Philippa Dickenson, from MBA to Psychotherapy
Philippa became one of the early Sainsbury Management Fellows after gaining her MBA at INSEAD in 1988. Here Philippa shares her thoughts the MBA and her career.
What career aspirations did you have as a youngster?
I’m not sure that I had career aspirations as such in the mid to late 1970s. I was much more interested in feminist politics, social science and going to parties than I was in thinking about a career track. I enjoyed creative writing and travelling whenever I had the chance and could afford it. I suppose the continuing theme is an interest in ideas and how they apply in the real world.
Why did you choose to study engineering?
I really liked physics and maths at school and wanted first of all to study physics. With two older brothers and a father who’d studied engineering or were qualified engineers, the influence was very strong to do something more vocational that would lead to a job after university. Although, my father wasn’t keen for me to study engineering – not quite the thing he thought suited a girl which was a red rag to a bull to me! I think studying engineering was a form of teenage rebellion if I’m honest.
What roles and responsibilities did you have before your MBA?
After university, I joined Mars – of Mars Bars fame – as an engineering graduate trainee. I remember looking across the vast open plan office at Justin King (a fellow graduate trainee), little thinking that he would one day be CEO of Sainsbury’s.
After my training, I became a Zone VI Project Engineer. My area of responsibility was the engineering elements of producing chocolate – lots of it. I managed a range of projects, from small production improvements to a major upgrade and factory rebuild for the chocolate production facility. Huge fun and huge responsibility for a 25-year old to be responsible for what would now be about $30m of capital spend, a team of 5 and a vast range of contractors. And all to be done within a working production environment. It taught me such a lot about getting things done with and through people, about listening to others as part of making decisions, about organisational politics and about the vagaries of real life and contractors. ‘So my cheque is in the post then, is it?’
Mars gave me great experience as I had to produce the business case for any engineering spend I wanted to make and see projects all the way through from concept to commissioning and then handover to production and regular maintenance crews. I left after 4.5 years to take up my SMF at INSEAD.
What was your motivation for doing an MBA?
The final part of my engineering degree was in Manufacturing Systems which covered a wide range of business topics as well as technical subjects: economics, industrial relations, employment law, finance and statistics as well as design for manufacture. The course director suggested doing a full-time MBA after getting a few years’ experience. Although I wasn’t consciously seeking to do an MBA, I guess the idea stuck in the back of my mind so when I heard of the SMF scheme to support an MBA, it struck a chord.
What was the greatest benefit of your MBA?
Starting to think like a business person rather than an engineer. Broadening my horizons in terms of international exposure and to exposure to different types of thinking.
How has the SMF network helped you?
There’s a strong entrepreneurial group within the SMF and that has inspired me to think more entrepreneurially. Whether the product is about psychological assessment and talent development or much more technical, any entrepreneur needs the same disciplines and thought processes about product development, market feedback and testing, marketing and sales etc.
What’s been the greatest benefit of being an SMF?
The opening up of new avenues to me through going to INSEAD.
What are your hopes for SMF for the next 25 years?
That it can help raise the profile of engineers, particularly entrepreneurial engineers. They might not need an MBA to do their job, strictly speaking, but it does attract a ‘can do’ group of people interested in doing different things.
What is the biggest challenge in your business sector today?
How to develop a strong presence quickly in a crowded marketplace without having your intellectual property stolen before you’ve had the chance to grow your product.
How can engineers help to grow the UK’s modern manufacturing industry?
The kinds of skills I learnt in managing technology projects stand me in as good a stead as any business training. Having more broad-minded and business-savvy engineers at a senior level in business can only help to strengthen manufacturing industry. And engineers tend to be passionate about what they do. We’re fantastic at high-level, sophisticated engineering work – we need to reinforce this and draw on our engineering intelligence to see how we expand that knowledge and skills base in industry. And engineering skills apply in wildly different contexts too – who would think of putting engineering and psychology together to develop a product for managers to develop their talent? Yet it’s happening.
How has technology transformed the way business is done in your sector?
IT and cloud-based computing are changing the world of psychological insight and development. Reviewing the talent of your team used to involve highly trained experts, with at least 200 hours of training under their belt, and could cost you up to £750K. Using SaaS-based technology, managers can learn to assess teams for themselves at a tenth of the cost. And it helps each manager learn how they think about their own as well as other people’s potential, rather than leaving it to the outside experts.
What skills do engineers bring to business?
An engineering mindset is useful in all sorts of settings, including in the psychotherapist’s consulting room. Handling ambiguity, working with a wide range of different kinds of information, thinking systemically and dealing in the art of the possible are all things I learnt in my first job as an engineer. These are as much life and leadership skills as they are engineering skills. More engineers at senior levels in business who can bring a broad as well as a practical perspective can only help industry to succeed.
Which engineering pioneer do you admire and why?
Dyson – for his persistence, his enthusiasm for technology and ideas and for his commitment to educating others about what engineering and education can do.
Which engineering endeavour do you most admire? Getting the Olympics working so successfully – a huge engineering challenge of many different kinds and on different levels. How about inspiring a generation of engineers as well as athletes? We could make so much more of what went on behind the scenes to make the sport tick.
Case studies correct at the time of publication. SMFs may have moved to new posts since publication. For the latest career information on our Fellows visit our SMF Profile Page.