• How the MBA Changed my Life

    James Dunbar SMALL
    SMF James Dunbar is an Analyst, Refining; Logistics Technology on the Future Leaders Programme at BP.

    Has an MBA has changed my life? Back in 2006, I was in a Middle Eastern desert with the Royal Air Force, reviewing whether we had enough PGMs for combat operations. Here I am in 2012, looking at the capital portfolio for BP, reviewing whether we have enough PGMs for business operations.

    In 6 years, I’ve gone from worrying about Precision-Guided Munitions, to Project General Managers. Anyone who has ever changed companies or industries will talk about wrestling with a new business dialect. But it’s not just the language that I needed to make this change; it’s the knowledge to lead at both a tactical and strategic level. That’s what the MBA gave me.

    Commissioning into the Royal Air Force in 2002 was my first career-changing leap. The military encourages officers to accept leadership responsibility very early in their career and I thrived in these circumstances, building on engineer training to successfully deploy military aircraft to trouble spots around the world and manage projects across the Tornado fleet. Leading 110 technicians on operations, mentoring junior officers and managing discipline challenges are experiences that will stay with me forever – and not easily explained to some of my more sheltered colleagues! My RAF service also helped me complete my chartership and a second undergraduate degree (in engineering management). After a hugely enjoyable six years, I felt that my future career in the RAF would re-tread familiar roles and I wanted a new challenge.

    A stint as a project manager for Bombardier Transportation helped me quickly realise how much I didn’t know about applying my experience to the commercial sector! I needed to re-orientate my leadership skills to managing in the business context – much as I had developed military knowledge for a successful career with the RAF. An MBA seemed to provide the transition I was looking for.

    After a lengthy application process, I was lucky enough to get a place on the full-time MBA at London Business School (LBS). This world-leading institution reflected environments I really enjoy: highly collaborative, very academically challenging and employing a global view. Deciding to undertake an MBA is a big decision – it’s a massive investment. Winning the funding of a Sainsbury Management Fellowship (SMF), awarded through the Royal Academy of Engineering, was the decisive factor in making this second career-changing leap. I think an MBA should give you three real advantages: technical skills, commercial leadership skills, and a powerful peer network. That’s exactly what I got from LBS, taking courses as diverse as advanced corporate finance, strategy, business communication, acquisition management, negotiating; bargaining, risk analysis, and accounting.

    The scholarship not only enabled me to go to business school, but also gave me access to an invaluable network of nearly 300 SMF professionals with a vast range of experience and knowledge. This network led me to several academic studies during my MBA, my first consulting contracts after graduation and continues to be a source of professional advice – as well as a great advertisement for the benefits of engineers as industry leaders.

    After the MBA, I wanted to work in a global engineering-related business that actually produced something tangible, where I could use the skills to make a strategic difference, but still benefit from my experience of managing in a safety-critical environment. Whilst at LBS, I was lucky enough to attend the CBI conference, where I heard CEO Bob Dudley talk about the turnaround of BP. I had not seriously considered the energy industry before, but the values he described directly matched what I was looking for. Fortunately, the company was looking to start its Future Leaders Programme, to develop a more diverse leadership talent pool in the downstream business. They recruit externally for individuals with post-graduate qualifications, relevant professional experience, international exposure and, most importantly, leadership potential. The structured development plan also helps in getting up to speed on the breadth of different global business areas BP work in.

    So here I am, working on BP’s strategic plan. I miss the camaraderie of the military, but professionally I haven’t looked back. Challenging, continual professional development has always been important to me, and without the MBA I certainly wouldn’t be enjoying the career I am now.


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