All posts by Althea Taylor-Salmon

Should I choose a new career path or return to my employer after my MBA?

The answer to this question very much depends on your MBA starting point.  If you are studying an Executive MBA and it is part of your firm’s career plan for you, then naturally you will be aiming to stay with your employer on graduation, especially if they are financing or sponsoring part of your MBA.  However, professionals who do full-time MBAs have to think about whether to seek a new role or return to their employer after graduation. Often this decision is made at the start of their MBA journey, not the end, although occasionally the answer changes.

Studying for an MBA unquestionably widens a graduate’s business knowledge and worldview which opens new career opportunities.  Typically, MBAs are taken by professionals who have already been working for several years, with many opting to study at a top international business school.  The prestige associated with an institution’s brand adds considerable value to the graduates’ credibility, giving them an additional asset when they are looking for a new position.

Once a full-time MBA course is completed, some graduates may return to their former employer with the new skills they have learnt but it is more likely that graduates will seek very different work experiences.  For most, a change in career direction was the driving force behind studying for an MBA in the first place.  Even if that was not the case,  the MBA is such a transformative experience that graduates come out fundamentally different people and this brings about a shift in thinking about their future career.

After the MBA experience, graduates tend to have different hopes, aspirations and, perhaps most importantly, different expectations about the next part of their lives and careers.  It could be that their previous jobs are no longer compatible with these expectations and that could be as simple as where they work in the world.  Many people study overseas, and a new environment opens their eyes to different opportunities.  Or it could be that the familiarity with their former job or industry sector no longer holds the same fascination as it did before their MBA.

MBAs change the way you think
Why is there such a dramatic change in career aspirations?  One reason is that MBAs expose students to many areas of business in an intensive and immersive way that challenges and stretches their perspectives and thinking.  It gives them tools to go out and explore a diverse range of subjects and to tackle any business challenge.  This, plus the glow of the prestigious international business school brand, creates amazing prospects and earning potential for the graduates.

Another way of looking at it is that the MBA experience rewires students’ brains, giving them improved capabilities such as thinking far more critically than before, quickly structuring and analysing information, filtering out what is important from the irrelevant. These new capabilities enable graduates to read, assess and plan rapidly so they can find innovative solutions to big problems.

Returning to a former employer is of course a valid choice. However, you need to first consider whether the job you want is available at your former employer – can you achieve the leap forward that you desire?  Second, will your former employer have a full appreciation of just how much you have changed and be able to meet your current aspirations and expectations?  A former manager may not understand the way you think and your needs today unless of course, they have undergone a similar MBA experience.

The ‘market’ drives MBAs into new roles
Business schools offer extensive career development and recruitment services, and all this is at the feet of the graduates.  There are so many new and exciting avenues for them to consider and this is stiff competition compared with their previous employer.  Their old sectors and jobs may no longer have the same allure.

There is a strong, efficient market for MBA talent, so going back to the company you left goes against the market mechanism. For example, major international firms engage proactively with business schools to ensure they attract the talent they need for their businesses to keep growing.  The market is a ‘matching mechanism’ between MBA individuals with certain traits and skills and employers that need them.

After a one to two-year transformative MBA experience, not using the market mechanism to find the very best opportunity would be a great shame, especially as you may never get the chance again.  Tapping into the huge, liquid job market to secure a role that you find truly fulfilling and exciting is a very important step.  Of course, it could be that your last employer can offer that, and if so, returning to your old firm is an obvious choice.

Our own experience shows that most MBA graduates move to pastures new.   Based on the experiences of 375 Sainsbury Management Fellows, who have all received a generous scholarship to help finance their MBA, the vast majority of them have chosen very different career paths after they graduated – most have pivoted into different types of job roles, industry sectors and even entrepreneurship.

Returning to a former employer post-MBA is certainly an option if the organisation can offer a position that makes the most of the graduate’s new skills and experience and something worth examining closely before you embark on your MBA.  Alternatively, and this is happening on a large scale, freshly qualified MBA graduates from the top schools use their newly acquired skills to widen their horizons by choosing challenging new careers where they can make a difference within their organisations and in wider society.

About the author: SMF David Falzani MBE is President of Engineers in Business Fellowship and a Professor of Practice in Sustainable Wealth Creation at Nottingham University.

How Being Open-minded and Taking a Leap of Faith Helped Engineer Kofoworola Agbaje Become a Successful Venture Capitalist

 

A broken Walkman and advice from a younger brother may seem unusual career influencers but they both combined to set Engineer, Kofoworola Agbaje on an inspirational career path via seven years in banking to her current role as an Investment Associate at Quona Capital which, so far, has seen her successfully close venture investment deals in six countries. Quite a feat for someone who has, in her own words, experienced ‘imposter syndrome’ at points in her life.  A key turning point came in 2017 when Kofoworola was awarded a Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship for her MBA study at Wharton Business School where she would build her business skills further.  Kofoworola’s story told by her, highlights the importance of not being afraid to step out of your comfort zone and, above all, being open to advice and guidance from others.

Choosing Engineering
Becoming an engineer wasn’t my first career plan. I had a hankering to be a doctor, but unfortunately for me, I hated the sight of blood, and it transpired that biology wasn’t my strongest subject. Clear signs that a career in medicine would not be my path.

However, I excelled at maths – I absolutely loved maths and at school I would jump at the chance to help younger students, even today it’s still one of my passions. I find maths comforting which is just as well as I do a lot of analysis in my current role. Clearly, maths was going to play a big role in my career, but as much as I loved working with numbers, for me studying maths at university would be too narrowly focused. I felt it could limit my career options.

I started to think about career options. I had always enjoyed tinkering with tech and one incident prompted my brother to suggest that I study engineering. I had accidentally broken the Walkman that my dad had bought me, so purely on instinct, I took it apart and repaired it. Seeing this, my brother jokingly said, “you should study electrical engineering”. That banter turned into serious discussion and then research into the subject. I applied and to my delight was accepted into Imperial College London. So, my route into engineering was partly due to playing to my strengths in maths and partly from listening to a shrewd piece of brotherly advice.

When I arrived at Imperial College London for my interview, I remember feeling lost. I’d been to school in rural Sussex so wondered how I would survive in central London and what the course was going to be like. Unlike a lot of universities, the term started later in the year which, thankfully, gave me time to build my confidence. I used that summer to get comfortable with the idea of being at university.

The best part about the university experience was the diversity of students. There weren’t a lot of females in my classes, but there were far more than in my A level classes, and more importantly, there were females from many countries and lots of students with different backgrounds and stories and studying with such a diverse group broadened my view of the world. It was also my first experience of expressing my African side in the UK which I was able to do through the university’s Afro Caribbean Club. There are many such clubs at universities that give you the opportunity to mix broadly with students academically and with specific communities. This was incredibly good for me.

Above all, my time at Imperial gave me so much confidence. I did well to get there, but I struggled with imposter syndrome. I remember thinking “why am I here?” and that feeling lingered for the first two years of my four-year course, yet I graduated with a first-class degree. Being at such a prestigious university and still being able to succeed despite my concerns boosted my confidence and it was an important part of my growth at that time.

During my first year at Imperial, I was convinced that after graduation, I would get a job with an engineering firm like Land Rover. In my second year, firms came to the campus to recruit – there were so many tempting opportunities that it was hard to decide. There was a period of confusion trying to figure out what my post-graduation career would look like. Everything fell into place in my third year – I gained an internship with the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), and I went on to join its graduate trainee programme after I graduated.

RBS Internship Helped Me Choose my First Career
Whilst on the initial RBS internship, I met a lot of people with totally different backgrounds and seeing all those people working in finance, helped me realise that I could do almost anything post-degree. You can feel a little overwhelmed with all the opportunities presented by recruiting firms and an internship helps you focus on what you want to do.

During my two-month internship, I worked in different teams depending on who needed support. My boss at the time, Stuart Gurr, was incredibly helpful and was one of the reasons why I took the graduate role. He was always busy as he ran a department of over 100 people, but whenever we had our catch up, he always took time to talk and that impressed me. He said that to build a career in banking, you must do multiple roles and advised me that whether I loved or hated a particular task, banking would provide a solid foundation that would allow me to do many other things. Whether I opted for a banking or an engineering career long term, he said the experience would be invaluable and he was right.

Full Time at RBS
When I joined the RBS graduate programme, I received the obligatory six weeks’ training and then did my rotation across different teams in multiple roles. During that time, I learnt that I could do anything I was tasked with! I went from doing an electrical engineering degree at Imperial where the only coding language I knew was Pascal to learning C#. Then I became a business analyst and later moved to another team that coded only in Java. I worked at the equity desk, in finance and strategy and credit risk – I moved around a great deal and learned so much.

During my seven years at RBS, I held a variety of challenging roles that stretched me. The experience taught me that it’s important to remain open and not to put yourself into a ‘career box’. It’s easy to fall into trap of thinking that you must do the same job as your last one. The default position tends to be move from being a developer in one firm to being a developer in another, from business analyst to business analyst and so on. However, many skills that we learn as undergraduates and on-the-job are transferrable: you may be working in healthcare today, but it’s possible to take your skills into banking tomorrow. My time at RBS taught me to stop thinking about myself as someone who could only do one job.

Five years into my time at RBS I began seriously thinking about doing an MBA. The MBA had always been in my mind, and I had attended an MBA information session in London while I was studying at Imperial. Even though it was early days, and I was advised that applicants need work experience before doing an MBA, I registered on the GMAT website so that I could receive the MBA articles and build up a knowledge bank for the future.

Which Business School – Wharton or MIT?
The desire to do the MBA was spurred by my increasing interest in working “front-office”, as it’s called in banking. When you work in tech in a non-tech organisation you are often seen as back-office professionals, people who help the business to function rather than driving growth and profit. I was keen to move into the business side of things and succeed but my resume was very tech. That’s what I mean by putting ourselves in boxes. I asked myself, how can I move out of the tech space where everyone thinks that is all I can do? Doing an MBA was the answer.

