Category Archives: SMFs (Members)

Mastering the MBA Admissions Essay

Wharton MBA Candidate Nic Renard

By Nic Renard, (CEng MEng Hons, Imperial College London), The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

For some people, an MBA is something that was always going to be a part of their career – a rung in the ladder that they would plan for years in advance.  My journey was a little different. I’ve always loved being an engineer, but after working for eight plus years in the same company I felt the need to make a change. Society needs to evolve, and I want to play a part in driving that evolution. To achieve that, I knew I would need to develop my entrepreneurial skills, deepen my understanding of digital technologies and equip myself with the business know-how to kickstart the next chapter of my career.  That’s when I decided to apply for an MBA.  Having gone through the application process, I thought I would share my experience of tackling the MBA admissions essay as this may help aspiring applicants.

Being true to yourself
“The MBA admissions essay is important for lots of reasons, but ultimately, it’s about getting to know the candidates and their motivations for wanting to do an MBA. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of writing what you think the admissions team wants to hear – if you catch yourself doing that, take a step back and do some more thinking.

“First, it’s very difficult to persuade somebody that you’re something you’re not, and sooner or later you’ll get caught (probably during the interview). The admissions team is very thorough, and reviews thousands of applications each year, so are adept at spotting lack of authenticity; people that present themselves in a way they think will please the admissions team. Second, the essays are a fantastic opportunity for you to reflect on your career journey and your next steps.  Approach the essay as a ‘thinking tool’ – use it to dig deep and reflect on what you have achieved so far and where you want to go next in your career. If you don’t figure out where you want the MBA to take you, you’ll end up trying to recruit for consulting, banking and big tech all at the same time!

“For me, the admissions essay was a chance to sharpen my career plan. It also helped me focus my time and attention on the right activities at Wharton. When you start at your chosen school, you will find so many opportunities at your feet that you will need a clearly defined set of goals to choose the right ones and make the most of your time at b-school. 

Putting pen to paper
“The admissions essay will force you to think seriously about yourself and your career. I found it an interesting exercise, and I learned a few things about myself that might otherwise have slipped under the radar. For weeks, I discussed what I was going to write with my wife, parents and friends, and this helped me to cut through the noise and get to the heart of what I wanted to say. I did find the actual writing of the essays and staying within the word limit a challenge, but it was made immeasurably easier by first figuring out my story and what I wanted to say.

“Coming from an engineering background there were very few people in my network that had gone through the MBA applications process to whom I could go for advice. At the time I was concerned about this, but it was a blessing in disguise as it forced me to focus entirely on what I wanted to say rather than what the admissions team might want to hear. By all means look to others for advice before putting pen to paper, but make sure your essay is yours and yours alone. 

Structuring your essays
“Essays traditionally have a set layout with an introduction, body and conclusion.  This is important, but the format your MBA admissions essays take will largely depend on your chosen topic and your individual story. There is no fixed format or ‘top ten things that need to be included in your essay’.

“That said, the admissions team will be looking for certain traits in your essay. They will want to see examples of leadership, particularly in extra-curricular environments. They will also want to see evidence of proactive contributions in team settings, as well as any industry skills you may have picked up on that might not be explicitly referenced on your resume. Different programmes will have different criteria by which they assess your application, so this will impact the layout and weighting of topics.

“Take care how you express your accomplishments. You need to balance a fine line between singing your own praises and conveying the uniqueness of your application. Be wary of superlative language or anything that feels boastful but do bear in mind that it is a competitive application and the admissions team does want to hear about your accomplishments in the right way.

Making it relevant
“One of the most important aspects of writing an MBA admissions essay is tailoring it to each business school you are applying to. Different schools have different requirements, preferences and weightings, and programmes can vary widely too. Some schools might be looking for academics, others might be more interested in entrepreneurs, some might want natural leaders or industry professionals etc.

“It’s also a good idea to get a sense of where each school’s programme is trying to go, for example, is it trying to develop a new type of major? Does it want to improve its finance rankings? Has it recently opened a new environmental research centre? All of this should be easy to research online and will help you understand what your chosen business schools might be looking for in candidates. Going back to the essay structure, this research could hugely influence the weighting of your essays and how you write them. 

Backing achievements up
“One of the unwritten rules for admissions essays is back up everything you say with real-world examples. No MBA administrator is going to be impressed with a well-written essay that doesn’t demonstrate the talents and skills you claim to have. For example, instead of writing “I’m a passionate team player who leverages everyone’s skills in every project I undertake,” you should write something along these lines: “While working on project X, I personally sought to bring people from departments Y and Z into the team because their skills in A, B and C complemented mine and enabled us to tackle aspect D of the project and complete it X months early.” I think you will agree that the latter example is a more persuasive way of highlighting a relevant skill.

