. Feed the team with that energy every week. Additionally, during these calls, keep negative feedback to a minimum. Primarily serve as the motivational speaker or the cushion for their stressors. Let them speak. At your end reiterate the achievements during the year and how much longer the team must go before you join them and what’s waiting in store for the team after you join. Sharing the vision goes a long way.

You will get a few calls from your primary point of contact every now and then. Prioritize that call. Important for your primary point of contact (your lead) to feel that you have their back.

Also, if other team members call, try and route them through your primary lead. If there’s a call, document it immediately through an email so that everyone in the team is aware of what was discussed. This practice reduces the chance of misunderstandings. This year will be a real challenge of your business leadership skills.

Set aside cash flows so that your business operation does not suffer.

It’s possible you might get cancelled clients, it’s possible that your business development plans for this year do not work out. The cushioning of cash flows for your business should be greater than what you keep. You need not share the exact level of cushioning with your team. It’s more as a safety net for rainy days.

What NOT to do:

Don’t intervene in operational matters.

Let the team on the ground deal with them and TRUST their decision even if you think you would’ve done things differently let it be. Unless and until you think a certain decision is an existential threat, resist the temptation to intervene. This is essential to empowering your team.

Don’t get involved in office politics back home.

Some will happen inevitably. When that happens try not to take sides

Don’t give negative feedback over a group phone.

Call if you must do it, do It one on one

Don’t plan to scale your work this year.

It exerts immense pressure on the team

A year later, I could safely say, things went by quite smoothly for Clinic5. I would give this credit to my brilliant team: Dr. Taha Sabri, Dr. Selina Hasan, Muhammad Irfan and Syed Kareem. Additionally, my father kept an oversight on financial matters which took a lot of stress off me, so thank you Abbu!

This time away might have been a blessing in disguise since people took up more leadership responsibilities within my organization and now when I go back, I can really focus on scaling.

If you’re taking part in the Oxford MBA this coming year, brace yourself for an intense and exciting year.

Best,

Mohsin Mustafa, 2018-19 Skoll Scholar.