Choosing the business school was not straightforward. I ended up in a school where I was so adamant that I would not go! I knew for certain that I would study in the USA because I wanted a completely new experience.

After initial research, I attended information sessions for Harvard, MIT and Wharton. I was confident about wanting to apply to MIT and Harvard, but I didn’t feel any affinity with Wharton. However, when I delved into Wharton’s website, I quickly realised that my experience in financial analytics was a perfect match for the school. I was also a good fit for MIT, so I applied to both schools and received offers from them.

Then I attended the welcome weekend for both schools and again I came away with the feeling that Wharton was not for me, but I felt at home with MIT. The attendees at the MIT event included a lot of people with similar backgrounds to mine: engineers, rocket scientists and the like. Wharton’s event was attended by people who were a world apart from me at that time, for example, from private equity backgrounds. My first thought was, “this is not my tribe, and I don’t know how to interact with them.” I was uncomfortable and I was so sure that I wouldn’t choose Wharton that I didn’t go to view the accommodation options!

As always, I discuss big decisions with my family and my brothers had an influence on my final decision. Talking to them about how well I fitted in with the MIT group compared to the Wharton group, they made me realise that I was putting myself in a box. One said, “The fact that you felt uncomfortable with the group at Wharton is the exact reason why you should choose that school. You’re not going to business school to get comfortable; you’re going to get out of your comfort zone!” It made sense. I was going to America because I wanted to experience something new and challenging, what could be more challenging than joining students with totally different backgrounds to me? So, I chose Wharton, and it is the best decision I have ever made.

Scholarship Awardees Helped Me Secure MBA Funding
Neither of my business school offers came with financial support, which is not unusual. The MBA is a significant cost and even with family support, I needed additional funding. The work to raise the funds started with a list of sources of possible help. I researched many websites, anything that was related to masters, MBAs, engineering, and diversity support, be that gender or ethnicity. It was during this research that I found the LinkedIn profiles of SMFs. First, SMF Busola Banjo, who had been awarded a Sainsbury Management Fellows (SMF) scholarship to study at INSEAD. I checked out the SMF scholarship and it looked like a great opportunity. I messaged Busola to ask for her help and she willingly agreed to share her scholarship application experience.

Thankfully, the SMF scholarship applications were still open for the year I wanted to start business school and I was selected for an interview. I contacted another SMF, Animish Sivaramakrishnan, who had just been awarded a scholarship to ask questions that helped me prepare for my interview, The information and advice shared by both Busola and Animish were enormously helpful, and I am so grateful to them both.

I must confess that despite all this preparation, I was very nervous on the interview day and my imposter syndrome tendency crept in, but I needn’t have worried. I was interviewed by a fantastic panel, and it was reassuring to see the diversity on the panel: someone older, someone younger, someone who had done his MBA fairly recently, and a hugely impressive lady called Naomi Climer CBE. I was so impressed I emailed her after my interview. I heard quickly after my interview that I was being awarded the SMF scholarship; I was delighted. Not only would I have financial support for my MBA, but I would become part of the SMF network.

Key Lessons from My Business School Experience
So, I headed off for my MBA adventure and what an adventure it was. Again, I learned the value of not putting myself in a box and being open to fresh ideas. I tell anyone who wants to know about MBAs, that you can literally craft the experience to suit yourself. People who knew me before the MBA tell me that I came out of my shell because of my MBA. I met so many people that were not like me and that forced me to change my worldview. It was challenging at the beginning, but it helped me flourish.

I learnt many important lessons at business school. Probably the most important is to embrace people and their ideas and don’t be afraid of failure. I work in venture capital now and the idea of working in this sector came from a classmate who had worked in private equity. I was deeply sceptical at the time because I had no experience in buying companies but listened to his rationale for saying that my tech background and experience would be ideal for venture capitalism. Despite my protestations about lack of experience, he kept insisting that I would be a good venture capitalist. So, I started taking courses in the subject; I did eight in total and spent four months in San Francisco during my MBA, to get to know the venture world first-hand.

It’s amazing how those experiences have helped the career path I’m on now. The idea of becoming a venture capitalist seemed random back then, but my classmate was right. I am so grateful that I was willing to step outside my comfort zone: that’s why I picked Wharton Business School and even though venture capitalism seemed strange electives at the time, I still checked them out. I’m grateful for being open-minded and for being surrounded by people who were so different from me.

When I tell people the story of my MBA journey and post-MBA career, they think it makes sense, but it didn’t always make sense to me back then, because my journey wasn’t straightforward. Even with the MBA from Wharton, transitioning into venture capitalism took tenacity. I must have sent hundreds of emails with a response rate of around 0.1%, but I made it!

Taking to VC like a Duck to Water
Now, I’m an Investment Associate at Quona Capital, a VC firm that invests in financial services technology in different markets – it’s such an exciting business. Since I have been with the company, we have invested in businesses in Nigeria, Kenya, Turkey, UK, Egypt, and South Africa. I’ve worked with all our portfolio in these countries supporting our investments (though of course much has been done remotely during the COVID pandemic). I love my job, especially working with seriously smart people who are experts in their field and who are so passionate about their ventures!

My job entails analysing markets and specific sectors, as well as deal sourcing. Once we have the data on a sector, I research companies and propose them to my team. If we decide to invest, I build a model on that investment so that we have clarity about its likely progression and return on investment. When we commit, we support the lifecycle of our investment, which covers everything from supporting the CEO with hiring and financing to product and company expansion. Essentially, anything that helps companies achieve their goals.

Engineering and Business Skills Working in Harmony
My path into venture capitalism has been atypical and I draw on my engineering background and skills all the time at Quona. Analytics is the bedrock of an engineering career. You learn how to analyse situations, models, numbers – the skills you learn from that, regardless of what engineering you’ve studied, are transferrable. My manager says that when they were recruiting for my role, they saw my engineering background as a real asset. I might not have done consulting or investment banking but put me in front of any Excel spreadsheet and give me time with it, and I will tell you what is going on with the data! Most people I know who studied engineering have strong analytical abilities. It’s important to remember that there are so many things that you can do with those skills.

If you’re a young engineer looking to make a paradigm shift in your career, I would suggest that you take stock of what you’ve been doing and what you’ve learnt in your current role. Then think about what you can apply your skills to. Think laterally, you might be a lawyer – companies need lawyers in high-tech too, you don’t always have to work for a legal firm. You might be a coder; you can work in healthcare just as much as you can work in cleantech.

So many industries have tech underlying them. There are so many roles within different sectors where you might not have been able to work in five or ten years ago, but today you can because of the pace of innovation. Explore sectors you might not have considered before, and don’t take the easy route! Then figure out how to get there – do you need another degree, extra work experience, or a new classification? Whatever it takes to get where you want to be, do it!

I’ve come a long way in my business life, and I have left the imposter syndrome tendency behind me. I think I’ve shown what is possible with a combined engineering and MBA education and by embracing other people’s observations and advice, not least my wonderful brother, who reminds me far too often about his hand in my career! I’m delighted that he is also thinking about doing  an MBA and now it’s me who is trying to convince him to go to Wharton – remember, if you can dream it, you can do it!

The SMF MBA Scholarship
If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as a stepping-stone towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could be awarded a £50,000 scholarship.

How to Fund My MBA?

MBA Scholarship photo

The decision to embark on an MBA is one of the most important of your career. The experience will sharpen your business skills and will open the door to new and exciting career opportunities in the future, but at what cost?

An MBA is a big investment, with tuition fees varying considerably (depending on the business school’s pedigrees) from £7,500 at the University of Wales Trinity St David to £87,900 at London Business School.  Of course, there are also living expenses to consider as well.

With these costs in mind, most people looking to study for an MBA will be faced with two crucial questions:  ‘How do I fund it?’ and ‘am I willing to take on the risk of doing an MBA given the financial commitments?’

The funding dilemma
This is one of the most important parts of the whole MBA process. The consideration of these questions and then coming up with the answer, ‘Yes, I can find a way’, and ‘Yes I am willing to take the risk’, is all part of the self-development process of getting into a business school and having a successful outcome.

There are risks involved but finding a way around these challenges is an excellent introduction to what you will be doing for the next 20 to 30 years of your career.  People who take on personal debt to do the MBA are indeed taking a big risk.  For example, one never knows what the economic climate and job market will be like at the end of their MBA – COVID being a prime example of how things can change dramatically.  Yet the ability to take on and manage big risks is one of the attributes that top business schools, future employers and indeed Engineers in Business Fellowship, is looking for in candidates.

To cover the cost of an MBA – particularly in the absence of full-time employment, savings or help from family members – it is critical that prospective students thoroughly research the potential sources of funding available.

Research what help is available
The key to resolving the question, ‘can I fund an MBA?’, relies on extensive research.  There are many different options and opportunities, so it is essential to find out which is best for you.  Unearthing this information involves intensive desk research, not a one-hour Google search.  The process could take as much as eight hours of exploration over several days, weeks or even months. 

What can you offer?
Competition is stiff for MBA scholarships so you will need to demonstrate in your application that you have the skills and experience needed to succeed on a demanding MBA programme, that you have clear goals post-graduation and how you intend to contribute to society. 

As part of your research and planning, you should go through a period of introspection and ask yourself the questions that a grant-giving or financial institution will want to know.  The typical questions you could ask yourself are ‘who am I?’ and ‘what do I have to offer?’, ‘What makes me special?’, ‘What traits, attributes and experiences do I have that make me different or stand out?’,  ‘What have I done in the past that makes me special?’,   ‘What will I do in the future that will make a difference in society?’.  In essence, what will impress and convince a grant or loan giving body that you are worthy of the investment?

Some of the main characteristics that universities and funding bodies will be looking out for when assessing scholarship applicants include leadership potential, evidence of entrepreneurship/intrapreneurship, track record of innovation and a proven commitment to a particular sector.