“On the whole, I think the key to unlocking your MBA future and submitting a brilliant admissions essay is simply figuring out why you want to do an MBA and what you bring to your business school of choice. If you take nothing else away from this article, this alone should be enough to set you up for success.”

How to Apply for the Sainsbury Management Fellows MBA Scholarship

If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as one of the stepping-stones towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could become one of our successful awardees –the individual scholarship is £50,000 and we award ten of these every year.

SMFs, can you help the world’s brightest young engineers to become future engineering leaders?

SMF Sam Cockerill, CEO, Libertine FPE

The experience, network and friends I have gained through the Engineers in Business Fellowship have had an enormous impact on my career and personal development since I graduated from INSEAD in 2001, supported by a Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship. But perhaps the most valuable aspect of this continuing relationship for me has been the opportunity to work with the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Engineering Leadership Scholarship (ELS) scheme.

Over the past 17 years, I have worked alongside other SMFs, Academy fellows and ELS alumni to help select new ELS awardees from each year’s engineering undergraduate applicants, and to help train and mentor each new cohort. These are some of the world’s brightest young engineers, intent on using engineering skills to tackle society’s toughest problems, and looking for support for their personal development plans that will see many of them become future engineering leaders.

I hope sharing some of my experience of the ELS scheme will tempt you to get in touch to find out how you can help the Royal Academy of Engineering develop this next generation.

About the Engineering Leadership Scholarship scheme
The ELS programme is an annual award scheme for undergraduates in engineering and related disciplines who have the potential to become engineering leaders, and in turn to act as role models for future engineers.  All successful applicants receive £5,000 to be used over three years towards personal development activities. Award recipients also receive training and mentoring to help them fulfil their potential to move into engineering leadership positions in industry soon after graduation.

The trigger for me getting involved in the ELS programme came at an SMF Annual Dinner 17 years ago, from a chance conversation with Dr Peter Revell, then Undergraduate Programme Manager at the Royal Academy of Engineering. I discovered that the relationship between Sainsbury Management Fellowship and the Royal Academy of Engineering was broad and synergistic, with reciprocal involvement across the selection, training and mentoring activities of each organisation.

Not only was my interest piqued, I also felt that getting involved in the ELS programme could allowed me to start ‘paying forwards’ the generosity of the SMF scheme from which my own career and personal development has benefitted.

Helping on selection day
My involvement in the ELS scheme has grown over the years, and began with supporting the interview and selection event. Held in March each year, this annual event brings together selected engineering undergraduates from top-ranked higher education institutions all over the country to take part in an intense, fun-packed day of group exercises and networking, with individual interviews taking place in between these activities.

Although not a formal part of the selection process, the group exercises help candidates to relax and socialise, and conversations during breaks and lunch with other applicants, ELS alumni, SMFs and RAE fellows provide a flavour of the energy, diversity, and common purpose of this high calibre engineering community. At interview, candidates get to share their perspective on the role of engineering in society, their background, ambitions and career plans, as they try to secure one of the £5,000 scholarships awarded each year.

I first began my involvement with the interview and selection process gently, initially sitting alongside a Royal Academy of Engineering fellow who would lead the interview. More recently I have led interviews alongside other SMFs and ELS alumni who are now also involved in the selection process. Around seventy interviews take place throughout the day, typically with 10 interview panels assessing seven candidates in a series of half-hour interviews. The supporting interviewer sits with one lead interviewer in the morning and another in the afternoon, which helps provide another perspective and ensure consistency across each of the interview panels. After the interviews are complete, the selection process concludes with a structured review of candidate interview performance against the ELS award’s selection criteria, in which all interviewers share their findings. Supporting interviewers can summarise their assessment of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, often providing an important second opinion that helps balance or qualify the assessment of the person leading the interview.

The ELS training weekend – Saturday all day & Sunday Half Day: October 5 & 6 2019
I also take part in the annual ELS training event held at Aston University each year. These weekend events are in theory more relaxed than the selection days, though are larger events since all three current cohorts attend, and in practice share much of the same atmosphere, energy and pace. For the new awardees it’s an opportunity to meet others in their group, compare personal development plans, and learn about the impact of the award for several ELS alumni who have begun their engineering careers.

Participants arrive on Friday evening or Saturday morning, with the most recent cohort arriving first for a formal welcome and scene-setting talk. The weekend’s schedule is punctuated throughout with coffee and lunch breaks where all three cohorts mingle and meet with their fellow award holders, and with SMFs and RAE fellows.