Once you have an idea of what differentiates you from others, you can start thinking about who can help you achieve your potential.  There are many grant-giving bodies, so it is essential to research them all and understand their perspectives.  However, there is no point tracking down these funds unless you can answer the questions about why they should award you a grant (or a loan from a financial institution).  You must match what they are looking for with what makes you stand out.

Choose the right funding or mix of funding
The funding options have different terms, conditions and requirements and they can be quite complex.  Below are a few categories of funding sources; for more information, these articles are a good starting point – Findamasters and Figmat.

Part-time study while working
Part-time study is a relatively common option for MBA degrees.  Many programmes are intended to be completed by practising management professionals and some courses set tasks for students to apply within their workplace.  A part-time MBA could therefore be a great way to study while continuing to earn a salary. The UK Government’s postgraduate loans are available for part-time masters.  The amount you borrow will be divided evenly across the duration of your MBA programme.

Banks
Before the 2008 financial crisis, several banks in Europe and the US offered loans tailored to MBA students.  Following the withdrawal of many banks from the MBA lending market, choice has been limited, particularly for international students.  In the UK, there are few tailored MBA study loans offered by high street banks, leaving higher interest personal loans as the predominant option for bank borrowing (see Figmat).

Employer sponsorship
An MBA could represent an attractive investment for your employer. After all, these programmes are aimed at enhancing the skills of experienced business professionals and developing advanced leadership skills that could prove invaluable in a current employer.  You will need to persuade your employer that sponsoring your MBA would be worthwhile for the company as well as your continuing professional development. Some employers may contribute towards the cost of an MBA, providing that you are willing to commit to returning after graduation. 

Scholarships and bursaries
There are many different scholarships and bursaries aimed at helping talented prospective MBA students get their dream qualifications.  Most universities and business schools run funding schemes to attract the brightest and best applicants from all backgrounds.  According to the Financial Times, 54% of students who graduated from a ranked USA MBA programme in 2010 received some form of financial assistance from their school or an external source.  Among their peers who studied in Europe, 31% received such assistance.

Scholarships are also offered by various organisations and institutions from across the world. For example, Chevening scholarships are offered by the UK Government to help talented international postgraduates study in the UK and our own Sainsbury Management Fellows £50,000 scholarships are available for engineering graduates from the UK, EU, and EEA to study an MBA at 14 of the top international business schools.

It is worth noting that institutions that offer money only have a limited pot each year.  Some of these schemes waive a portion of the fees, while others are cash positive, helping with living expenses as well.  Some schools have specific grants for certain demographics, for example, widening participation schemes.   You will need to know which demographic you fit into, whether you are part of a minority that can gain additional support. So, you need to look at both the macro and micro levels when researching. Remember that it is possible to apply for multiple grants from different institutions.  Some grant authorities may well be inclined to support an applicant because having one grant already shows that their decision to support a candidate is a good one because another body is already investing in that person.

Thankfully, there are many grants, loan schemes, fee waivers and other forms of assistance to help people to fund their MBA. The most important thing is to find what is right for you.  Once you have done your research, look at the big picture, consider how you fit into the offerings by defining your special qualities and then leverage that to come up with what works best for you. Most of all, invest as much time as you possibly can to track down the many sources of funding.  The time may pay off in the end and help you to achieve your ultimate goal.

About the author: SMF David Falzani MBE is President of Engineers in Business Fellowship and a Professor of Practice in Sustainable Wealth Creation at Nottingham University.

 

“I’ve never worked so hard in my life”: How an MBA helped SMF Henning von Spreckelsen go from Engineer to Business Guru

Many engineers can pinpoint a moment in their childhood that sparked a real interest in engineering. For entrepreneur Henning von Spreckelsen, the spark was ignited by his father, who suggested it as a possible career.  As an adult, Henning has used a combination of engineering skills and business education to develop an impressive career.  He has worked in senior management positions in international companies both large and small, with experience in chemicals, plastics, and packaging, as well as having founded and/or invested in innovative manufacturing and technology companies.  One of those companies, Plastecowood, has just become an international award-winning business in the Santander X Environmental Challenge.  Here, Henning takes us on a brief tour of his journey from engineering student to entrepreneur.

Becoming an engineer was complete chance. During the careers’ discussion process at school, I had a chat with my dad, and he suggested studying engineering because it would give me a breadth of options, even if I did not want to work in the field at some later point.  So, with the help of one of my teachers, after A-Levels, I applied to and was accepted to study electrical engineering at the University of Southampton.

Southampton turned out to be a great choice. It had pioneered the Master of Engineering course and in the fourth and final year, students undertook real-world commercial projects sponsored by companies.  From the entire engineering faculty, they took just three or four students from each engineering discipline, and I was one of those selected, therefore ended up studying alongside mechanical, civil, aeronautical and electronic engineers. We did additional courses in basic accounting, law and project management alongside the normal engineering subjects

Thinking Outside the Textbook
In the final year of the programme, we did two commercial projects. One was a marketing study for Southampton airport on the freight and charter brokerage services they could offer to existing and new clients.

The second project was an airborne wind generation unit. The university had been approached by a barrage balloon manufacturer who wanted to test the feasibility of hanging a wind turbine under the balloon to get it 100 to 200 metres up in the air as the wind speed at that height is much greater, more regular and could generate a lot more electricity than at ground level.

Our team worked out a concept design of turbine, cable and generator allowing the company’s idea to pay for itself in three years, but then we realised that the life of a balloon was only three years!  I learned then that you can be the best engineer in the world with the best product, but unless you understand the finance and customer side of things and the value of teamwork, you will not be successful.

Although most people think about MBAs a few years into their work life, this project got me thinking about business education early. I felt that an MBA would supplement my engineering knowledge and help me work out how to make companies and products successful.

I was fortunate also that the Master of Engineering programme required students to secure corporate sponsorship. With the help of the university’s corporate links, I interviewed successfully and was sponsored by GEC PLC during the last two summers of my studies.  It made a big difference to me as a student because it gave me work experience, a small income and I had a great experience working alongside engineers. Even then, I could see that the engineers who would be most successful would be those that could marry engineering with the financial side of the business.

Becoming a Boffin
After graduation, I joined ICI (then Britain’s largest company) in the “boffins department” the Advanced Process Control Team – we worked on the simulation of chemical plants using rocket simulation software. We wrote programmes that simulated ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, paint, plastics or nitroglycerin plants and then travelled around the world helping ICI factories to make their products more effectively through control engineering and applied common sense.  I had thought that being in this department would be dry, but it was fantastic because we were innovating, and we got to travel all over the world and help different divisions improve their performance.

We were only a small team within a large multinational company, so to improve our reach and effectiveness, I developed a course called Tuning for Profit which involved bringing teams from the ICI divisions in training sessions to learn how to reduce costs by “tuning” their factory control systems.  They were given a deadline to implement the learnings and every division participating was able to reduce its production costs by implementing what they had learnt with us.   This initiative enabled us to amplify the impact of our small, young team, through the people working in the divisions around the world.

Business School and Beyond
Seeing my keen interest in business, the chief engineer at ICI recommended that I read The Machine that Changed the World which is about the Toyota Production System and The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt which is about improving production performance but written in novel format.  These books opened my eyes.  I realised that the nascent thoughts about business that began back at university would become the driving force for my career.   At that point, I committed to doing the MBA, did my research, did the GMAT and gained a place at IMD Business School in Switzerland.  Funding an MBA at a top school can be daunting, so I was delighted to be awarded a Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship.

One of the attractions of IMD was the multicultural, multilingual nature of the students – there were 42 nationalities in my cohort!  I am a German national, educated in the UK and Belgium so I speak fluent French and German and thought that with three languages I would be on par with other students, but the average number of languages spoken was between four and five. You went into the study rooms to debate different cases and it would be done in Spanish in one group, in French in another group; you might have a German lawyer arguing with an Italian engineer in a language that was not their mother tongue – it was impressive.

IMD also offered international consulting projects – companies paid to get fresh, strategic thinking on their operations from MBA students who could analyse their business challenges differently.  My team had the exciting opportunity of analysing LEGO’s business and was able to show the board of directors how a major competitor, which one could argue did not produce the toy bricks to the same high quality as LEGO, was gaining market share by turning its packaging into a toy/storage item that the kids could enjoy, rather than throw away cardboard.  We recommended a change to LEGO’s packaging strategy as well as the introduction of movie-themed bricks.  Within a few years, the company started implementing these proposals and continues to do so today.  This was a brilliant experience to have during the MBA course.

Teamwork, Teamwork, Teamwork
Work is full-on from the moment you start business school.  On the first day at IMD, I was given three cases to work on and develop a solution for the problems posed.  With six years of work experience under my belt, I was feeling confident in handling them.  I remember phoning my wife and saying, “I think I’ve got the hang of this; I know what the answers are.” The next morning, I was put in my team, and we discussed the cases – I thought I had nailed the cases the night before but there were at least three different answers to the problems, all of which were better than mine.  Later that day all the students came together, about 80 of us, for a session with the professor and to my surprise, there were even further potential solutions to the cases.  This demonstrated to me, the power of collaboration and teamwork.

I have never worked so hard, before or since business school. We started at 8am and worked until midnight – it was work, work, and more work!  When I did my engineering degree, my notes were in four folders, one for each year of the course. For my one-year MBA, I had 20 folders of double-sided typed pages as well books and other material.  It was incredibly intense – you are placed in a group for a month and just as you are getting comfortable, they change the groups to generate different dynamics and pressures.  You stand and fall by the group, which is much the same in real life. There were intermittent moments of play though, cultural events from the different nationalities, trips, etc– we even had a series of 5-minute parties – where after hours of working late into the night, we would play loud music through the building for exactly 5 minutes – dance like crazy – then go back to work.