Saturday kicks off with a series of break-out sessions with each cohort having its own tailored programme of group-based interactive activities covering a range of topics from personal development planning, communication, team working, negotiation, marketing, and MBA-style business games and role-playing activities. SMFs play a key role in preparing, running and supporting these exercises.

Before breaking for dinner, two to three recent graduates of the scheme give short presentations to the whole group about their current roles, and how they have used their financial award.  Aside from the enthusiasm, confidence and charisma of the speakers, what is most striking in these alumni presentations is the breadth and quality of experience that the ELS scholarship has enabled – whether on a summer spent developing an energy access project in Africa, a study tour to visit high tech manufacturing businesses in China or an internship with a startup in Silicon Valley. This forum helps current award holders recalibrate their own personal development plans, and go on to test their ideas with other award holders who may be a year or two ahead of them, either through face to face discussion during the weekend or subsequently via LinkedIn and email contacts shared at the event.

Sunday morning sees each cohort group back at ‘work’ in another set of interactive group sessions followed by a career planning Q&A session with ELS alumni and SMFs before heading off shortly after lunch.

Getting involved
The level of volunteer time commitment required for the ELS scheme is entirely flexible. I started by supporting interview panels and then extended my involvement by supporting, and then delivering activities within the training weekend. I have mentored a number of ELS awardees and through my company Libertine FPE we have on one occasion provided an internship.

Although there is certainly value in having individual SMFs support any one aspect of the ELS scheme, I’ve found that participation in both the selection and training events has some synergistic benefit, with the training weekend highlighting the impact of scheme and the calibre of current and past award holders, and the selection event providing a first introduction to future award holders.

So, what do I perceive to be the benefits of the ELS scheme, and getting involved?  The media often highlights the UK’s skills gap, but the ELS programme demonstrates that UK universities are producing some very high calibre graduates. Apart from the opportunity to share my MBA and career experience with ELS award holders (possibly future SMF scheme applicants – many ask about the right time to study for an MBA) – mixing with the brightest talent also brings new insights about my own career and engineering business.

It’s also helped me to understand the processes and influences through which undergraduates decide on their engineering path, their career aspirations, what impact they want to have on society and their decisions about taking a job with a blue-chip engineering firm or a start-up business.

Taking part in the ELS training weekend also provides time for reflection. I am very conscious that in my choice of career at Libertine, I have deliberately chosen to focus on building a company that could help address the global challenges of our generation at the intersection of population growth, resource consumption, energy and climate change.

It’s a finely balanced one because the world is facing unprecedented and urgent climate and resource crises that loom larger each day. Pessimistic media headlines can add to the impression that politics will be too slow to react, that national action will be too limited to be effective and that the challenge is likely to be insurmountable. The Royal Academy of Engineering ELS events are the perfect antidote to this sort of fatalism. Mixing with 300 or so of these stellar new engineers, all energised by the idea of bringing engineering solutions to bear these big challenges, and realising that this is not unique, that all over the world millions of scientists and engineers are graduating each year to join the fray, I get a renewed sense of shared purpose and technology optimism.

How you can help
James Raby has played an important role in supporting ELS selection process and delivering several of the group sessions in the ELS training events over many years. James has also helped build awareness of the ELS scheme and the essential supporting role of SMFs. His tragic death last year leaves a gap that must be filled.

My hope is that a handful of SMF volunteers can get involved in the Engineering Leadership Scholarship programme, helping the RAE to develop the next generation of engineering leaders. The most urgent priority is to provide continuity of SMF support to help define and deliver the October 2019 training weekend, and ensure that this is a success.

In future, I hope that SMFs will continue to play an important role in the ongoing development and delivery of the ELA scheme. It has been a great experience for me. If you would like to know more and join a meeting with the RAE in August to help plan the October 2019 training weekend, please email

Creating Strategy Middle Up

Paul Christodolou Group
SMF Paul Christodolou

The age of top-down strategy is long gone. This doesn’t fit with the guiding principles of modern, empowered business cultures as it tends to disempower and demotivate the people who are our greatest asset. Strategy is now developed ‘middle-up’, often involving cross-functional teams of managers, subject experts, and the handful of wise old heads that often sit quietly hidden away in every organisation. This, in theory, shouldn’t be a problem. Indeed, since the people that live-and-breathe the business everyday know the strategic levers better than anyone, this should be the ideal way to create breakthrough thinking. All we need to do is liberate this latent power within the organisation to beat the pants off the competition (and, at the same time, save a fortune in high powered consultants).

The problem is that this middle-up, consultative process for creating strategy is prone to severe pitfalls if managed poorly. Without structure, process and clear deliverables, this can end up as ‘strategy by committee’. One board member of a leading airline recently expressed her frustration and horror at this modern, workshop-based approach, bemoaning the ‘death of individual thought’.  Furthermore, since strategy naturally destabilises the status quo and challenges territories, organisational politics can often interfere and create unhelpful tension and even strategic paralysis.

However, the prize from getting this right is so big that middle-up strategy needs its own definition of best practice. This approach is too good to miss. It not only taps directly into the best source of rich and vibrant thinking, but it automatically creates a motivated and unified implementation team. And anyway, the best alternative is to use expensive consultants whom the in-house team will just end up resenting and whose outputs they will almost certainly disown.

There are golden rules that can help make a success of this empowered strategy approach. Here are seven important ones.

Plan a structured ‘journey of discovery’: It’s no good just scheduling a strategy workshop and expecting this to lead to innovative, joined-up thinking. Developing strategy this way should be a structured ‘journey of discovery’ for the project team. Designing the journey is the first crucial task. There are natural phases and milestones in the journey, and different types of activities to ensure the right blend of workshop, individual thought and background analysis.  Carefully planned workshops typically form the backbone, with supporting analysis filling out the flesh. The project needs to start with divergent, creative thinking and move steadily towards more convergent, analytical thinking. The journey needs to cover exploratory pilots, decision points that help distil new strategic principles, and practical planning sessions so that everyone understands how to make it all happen. 

Create a ‘burning platform’: Launching major strategy projects with cross-functional teams requires a sense of urgency – the so-called ‘burning platform’. The term originates from the oil industry (i.e. a burning off-shore oil platform) and refers to the urgent need to move from an uncomfortable position.  In business terms, this demands a clear articulation of exactly why we need to change in a simple and compelling fashion. This might also paint a disturbing picture of what might happen if we just let the status quo drift while the competition forge ahead. Without the burning platform, time-starved managers will not be motivated to get involved.

Get everyone on the same page: When a major strategy project is launched, it is amazing how quickly key participants develop different ideas of what it is all about. Some will want this to fix their own pet problems, some will have wildly over-ambitious views of what this can achieve, others will just get the wrong end of the stick. Creating a clear project charter is the obvious way to get everyone on the same page as they become engaged. This may be a written document or, more likely, a short presentation to guide a personal briefing. This can be followed up with workshop techniques such as roadmapping – simple but powerful visualisation approaches that help liberate, structure and distil the accumulated wisdom of the team.

Predict winners and losers: As soon as the project is launched and the team is engaged, the likely winners and losers will start to become apparent. The problem is that at least some of the big potential losers will be on the team that is shaping the strategy and, as the saying goes, turkeys rarely vote for Christmas. The strategy leader needs to be considering this right from the project inception as this can create a negative influence or even derail the project completely. The key point is that individual roles will almost certainly change during the course of a major strategy programme. If you want to take everyone with you, you need to facilitate a change in every individual’s position and contribution that aligns with the emerging picture.

Blend experience, gut feel and facts: Developing innovative strategy requires a balance of ‘hard’ data analysis and ‘softer’ inputs such as the collective judgment and experience of the management team. Many organisations go to one or other extreme. Intensive strategy workshops are the perfect means for combining hard and soft inputs in a balanced way. But this means careful preparation of meaningful data pitched at the right level – it’s easy to try to ‘boil the ocean’ of possible data. It also means preparing each workshop in full detail, using appropriate visualisation and analysis tools, and making sure that every activity leads to a useful outcome and a clear set of strategic insights.

Expose the really breakthrough thinking: Strategy development can tend to polarise around two extremes – constraint-driven improvements on today or sexy blue sky thinking on what might be possible. The former can lack ambition and the latter is often unrealistic.  Both of these are useful calibration points, but the best answer lies somewhere between the two. Breakthrough strategy refers to that elusive middle ground – the point that represents new, visionary thinking that is also practical and do-able. Getting to breakthrough requires particular workshop approaches, constant iteration and dogged determination.

Move seamlessly from planning to doing: A common problem in traditional approaches to strategy development is that, even when the final strategy has been agreed, there is huge inertia that delays the launch of implementation. There are various ways of ensuring that the transition from ‘planning’ to ‘doing’ is seamless. One crucial issue is seeding implementation champions into the process early on. These may not be the clearest thinkers on the team, but they may be the barrier-smashing enthusiasts who will make it happen. Another important step is to define pilot implementation projects and not be afraid to launch these even before the overall strategy is complete. Strategy shouldn’t be developed in an ivory tower and there is a lot to be said for learning by doing.