Having the Bottle
After graduating from IMD, I was recruited by Tetra Pak, famous for its UHT milk and juice cartons.  After induction and training, I joined a four-strong team that was asked to form a new division. We were tasked with setting up an extrusion blow moulding division to make milk bottles for the price competitive global market.  In three years, we grew the division from four to 170 people, with four factories in the UK and Argentina and bidding on over 20 others around the world. I designed and project managed the first factory installation and then had a team of project leaders reporting to me, each project effectively creating “brownfield” startups on customer premises.

I spent an enjoyable three years heading up projects for the division and only left because I wanted to forge out on my own and buy a company and I was fortunate to be backed by Deloitte & Touche corporate finance on a fully contingent basis. One thing led to another, and, over several years, I founded a company that developed an innovative bottle-top technology. The new technology led us to create bottle tops that enabled lighter weight (more environmentally friendly and cheaper) bottles that are faster and easier to fill and eliminated any possibility of leakage after the containers were opened and recapped by consumers.

I raised £6 million to build the first bottle top factory, having all sorts of adventures along the way, raising a further £6+ million a few years later, with all the highs and lows associated with the process. Our first customer for the new bottle top was a small Irish dairy that bought £20,000 worth of stock. The second customer was Del Monte in Canada. The company used our technology for canned fruit and doubled their sales. Del Monte’s market share in Canada soared from 30% to over 60% in less than 12 months, knocking Dole off the top spot. We won an Ameripack award for the product.  Our third customer was PepsiCo for whom we created an oval bottle top for Tropicana juices in North America.    During these ten years, we filed 170 patents in 30 countries and built factories and a research centre in the EU and the USA. A multinational packaging company, Aptar, has now bought the business and transferred our technology to its portfolio.

Playing a Greater Role
I then began looking at getting involved with companies by investing and/or taking an active role in the business strategy and development of both product and business profitability.  Today I am involved in several companies, including underwater yacht and marina lighting through Bluefin LED, with a company called Parafricta International, and Plastecowood. Parafricta sells products made from a high-tech fabric that prevents or eliminates Category 1  pressure ulcers in 14 days.   Over the past eight years, they have been working with an NHS trust in the northwest, with thousands of patients using Parafricta products, and the trust has a 75% lower incidence rate of hospital-acquired pressure ulcers than the NHS average.  Based on the NHS’s own figures, we estimate the NHS would save upwards of £240 million per annum on the cost of pressure ulcer treatment if it adopted the products across the country.

Plastecowood recycles plastic that would otherwise go to landfills or incineration. The company receives plastic waste, mainly from household collections, and reprocesses it into plastic lumber called Smartawood – it is cheaper than concrete and longer-lasting than wood.
This innovative solution has led to the company being one of six winning projects in the Santander X Environmental Challenge, a global competition for entrepreneurial companies that create more sustainable products.

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to gain both engineering and business education.  I have been able to help previous employers develop and deploy technology that has improved businesses, economies, and people’s lives.  Now I get to use my combined skills and experience in companies that I am intrinsically involved with – it is extremely rewarding to work alongside great people who are so passionate about creating value through technology and to use the combination of business and engineering disciplines to help drive the companies forward.

Sainsbury Management Fellows MBA Scholarship
Over thirty years ago Lord Sainsbury had a vision of getting more engineers with business education into boardrooms so that they could make a difference to UK plc.  He did this through his MBA scholarship programme for engineers, which is still going strong today, enabling people like me to acquire the business skills needed to help grow the economy.  Not only that, the next generation of engineers who have an eye on business leadership, have a set of role models.  They can look at the CVs of the 375 SMFs who received an MBA scholarship, and see different pathways towards a diversity of business careers.

For me, the beauty of the SMF network is that there is always somebody who knows something about what you need to know. And as our SMFs get more experienced, they branch out into different ventures, so this network becomes even more valuable over time.

The SMF MBA Scholarship
If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as a stepping-stone towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could be awarded a £50,000 scholarship.

Personalised, Digitally-enhanced Student Experiences at Imperial College Business School

Joёl McConnell, Executive Director of Marketing, Recruitment and Admissions at Imperial College Business School explains how they are enhancing student learning
Joёl McConnell, Executive Director, Imperial College Business School

Engineers in Business Fellowship has been awarding Sainsbury Management Fellows MBA scholarships to talented engineers with leadership potential for more than 35 years.  Our awardees attend the top international business schools in the world where they acquire a first-class business education.  Fourteen business schools are partners of the Sainsbury Management Fellows (SMF) scholarship scheme and we are delighted to be starting a series of articles contributed by these schools.  We are commencing with Imperial College Business School in London, the most recent to join the SMF scheme.  Joel McConnell, Executive Director at Imperial explains how the school is using digital technology to enhance student experiences.

What an unusual year it has been for students, staff and faculty at Imperial College Business School! Resilience has been key, but Imperial College Business School has made important investments under the broader context of COVID-19 that will benefit MBA students for years to come, and particularly in the area of digitally-enhanced student experiences that align with the broader benefit of studying at the business school of leading STEM-focused university, based here, in London.

Imperial College Business School aims to be at the forefront of personalised, digitally-enhanced student experiences
Today Imperial College Business School is firmly focused on the broader disruption happening in the graduate management education (GME) landscape and the various sectors where our graduates go on to work after they complete their degree with us.  We know that recruiters are demanding new and different leadership skills, which has only been accelerated by a change in processes and how people and organisations interact – especially under the extreme circumstances of a global pandemic.  Finally, we aim to amplify the student transformation and leadership journey as well as capitalise on digital innovations led by the Marketing, Recruitment and Admissions teams, our Careers and Student Life teams, and our award-winning Educational Technology (EdTech) teams as well.

Imperial College: An End-to-End Candidate Experience from Day One
The Marketing, Recruitment and Admissions (MRA) teams at Imperial College Business School provide an integrated candidate experience, from the moment a potential applicant registers their interest with the school, right through to when they step into our classrooms. Once a candidate has decided they want to study on one of the school’s programmes, they will have a highly interactive experience as they work to complete their application, the admissions process, and then enrol with us as well.  Under the pandemic, the MRA teams have made big investments in marketing automation platforms and CRM systems, with leading technology partners, that allow the teams to provide more personalised support, and we’re actively piloting new tools that will allow these teams to have the most effective technology stack in place so that candidates can complete their onboarding process as seamlessly as possible. 

A Full Support Package to Complement MBA Programme Delivery
For those candidates who obtain an offer to study the MBA programme at Imperial College Business School, joining the programme is just the first step.  This past year our Careers and Student Life teams have focused increasingly on integrating Digital and smart tools, virtual experiences, and technology that directly supports candidates as they prepare to return to the workplace upon graduation. We now make LinkedIn Learning available to all MBA students, so our students can top up their programme content with additional training in more technological skills such as C++ or Python for example.  Another great example is how we work with a company that leverages AI and Machine Learning to help candidates evaluate how their career profile matches their target job characteristics, and understand the strengths and weaknesses of their profile, and then we complement this tool with 1-1 appointments with dedicated career consultants to ensure our MBA students develop an action plan to reinforcing their profile and better meet their expected career outcomes.

EdTech and Learning Analytics for Optimal Student Outcomes and Programme Delivery
Imperial College Business School is working to better understand how MBA students are learning, and how the institution can make continued, neuroscience-based investments in the most impactful EdTech possible, which will help the programme delivery teams deliver optimal outcomes for our students. Under COVID-19, our EdTech teams have led key investment programmes that have seen our lecture theatres become more interactive, in a way that has allowed for the delivery of the MBA programme in multi-modal format – something that has been crucial to manage the uncertain environment this past year, but that will also allow for a more dynamic student experience in the future, that allows students to pursue multiple interests at once.  Finally, the EdTech Lab at Imperial College Business School works closely with our parent university infrastructure dedicated to instructional design and delivery, and other areas of the college such as the Department of Mathematics on a pilot project related to unsupervised machine learning to learning data.  Imperial College takes a research-based approach to EdTech, and MBA students benefit directly from this.

The Sainsbury Management Fellows Opportunity
Imperial College Business School is one of the newest partners to the Sainsbury Management Fellows programme, which is managed by the Engineers in Business Fellowship (EIBF).  As the business school of Imperial College London – a leading STEM university in the UK and top-ranked internationally as well, we actively welcome engineering graduates who wish to complement their previous studies and professional experience with an MBA from Imperial.  The fellowship is a unique opportunity as graduates not only become part of a national network aimed at connecting top engineers in the United Kingdom – which includes career and entrepreneur mentoring, but by completing the MBA degree at Imperial College Business School, you also become part of the business school’s alumni network of some 19,500 professionals, but also of the broader university that has 200,000 graduates located in some 190 countries. So, if you think you might qualify for a Sainsbury Management Fellowship, don’t wait, and apply for one of the fellowships, and the MBA degree at Imperial College Business School. 

Joël McConnell leads the Programme Marketing, Student Recruitment, Admissions as well as CRM, Data, and Insights teams at Imperial College Business School.  A graduate of the MBA and several other postgraduate degrees and certifications from leading business schools such as Saïd Business School (University of Oxford), IE Business School, IMD, and the Booth School of Business (University of Chicago), today Joël is also actively engaged in cross-college initiatives related to technology programmes and equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI).  He has also been an active participant and leader in IEEE events and activities across Europe as well.

The SMF MBA Scholarship
If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as a stepping-stone towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could be awarded a £50,000 scholarship. 

How an MBA Helped A Nuclear Energy Engineer Become A Business Leader at Google – SMF Samarth Sharma, Head of Partnerships for EMEA App Developers at Google

SMF Samarth Sharma at INSEAD Graduation

SMF Samarth Sharma is pictured far right

Born in Tezpur, a small town in a developing region of northeast India, Samarth experienced a unique multi-cultural childhood. Growing up in the remote region, there was very little to occupy this young boy with big dreams.  When his father, a civil engineer who built bridges for a living, got a posting in Paris and announced the family would be moving there, Samarth – aged eight – had no idea what to expect. Fast forward to today, and Samarth is Head of Partnerships for EMEA App Development at Google, in no small thanks to a Sainsbury Management Fellow MBA scholarship.  

 Samarth reflects on his journey, describing how his interest in engineering started and how the MBA helped him get to where he is today. 

The first spark of interest in engineering
When we moved to Paris, I was eight years old.  I had never seen tall buildings so imagine how I marvelled upon seeing the Eiffel Tower.  Perhaps the biggest change was the abundance of electricity in France and it got me thinking about the differences between the two countries.   When I learned that France used 80% nuclear energy, I became intensely interested in it.  How do you build a nuclear plant?  How is energy produced and stored?  If I could help bring energy to millions of people who, like me, never had reliable access to it, the world would be a better place.  I knew there and then, at that young age, that I wanted to become an engineer. That was the spark.

Building on that interest
I was fortunate in my early education to study the International Baccalaureate. I remember being around 16 years old, working on my diploma.  We had to do a project and a 4,000-word thesis on a topic that interested us.  As part of that project, I built a small wind tunnel because I was intrigued by how aeroplanes fly.  I built the tunnel with a cardboard tube and modelled the wings with straw and foil and set things up to find out at what angle the lift of the wings would occur.

So my passion for engineering started early and stayed with me. There was an Indian Prime Minister – Rajiv Gandhi – who studied at Imperial College London. I thought if I could follow in his footsteps and get there myself, it would allow me to get a good general understanding of engineering and then specialise in a particular field like energy or aeronautics.

Imperial College and the beginnings of a career
I was so fortunate to study at Imperial College.  To this day, I look back on the four years I spent there as some of the best years of my life. I was very studious!  Whilst many of my fellow students were out clubbing on weekends, I spent (most) of my Saturday evenings in the lab and loved every moment! Imperial College is strong in applied engineering, so for me, it was perfect, and it had extensive resources.  In my final year, when I did my masters’ degree in nuclear reactor technology, we even got to work on a mini nuclear reactor!

On graduation, I thought I would go straight into the energy sector, but I took a diversion. I had gone straight into Imperial College from my international school and found that many of my peers at Imperial had taken a gap year and had experiences that stretched them.  That got me thinking about doing a gap year.  With London being a centre of finance, Imperial College was one of the target universities for investment bank recruiting, and they vied for the top graduates.  Deutsche Bank offered me a one-year graduate program, and I thought working at the international bank would be an excellent gap year. Different from the norm, but I would expand my horizons and learn about the world of finance and business.

From bank internship to nuclear energy
Would you believe that I started my internship on the same day that Lehman Brothers failed – what an initiation!  Yet, despite the turbulence in the financial sector at that time, I had a great experience at Deutsche Bank.  It was a blessing in disguise for me because I got to see an entire industry change in front of my eyes.  As part of the graduate program, I was seconded to New York to work on a large US automobile company’s restructuring.  I do not think I have ever learned so much in such a short space of time, aside from my MBA experience.

I learned that how you react to setbacks defines you as a person, particularly things out of your control like global financial crises. I also learned that the world of work is very different to university, where you solve problems in front of a computer.  Work is much more about people management and nurturing relationships.  Another key takeaway was the importance of delivering on promises and being dependable for your team and those around you.

When I began the Deutsche Bank graduate program, I had planned to work in banking for one year, and I stuck to that and left with a range of valuable new skills. Once I finished the graduate programme, I made plans to leave the bank – but where next?  Fortunately for me, at my graduation ceremony, Imperial College had awarded an honorary degree to a highly respected female business leader, Anne Lauvergeon, formerly the CEO of the French nuclear company, Areva.  Through a connection with Anne, I was introduced to Areva, gained an interview and was hired, enabling me to fulfil my dream of working for a world leader in nuclear reactor technology.

Working for a world leader in nuclear energy
My first posting at Areva involved working with one of the project management teams to build a nuclear reactor in China. I spent two years in China working as a Project Engineer on the critical path of a key project, identifying stopgaps with sub-suppliers.  When I came back to Areva in France, I was one of a few people who had a combination of finance and engineering experience, so I was asked to join Areva’s investment team to handle project financing of several projects.  Halfway through my seven years at Areva, I was asked by our UK CEO to build the UK team to work on major UK government projects (Hinkley Point nuclear power station and off-shore wind projects in the North Sea).  I managed negotiations with the British government and EDF, our chief supplier.  I was chief of staff to the UK CEO and helped grow the Areva UK entity from 20 to 200 people.

I reached a crossroad near the end of this project. With eight years of valuable work experience under my belt, I had to decide whether to continue in nuclear energy and build a long-term career at Areva or do something different and push onto the next level.

First encounter with an MBA
My first glimpse into what an MBA could do for me came when I met a friend, Chris Hughes, for a drink on a beautiful summer day in Paris.  He was in the middle of his MBA at INSEAD, and he talked about how transformative the experience had been for him.  He suggested that I do an MBA, but I told him it was out of the question – there is no way I could afford it!  Chris had an answer for that too.  He put me in touch with Cathy Breeze at Engineers in Business Fellowship (EIBF), a charity that helps engineers in their career development. Cathy told me all about the Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship for professional engineers and the network of graduates who provide ongoing support for members.

I had to go through EIBF’s competitive application process, of course, but the chance of financial support spurred me on. I was invited to an impressive historical building in London for my scholarship application interview, part of which involved a short presentation. I had put a lot of effort into telling my story, my journey from Imperial College London to working on the Hinckley Point nuclear plant, but I was still nervous.  However, once I was in front of the panel, it dawned on me that having reached this stage, EIBF must have seen something persuasive in my written application; all I had to do was convey that passion in person.  I was delighted when they decided that I would be a good custodian of the SMF scholarship.  I chose INSEAD as my preferred business school and gained a place.  Being awarded the scholarship was genuinely life-changing for me. I will be forever grateful to Chris for introducing me to the idea and the charity.

A brief spell in finance
Before starting my MBA, I had the opportunity to work on a project at a leading VC firm in London called Index Ventures.  I had the time and wanted to try something new, and this experience taught me how much I enjoyed being an advisor to entrepreneurs and working in a fast-growing company. The energy sector is very stimulating but has reached a mature growth level (compared to say the technology sector).  It was then I realised that I wanted a very different future career.  I even started thinking about working for a company like Google and decided to spend my time at INSEAD figuring out how to break into Google.

Takeaways from INSEAD and the MBA 
I went into INSEAD with an open mind, ready to absorb whatever knowledge I could.  I wanted to learn more about the world of business, learn from my peers and see just how far I could push my career.  Looking back, Deutsche Bank set me up well on the basics of business; I understood how accounts worked and all the basic tenets of running a business.  The real lightbulb moment came when I realised that business is only really half of what you do on an MBA.  The rest is about your relationships with people, how to manage them and their expectations.  At business school, you are put into hypothetical situations, for example, acting as a CEO. You learn so much from role-playing. For me, learning hard skills was a small tick, whilst learning soft skills was a huge tick!

You also get time during an MBA to figure out who you are in a way that work does not allow. It is all about introspection, teamwork and learning from those around you.  Learning from such a diverse group of people with different backgrounds and different ambitions was a privilege.

One of the things that INSEAD taught me was how to connect with my inner self and find a higher level of patience.  It helped me realise that some things are outside of my control and to be okay with that. You can give your best, but even then, it might not be good enough.  Life will throw challenges at you, and if you keep thinking it is your fault, you will never succeed.  You have to take a step back, accept that there are things that you cannot control, and you have to let go and not take them personally.

INSEAD and the springboard into Google
The access and exposure you get to people from different cultural and professional backgrounds at INSEAD are remarkable.  While there, I worked as a strategy consultant on a so-called ‘moonshot projects’ for Google’s experimental ‘X’ division.  This was my first taste of life at Google, and I loved it.  Following my graduation from INSEAD, I did not take the traditional path of post-MBA careers in consulting or finance like many of my peers.  I knew I wanted a future at Google and was happy to carry on networking to secure an interview there. That interview came a few months later through networking with professionals associated with Google.  I was introduced to the leader of the strategy team for the EMEA business for the SMB (Small and Medium-Sized Businesses) sector at Google.

Since Deutsche Bank, I had a newfound respect for job creation and the volatility of the job market. My passion for helping small and medium-sized businesses scale-up was recognised and I was offered a role as EMEA Strategy & Operations Manager. It was a great fit and I had a fantastic experience.

After leading business planning for the entire EMEA region, I joined our Apps business to become Head of Partnerships for App Developers and manage Google’s third-party partnerships.  We are all spending so much time with apps these days – from gaming and shopping to education and socialising.  Many of those apps benefit from services from third-party players and it is my department’s job to grow successful partnerships with these players to help our customers expand their businesses.

Advice for engineers considering an MBA
Everybody’s circumstances are different but do not let financing an MBA be a limiting factor.  If you decide an MBA is right for you, you should apply for a Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship.  It is also a good idea to let go of any preconceptions you have about people who do MBAs – they do not all go on to work for the likes of McKinsey or Goldman Sachs.  You will get far more out of an MBA if you keep an open mind and stay true to your ambition.  Another thing I would suggest is always trying to operate slightly outside your comfort zone, but never in your panic zone.  Continuously nudge yourself in new directions as this will help you to thrive.

Lord Sainsbury’s vision of getting more engineers into business organisations through the MBA scholarship scheme is a force for good.  Engineers can bring perspectives to business that other people might not have because engineers have built things their whole lives.  I am grateful to everybody who has helped me on my SMF journey – my family, Chris Hughes, Cathy Breeze, the interview panel that awarded me the scholarship and the SMF network that, to this day, is a valuable resource.

The SMF MBA Scholarship
If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as a stepping-stone towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could be awarded a £50,000 scholarship.

How My MBA Changed My Career Journey – SMF Davina Patel

SMF Davina PatelDavina Patel is one of 375 professional engineers who have been awarded our prestigious Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship to study an MBA at a top tier business school.   After gaining her MBA at London Business School, Davina has used her newly acquired business skills and insights as a catalyst towards an exciting new career.  Davina has taken time out to talk to us about her early passion for engineering, her MBA experience, her career and lessons learnt along the way.

What inspired you to become an engineer?
From a young age I was curious about the world around me, and I found science gave me answers to help satisfy that curiosity. I had an aptitude for maths and physics and some great teachers, it was only natural for me to gravitate towards these subjects at school. When it was time to pick university courses, I knew I wanted to stick with maths and physics, but I wanted a course that covered a variety of interesting subjects and one that was practical in nature to allow me to build skills that would help me explore and start my professional career. After many years of academic success, applying to university was my first real lesson that sometimes life doesn’t always go to plan as I didn’t get into my first-choice university.

Nevertheless you gained an excellent BEng in Mechanical Engineering & Aeronautics degree at Brunel University. Give us a snapshot of your university experience and first jobs.   
I decided to pick a ‘thick sandwich’ engineering degree which allowed me to spend one year on a work placement between my second and final year. I worked at Hawtal Whiting an automotive design and engineering services company where I gained experience in a very specialised area (finite element analysis), the best part of the experience was my direct interaction with customers working with BMW on some very cool product development projects.

I returned to university for my final year which specialised in Aeronautics, my favourite part of the course. I was flattered to be offered a PHD opportunity in flight mechanics, but after my year working, I had more clarity that I didn’t want to specialise in one area but wanted a broader experience across all of product development and manufacturing at aerospace companies – so I politely declined the offer. I remember stuffing envelopes with CV and cover letters applying to nearly every major aerospace engineering company. It was overwhelming to face rejection after rejection. I decided to take a ‘gap year’ after university to travel and take some time to think about what I wanted given maybe working in aerospace wasn’t going to happen.

I stumbled across a role at ebm-papst, a company that manufactured fans and motor products, it didn’t scream out dream job, but I liked the company culture and its people.

My first role was as an application engineer focused on driving sales of its standard products. Then I progressed to a project engineer working more intimately with customers managing a portfolio of product development projects. Being in such a small and informal company I was able to participate in other projects relating to quality and operations. In hindsight, it was a great first job; I was around some incredibly supportive and fun people and given the opportunity to be exposed to a variety of experiences.

Why did you decide to do an MBA?
Working at such a small company I was limited, as career progression went from application engineer, project engineer to business development manager, I had done two out of three and the third was purely an ‘on the road’ sales role which was not for me.

It was time for a change, I started applying for engineering consulting jobs and then it dawned on me I didn’t want to specialise in any engineering discipline. My exposure to broader aspects of operating a business excited me, I knew I wanted to learn more and have the time to explore other possibilities. My journey took me to London Business School, as soon as I walked through its doors, I knew it was the right place for me.

What are the stand-out learnings from your MBA?
It’s almost a given, but the MBA provided a phenomenal learning experience. It was great to look back on my time at ebm-papst and connect the dots on what worked well at the company (and why) and what could have been done better: how it managed its products, its operations and its people.

My London Business School experience gave me so much more:

First, finding my tribe. Nearly 15 years on and my closest and most cherished friendships are with those who I met because of the MBA. Not only are they great friends, they’re the best cheerleaders!

The MBA unleashed a newfound confidence in me. We all doubt our abilities and I was no exception. Being at one of the top business schools in the world I was surrounded by some of the best and brightest minds and the experience made me believe that with hard work and a learning mindset I could aspire to and be good at so many different things.

Finally, the exposure to a new world of possibilities. The MBA provided me with skills that could be applied to a variety of different industries and allowing (once closed) doors to open for me.

How has your MBA changed your career?
I had experienced very small engineering companies, post-MBA I wanted to experience a large and diverse engineering company where I could directly impact change.

I had 10 amazing years at Honeywell, performing mainly strategy and marketing roles of increasing responsibility working across various businesses. My experiences were so varied and exciting, and I got to do what I love; travel the world! Most importantly, I was around some incredibly supportive people who provided me with some great learning opportunities.

From day one I was pushed beyond anything I thought I was capable of prior to the MBA. Within a month I was sent to spend a week with a partner company to build a joint business plan. Within three months, I was asked to create and deliver a pricing presentation to 500+ internal audience with less than 24 hours’ notice.

My first roles were at Honeywell Process Solutions (automation control solutions to process industries), performing strategic marketing roles covering different geographies – strategic planning, go to market execution, pricing focus, joint venture business plans and then progressing to building and managing high performing teams in some high growth countries.

The most significant role and learning experience in my career to date was a broader role leading the transformation of a marketing organisation, it was a significant contribution to the turnaround of Honeywell’s Safety Products (personal protective equipment) business. I was given the opportunity to lead the organisation as I wanted to; I created a vision to inspire, a clear strategy to align, processes and tools to execute, I placed a strong focus on people and their development to drive the culture and deliver results.

In the process I was able to really understand the type of leader I am and the type of joy that work could bring. What we were able to achieve within two years was incredible, it was powerful to know I could affect positive and impactful change in people to do extraordinary things. Hearing the words from a team member “you changed my life” were humbling yet self-affirming words that will remain with me for life.

In my final Honeywell role, I was fortunate to get even broader business experience where I acted as a general manager leading the integration of two acquisitions in parallel. The measure of success was hitting the acquisition model targets and ultimately working myself out of a job by integrating each acquisition and transferring ownership into Honeywell’s Security and Fire business – nine months later, the integrations were complete.

After 10 years, it was time for a change and I was fortunate that a former Honeywell boss introduced me to Trimble. From the moment I met its most senior leaders and learnt about its culture I knew it was a place for me. I get to do what I really enjoy and am empowered to get it done. I led the inception, creation and launch of a new Trimble Marketing Framework for the company which provides a common language and approach through easy-to-use content to help people build valuable skills and capabilities to deliver customer value and exceptional business results.

How has the MBA influenced your thinking about business and leadership?
The MBA gave me exposure and a thirst to learn more about how a business operates and the skills required to do so. At Honeywell, I was given a tremendous playground to learn, apply and build these skills, as well as exposure to successful (and not so successful) leadership qualities and the opportunity to develop my own personal style.

An MBA was the perfect complement to an engineering background. At the very core of engineering people are finding solutions to problems, this principle can be applied universally to running a business. In engineering and business (from strategy/marketing to operations) you need to follow a structured, analytical approach to break a problem down into logical steps to solve it. And people are always at the very centre of everything to get things done.

You are now part of the SMF Alumni.  How do you benefit from being part of this network? 
My decision to do an MBA came first, I was fortunate to learn about and grateful to benefit from the SMF scholarship after I had started the course. Being part of the SMF network, it’s comforting to know there’s a vast group of people you can reach out to if you ever need advice or guidance. It provides lots of opportunities to support a variety of activities and initiatives. I was fortunate to spend a couple of years as a Visiting Teaching Fellow working with the engineering department of a college in London, through a series of introductory talks and coaching sessions with the students, I tried to share the possibilities that a career in engineering could bring to them.

As an engineer who took stock and went to business school to further your career, what advice would you give a young engineer at a similar crossroads in their career?    
As I think through my experiences, career and what I’ve learnt along the way, I would like to share these thoughts with anyone at a career crossroad or bump in the road:

  1. Don’t get too fixated on big brand companies and job titles. Think about the experiences you want in any next challenge in terms of building upon existing experiences as well as thinking about new ones you want (or need) to be exposed to. Then see which companies and roles can tick your experience boxes.
  1. Look at company culture and the quality of its leaders and people, the variety and depth of experiences and level of empowerment you will be afforded. As much as you focus on identifying industries and types of companies you’re interested in, be clear on what you’re not interested in. Make sure you’re in an environment doing work with people you can enjoy every day.
  1. Always have a learning and continuous improvement mindset. As you invest (time and money) developing your skill set, don’t forget to invest in developing your mindset. Make sure you take on challenges that make you sweat a little as they tend to provide the greatest learning and development opportunities.
  1. Be clear on your own personal brand and what you want to be known for, and make sure every interaction and piece of work delivers on your brand promise. Think about how to differentiate yourself from the crowd (skills and talents you possess vs. what you need to acquire). Be the person who gets things done to a high standard; think about what work, results and behaviours you want your name attached to.
  1. Find your tribe/s and your own cheerleaders because there are many times you will have a lack of self-belief. Mentors and great teachers are important, but sponsors are key; those people who recognise your potential (even beyond what you think you’re capable of), who advocate for you, expose you to growth opportunities and give you the space to achieve great things. And never forget, you need to be your own greatest cheerleader!

Finally, remember that things don’t always go to plan; you will face challenges, obstacles and undoubtedly fail at things. While plan A might not work out, there’s always plan B (and plan C).  Focus on the possibilities surrounding you in any given situation, always invest in the process and not the outcome.

The SMF MBA Scholarship
If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as a stepping-stone towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could be awarded a £50,000 scholarship.

An Engineer with a Head for Finance: How an MBA Paved the Way for a Billion-Dollar Dealmaker – SMF Simon Duncan, CFO & Entrepreneur


As an A level student, Simon Duncan wasn’t sure what he wanted to do for a career.  His mother would ask him what he wanted to do, and he would reply with vague ambitions of becoming a pilot or a nuclear scientist, never quite settling on anything permanently.

With his three A levels in maths, physics and chemistry almost complete, Simon decided to visit the careers room in his school for inspiration.  It was 1979, and the careers room consisted of little more than a shoebox containing cards with different job titles written on each.  There were holes in the box, and students would write each of their subjects onto a piece of paper and attach it to a knitting needle and push them through a hole and then pull them out  to reveal career suggestions!  A single card was pierced by all of Simon’s needles and it said Chemical Engineer.  

At the time, Simon didn’t know what a Chemical Engineer was, but, given that he was interested in chemistry, he thought it sounded like a good idea – and, believe it or not, that’s how his career started.  Here he reflects on that journey …

Making a start in chemical engineering
“There must have been more than one hundred cards in that box, so my three needles piercing the card that read Chemical Engineering seemed like fate.  I was already interested in nuclear reactors and particle physics and had written essays on the subject at school, so I was happy when that career option came out of the box.

I set about researching universities and decided that, if I was going to commit to being a chemical engineer, I wanted to do my degree at one of the best institutions in the world, so I applied to Imperial College of Science and Technology in London and was accepted.  I graduated from Imperial College in 1983, but, when I stepped out into the world of work, I was met with very few job opportunities, thanks to a severe economic recession.  Despite that, I managed to join a London-based graduate scheme at Davy McKee, a multinational chemical engineering contractor.

From graduate to lead chemical engineer
One memory sticks out in my mind during my early days at Davy McKee.  We were designing an ammonia plant for ICI and among the team was a man who stood out.  He would sit in the middle of the working area surrounded by technical documents and whenever anybody on the team wanted to know something about the project, they sought this person’s advice.  Eager to find out more about his role, I asked him why everyone turned to him for decisions and he told me that he was the lead chemical engineer.  Here was an engineer who seemed to know everything about chemical engineering, and also took full responsibility for the big decisions. I knew straightaway that I wanted to work towards becoming a lead chemical engineer as well.

My chance at being the lead chemical engineer came sooner than I expected, at age 25.   Four years on from joining Davy McKee, the head of process engineering called me into his office to brief me on an English China Clay project, a mineral plant at Indian Queens in Cornwall that had to be completed and commissioned.  The assignment was due to last six weeks, then we would hand over the plant to English China Clay to produce kaolinite, the chemical used to make paper white.  At the meeting was an important-looking man who I assumed was the lead chemical engineer and that I would be working alongside him, learning on this important project.  Not so – he was the graduate trainee, and my boss was now entrusting me to run the show and commission the new plant. It was so unexpected; I was now the lead chemical engineer.

Developing a thirst for business
During our initial meeting with the engineers at the English China Clay site, we learned that half of the plant was actually ready to go live, and, in addition, that the plant was designed to work half on/half off.   Yet the plant had not been started, despite the company needing it to be operational as soon as possible.  All that was needed was for the lead chemical engineer to sign things off and give the green light.

I had a discussion with the decision-makers of the new plant and explained that half the plant was ready and asked them if they wanted that half to be commissioned immediately, and the whole plant once the other half had been completed, and they agreed emphatically.  To their surprise and delight, the following morning half the plant was up and running.  The delay in commissioning that half of the plant was due entirely to the fact that a lead chemical engineer was needed to evaluate the plant and ensure that everything was in perfect working order before it could be started – none of the other engineers on the project had the authority to do that.  This was a milestone in my career, one I had been working towards for four years.

The other half of the plant was completed in the next three weeks, so the project took half the contracted time.  That was a significant success for Davy McKee and the company earned a bonus.  That experience got me thinking about the economics of projects: how do contracts come together and how does a company make money and profit?  I began asking questions about how we cost proposals, for example, how does a business know how many labour hours to allocate to a given project and that the quotes given turn out to be accurate?  When you do your chemical engineering education, you are taught some economics, so you get a basic understanding of supply and demand and company finance, but it doesn’t delve further.  I became extremely interested in learning more about how businesses work.

Unlocking career options with an MBA
At this point, I started talking to other people about my interest in learning about the intricacies of business.  It was my current girlfriend who suggested an MBA; at that time, I knew next to nothing about MBAs.  After doing research on what an MBA is and how they help to expand your knowledge and opportunities, I realised that the career potential following an MBA would be incredible – some graduates were receiving five or six job offers and doubling their salaries after graduating.  It was during this research phase that I discovered the Sainsbury Management Fellows (SMF) scholarship which, if successful in making an application, would pay for tuition and accommodation for my MBA programme.  This would be transformative – I could do an MBA straightway and not have to get a loan or save up for several years.

I contacted the  Institution of Chemical Engineers which promoted the SMF scholarship to find out how to apply, only to learn that I had missed the application deadline by two days.  However, I must have said something convincing during the conversation because I was asked to apply despite the missed deadline.

I really enjoyed the whole process.  In addition to the application form, I had a three-hour panel interview which covered everything from my education and career experience, to what I had accomplished in engineering, why I wanted to do an MBA and how I planned to use the new skills after graduating.  I talked about my experience at Imperial College London, my work at Davy McKee including my progression to lead chemical engineer and gaining chartered status.  I also gave a presentation on a unique project that I had worked on: the first ever plant to encapsulate nuclear waste in concrete and store it, which the panel found fascinating. When they asked what I wanted to do when I got my MBA, I said I wanted to become a strategic planner at Davy McKee and be more involved in the future of the business.

I received a conditional SMF scholarship offer.  After successfully completing the GMAT, I was offered a place at my first-choice business school, INSEAD. Then my SMF scholarship was confirmed and I was on my MBA journey.

The ‘golden ticket’ effect
When I graduated from INSEAD in 1991, having learned a great deal about finance, business, and strategy, I was raring to go.  We used to call an MBA a ‘golden ticket’ because, career-wise, one could go anywhere with it – the possibilities were limitless.  Sadly, my graduation coincided with another global recession, and the job market wasn’t as ripe and fertile as it should have been. In fact, when I left INSEAD, fifty per cent of its graduates did not have one job offer, let alone the typical five or six.

Despite the downturn, I was fortunate to get a job offer from the chemical company Eli Lilly to work on its European inventory and was considering it before fate intervened.  A friend I hadn’t seen for a while invited me to a birthday party and I dithered about going, but then decided why not, nothing ventured, nothing gained!   During the party, my friend told me that he was working for a  large American company called GE Capital, financing big infrastructure projects.  It sounded fascinating and, despite the recession, they were looking for six new hires. Before I knew it, I was in an interview with the director, with him talking about how much he valued experienced engineers with an MBA. He explained that finance was easy to teach, but engineering skills and acumen were not, and that having an engineer overlooking business decisions gave them a unique and informed perspective.

The next day I was offered the job and went on to work for the company in London, where I stayed for seven years before being transferred to the USA. I worked for a decade in the US before being lured back to the UK by another interesting and lucrative offer, to be a chief credit officer within the European arm of GE Capital.

As a chief credit officer, I was responsible for reviewing the team that analysed the performance and financial status of 800 companies in order to tailor-make financial solutions for them.  This involved looking at the businesses holistically – marketplaces, supply chains, purchasers and finances – and then developing innovative financial solutions beyond conventional bank loans, for example equipment finance, leverage finance, equity, etc.  By analysing these companies in depth, we were able to pitch solutions and work with them on alternative routes to develop and create partnership opportunities for GE Capital.

Ironically, recession has played a pivotal part in the forks in my career path.  Come 2008, the financial markets crashed, and, like many other companies, there were cutbacks and reorganisation at GE Capital, and this led to a change in my role.  I was handling leverage finance doing management buy-outs.  At that time GE Capital did not have a retail bank in England (as it did in other major cities), so the company decided to set one up, and I was tasked with establishing the credit and risk side of the bank, ensuring that it was completed properly and gained FSA approval.  Despite the responsibility, my transition from project finance to retail banking was difficult because I didn’t find the new role as stimulating, so eventually I felt I wanted to move onto something new.

A Shade Greener and becoming Chief Financial Officer
A company called A Shade Greener, which generates electricity through solar panels, was looking for funding.  It had secured £20 million from RBS, which was at the limit of what it could lend to the company, and that’s when it crossed my desk at GE Capital.  It seemed like a great business.  At the time, it was doing 40 installations a week, but I thought it could manage three times that amount.  Long story short, I ended up taking a 92% pay cut to join A Shade Greener as its chief financial officer in 2011.

To move from a steady corporate job with the largest company in the world to becoming an entrepreneur was, to put it mildly, a calculated risk. However, this job move was an exciting challenge, much more in line with my aspirations at that time.  Overnight I went from approving loans to trying to borrow money. My initial expectation was to work three days per week to raise money for the business, but it quickly became a full-time job. Within four years, we had raised £500 million in equity, debt and sales acquisitions and were doing close to 500 installations per day. The business has flourished and today it is what is known as a cash-cow.

Lessons from the MBA
One of the most important things I learned at INSEAD was how companies make money.  If you are in business and you don’t understand how a business makes money, you won’t understand how it will continue to make money and survive.  Engineers with MBAs help because we’re not bamboozled by financial terms and we tend to look at risks in a critical way.  Running a business and making decisions is surprisingly similar to working on a chemical plant where you are constantly doing ‘what if’ analyses.  The combination of engineering experience and an MBA puts you in a unique position to do this analysis.

Today I’m an entrepreneur working with several innovative UK tech and engineering companies. I’m passionate about helping new businesses raise the funds they need to take off.  A huge part of that is helping entrepreneurs effectively communicate the unique selling points and benefits of their innovations so they can secure investors.  For me, this all started with A Shade Greener, but I consider myself a lilypad-hopper, jumping into exciting new opportunities as they arise, for example plastic recycling, an SME fund to cover the Covid impact, and assisted living accommodation.

For instance, through the SMF network I was recently introduced to a company called Plastecowood which manufactures plastic lumber and outdoor garden furniture from recycled plastic waste, and I’ve since become its CFO.  I’m also trying to set up a ‘Back to Normal Fund’ to invest in British businesses with the aim of delivering more innovative and flexible funding solutions than traditional banks allow.  The aim is to support companies that have a strong offering and future but have suffered the ravages of the COVID pandemic lockdown.

I have always felt that I owe British engineering something because of my SMF MBA scholarship; that’s how I got my big break and ended up where I am today.  If I can get this fund off the ground, that will be the epitome of what Lord Sainsbury wanted us to do!

Advice for those thinking about an MBA
My number one piece of advice to anybody considering doing an MBA is: do it now!  We are about to experience another recession, this time driven by the pandemic.  So, going to business school now is, I think, a good time.  Do it now and come out of business school with your ‘golden ticket’ when we are bit further along this difficult route.  My other bit of advice would be to keep an open mind about job roles and go and see anybody who expresses an interest in interviewing you. My unexpected turn of luck was getting an interview at GE Capital that led to me doing deals of $1.5 million to $27 billion. That opportunity would not have come my way had I not taken a punt and gone to a party that I really wasn’t in the mood for at the time!

If you are an engineer seeking an SMF scholarship to help finance your MBA, always be yourself, be thorough and well-prepared if you want to impress the panel.  Be three questions deep on every topic and back up everything you put into a presentation, with facts and examples of your achievements.  Make sure you know what you’re presenting and what’s behind it, and never wing it as inevitably you will be caught out and will lose your credibility.

Simon has had an incredible career and, most importantly, he has had fun along the way.  Today, as an entrepreneur, he can decide which projects he wants to support, and is helping a diversity of businesses become financially sound.  Like many Sainsbury Management Fellows, Simon is involved in community and voluntary work.  He is one of the country’s many volunteers on the COVID frontline, in his case, as ambulance crew for St John Ambulance doing 999 calls.

The SMF MBA Scholarship
If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as a stepping-stone towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could be awarded a £50,000 scholarship.

IoD Appoints Sainsbury Mangement Fellow, Patrick Macdonald as New Chair

SMF and Chair of IoD, Patrick Macdonald

The Institute of Directors has appointed Sainsbury Management Fellow, Patrick Macdonald as its new Chair after a comprehensive search process.

Patrick, who takes on the role on from 22 March, brings a wealth of experience and expertise to the organisation. He replaces John Watson who has been interim Chair of the IoD since September 2020.

The process was overseen by the IoD’s Nomination Committee. The Chair of the committee and Senior Independent Council Member, Jean Church, MBE said Mr Macdonald was an outstanding choice to take over as Chair.

“We had a number of excellent candidates to choose from and after a rigorous selection process, we were delighted to appoint Patrick. I would like to thank John Watson for stepping in as interim Chair last year and helping to lead the IoD during the last seven months.”

Mr Watson, who led the Board’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and will remain as part of the IoD Board when the new chair starts, also welcomed Mr Macdonald.

“I am delighted that we’ve been able to bring someone with Patrick’s experience and broad range of skills on board for the next stage of the IoD’s development. Our drive to make the IoD membership more reflective of the country as a whole is progressing well. I’m looking forward to Patrick’s leadership of the Institute at a crucial time for our members and the country.

“Finally, as I step down, I’d like to pay tribute to the IoD teams, our members and volunteers everywhere who have done a magnificent job in helping us get into the right shape to grow after what has been a very challenging year.”

Patrick said: “I have been a member of the IoD since 2001 and am delighted and honoured to take over as Chair today. This is a hugely important and exciting time for the IoD.

“All businesses and business organisations have faced enormous challenges over the last year. It’s clear the IoD had already done a lot before the pandemic struck to get into shape for the long term.

“This excellent work, led by John Watson and the team, has brought us closer to our members in many important ways. The IoD will continue reinvigorating the value it delivers to existing and new members.

“The Institute is a true members’ organisation that represents the authentic voice of British business. Our members will be at the heart of the economic recovery. I am looking forward to working  with Director General Jonathan Geldart, his team and all our members across the UK and beyond to help them play their part in that recovery.”

Patrick has held both executive and non-executive roles across a wide range of businesses over the last 35 years.

He started his professional career as an engineer at the Ministry of Defence before joining Unilever. Patrick worked for Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in Germany and the UK, then joined General Electric (GE) in the USA. Patrick became CEO of John Menzies plc, based in Scotland, and has subsequently worked in private equity-backed businesses including Reconomy, the waste management company. He  chairs Moneypenny, the call answering and live chat service and Arcus FM, the tech-based facilities management business. He is co-founder and Chair of the School for CEOs, the senior-level executive development business. He is a Non-Executive Director of NatureSpace, the environmental consultancy.

Patrick is also Vice Chair of the Scottish Advisory Committee of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (DofE) and was until recently a Trustee of the Woodland Trust.

Director-General Jonathan Geldart also welcomed Mr Macdonald to the IoD.

“Patrick joins us at an important and exciting time for the Institute.  In a challenging external environment, John Watson has led the organisation through a successful internal restructure and established a much more efficient cost base. That has enabled us to be in a strong position to make the important changes we need to drive the future growth of the IoD.

I’m really looking forward to working closely with Patrick as we move onto the next stage of that programme.”

We would like to thank the IoD for permission to publish this article.

Coping through COVID: Less Obvious Strategies for Growth Businesses to Survive the Pandemic – SMF Chirag Shah, Executive Chairman, Simfoni

To say the COVID-19 pandemic has been a test for businesses would be an understatement. Throughout the course of the past 12 months, businesses have been forced to make serious adjustments to their day-to-day operations.  Digital-savvy companies might have found this easier than most, but even those at the cutting edge will have found themselves scrambling to re-assess their expectations just to stay in business. There will no doubt be start-ups out there that have actually benefited from the crisis, but for every success story there will be countless start-ups and young businesses still struggling to adapt to the so-called ‘new normal’ in which we find ourselves.

However, despite all of the uncertainty, there are several things that young, innovative businesses can do to increase their resilience and weather the COVID storm.  Some of these ‘coping’ strategies are fairly obvious, such as securing financial support packages such as bounce back loans, future funds and innovation grants. Staffing policies such as hiring freezes and the furloughing of surplus staff will also have been a necessary measure taken by many businesses. Some may have even introduced pay cuts which, so long as they’re top-down and impact managers as much as – if not more than – those lower down the ranks, is a sensible but hopefully temporary move. The last tool in the arsenal of most young businesses will be the slashing of overheads to reduce costs – the elephant in the room during the pandemic being unused office space which can save significantly in rental fees.

Less obvious strategies for ensuring growth
The above techniques are  a good start, but what about less obvious strategies for navigating through the pandemic?  Faced with a downturn in business, the above ideas may not be sufficient to ensure business survival. And many business leaders won’t just be looking to survive but continue their growth throughout the crisis.  Forward looking business leaders should be looking at adopting a combination of light-handed and more aggressive tactics, in the right place and at the right time, to ensure their survival. These tactics fall into two categories – cost and revenue – which we look at in more detail below.

Tactics to ensure revenue growth
Revenue is like oxygen for businesses. Go too long without it, and your business will become weak and eventually fade away. Your first move as a business owner during a time of crisis should therefore be securing revenue and cashflow.  Start by removing all friction, making it easier for your customers and clients to engage with you however they wish.  For example, remove upfront fees or setup fees where possible to simplify customer acquisition, and curtail long-term commitments that might delay sign-off. Remember that your customers are most likely in the same boat you are and looking to make cost reductions, so treat them with care and double down on customer service offering whatever help you can to make their lives easier and make your services indispensable.  Finally, while trying to get money into the business might be your number one objective, the best way of achieving this might be to offer some flexibility to your customers – far better to wait for a late payment than lose the business altogether.

There are things outside of the day to day that could help businesses maintain or build revenue too. Consider diversifying your business and embracing new channels for marketing and distribution. Offer a unique service that responds directly to the events of the pandemic, such as additional customer support. Your messaging should also adapt to fit this new narrative, reminding customers and prospects that you’re very much open for business and willing to help and flex to help keep them on track too.

Tactics to effectively reduce costs
Top line revenue isn’t the only factor when it comes to business sustainability.  Businesses that don’t keep a close eye on their expenses and take advantage of every possible reduction are both increasing their viability risk as well as limiting their potential to re-invest in growth. Your first course of action should be to start the clock on all notice periods for any suppliers or facilities irrespective of whether you know you’re going to need the service or not during the pandemic period. These contracts can have 3-6 months’ notice periods, so starting the clock should be number one on your list of priorities.   Of course, if things shift positively and you want to re-engage these firms, it only takes a minute to reverse the decision.

For any suppliers or facilities that you know you’re going to need, take the opportunity to renegotiate terms, particularly if the contract period is nearly up.  Remember, commercial landlords and countless suppliers are going to be worried about their revenue too and will want to gain some security about your future business.  For instance, if you know you’re going to be using a particular service in the long term, offer a contract extension in lieu of a reduction in current pricing. Far better for a service provider to keep you at a reduced rate than to try and attract a new customer in the current economic environment.

Staffing is another area where cost reductions can be made. It’s never easy, but with the changing work environment and rapid fluctuations in customer demand for services, you may find that you have to let some non-core staff go. The job market has also been flooded with candidates, particularly those with digital skills so if you are hiring staffyou may be able to enlist the help of interns and remote workers at a reduced rate.

Risk management
As well as controlling revenue and costs, now is a very pertinent time for businesses to review their risk management strategy. With the working landscaping changing so rapidly, businesses are vulnerable to all manner of threats, from cyberattacks and supply-chain disruption, to force majeure clauses or flaky contracts that could leave your business exposed.  Carry out thorough risk assessments and learn your business’ vulnerabilities inside out so you can start building toward a stronger, more resilient future.

With vaccines now being rolled out at a rapid rate, the COVID-19 pandemic will hopefully soon be behind us.  By taking some of the steps outlined above, businesses can not only ensure their survival throughout the crisis but build for a more profitable future.  One thing’s for sure, businesses that make it through the pandemic will be stronger and wiser as a result – make sure you’re one of them.

Chirag is the Founder and Chairman of Simfoni a leader in spend management. The global company has offices in USA, Europe, Australia and Middle East. Its AI-powered intelligence solution and on-demand platform empowers procurement and finance teams to achieve rapid savings and support supply-chain sustainability with automated procurement.