But can we demonstrate that middle-up strategy works?:  One leading multi-national recently used this consultative, workshop-based approach to develop an innovative strategy across a large, complex organisation. This $5bn global leader with 15,000 staff had grown significantly by acquisition over the preceding 10 years, leaving a latent need for integration. The imperative was to develop a unified, global strategy that would optimise the operational network to reduce cost and provide a platform for growth in the major emerging markets.

This company was made up of three autonomous regional businesses (Americas, Europe, Asia) co-ordinated across four global product lines. The dynamics and tensions within the complex matrix of responsibilities was a key feature of the project. The strategy process involved running a set of pilot strategy workshops within each global product business, followed by a set of aggregation workshops organised by geographic region, then culminating in a finalisation workshop covering the whole business. All this was interspersed with significant exploratory and then validating analysis. The strategy development process involved 110 senior and middle managers and took around 12 months. These managers, of course, had to run the business at the same time (although special backfill support was organised to free-up some of their busy schedules).

The outcome of this intense and dynamic process was a multi-faceted strategy that was truly both global and local, and that could naturally be implemented by regional teams with consistency regarding globally standardised products and processes.  It provided the blueprint for a $250m transformation programme which required a Wall Street rights issue to fund. Five years on, the project has created $55m in repeating annual savings for the company, has helped to reinvigorate its lead in technology, and has forged market-leading positions in Asia, South America and Europe.

So it can be demonstrated that middle-up strategy not only works, but can produce stunning results. It fits the modern business culture, it intimately involves the people who know the business best, it automatically primes and motivates implementation champions, and it gets results. It is far  preferable to top-down decree or simply outsourcing strategy to external consultants.   Running effective middle-up strategy may have just become a critical success factor in 21st century businesses.

About the Author
Paul Christodoulou has over 20 years experience as a strategy leader working in international business. His career has seen him working in senior management roles, heading up global strategic projects covering manufacturing, marketing, M&A and post-M&A integration. Originally an engineer, Paul switched to strategy after completing his MBA at INSEAD which was supported by the Sainsbury Management Fellowship. SMF was established in 1987 by Lord Sainsbury who believes talented engineers make a valuable contribution to the senior management of an organisation.

Paul is currently working for the University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing managing collaborations with partner companies aimed at putting university research into practice in the general area of global strategy ( Paul also runs a strategy consultancy Strajectory which provides innovative and practical strategy support to businesses of all sizes ( Paul’s recent book “Strategy Workshop Toolkit: How to Herd Wild Cats and Create Breakthrough Strategies” is available through online booksellers.

From MBA to DNA

Chris Martin, Chief Executive of Sciona, a company at the cutting edge of business innovation and the revolution in genetics.

SMF Chris Martin is a highly qualified chemical engineer. His MBA demystified the workings of corporate finance and enabled him to pursue his ambitions for commercialising technology. Chris, who started his career as a chemical engineer, has harnessed the knowledge he gained from an MBA at leading Swiss business school IMD (formerly IMI) to combine his natural commercial flair with his scientific know-how. His sector is one of the freshest business areas to have opened up in the last decade – taking technology developed in academic institutions to mainstream markets.

Sciona, the latest in a string of spin-out ventures Chris has presided over, is leading the push to bring the benefits of major breakthroughs in mapping the human genome, to consumers.

His company offers a service to customers that reveals if they are genetically predisposed to illnesses affected by lifestyle factors like stress, diet and exercise. It offers consumers the opportunity to tailor their lifestyles to ensure prolonged health and well-being. Customers simply take a swab from inside their mouths that is then analysed by the company’s expert team of leading scientists to produce each individual’s unique genetic make-up. Combined with a brief lifestyle questionnaire, Sciona can advise its customers how best to make lifestyle changes to enhance their well-being.

Chris’ career started with a degree in Chemical Engineering at Aston University. He followed it with a DPhil in Engineering Science at Oxford University. It was during 18 months of post-doctoral work at the University and the Atomic Energy Research Establishment that he first started to develop his commercial instincts, starting a computer software company with his flatmates. Chris recalls, “I got a real taste for the commercial world and realised I enjoyed that side of the industry as much as the technical elements.”

He joined a small consultancy working in the offshore oil industry that then diversified into the pharmaceutical sector and other process engineering industries. “I took a diploma in management studies to try to understand more about business. From my work I thought I could see situations where large companies were making poor technology investment decisions.”

His interest in this subject grew and in 1988 he applied to Sainsbury Management Fellows for a place on the International MBA programme, opting for a one-year course at the leading Swiss business school IMI, now IMD.

Chris says, “Mine was a classic MBA, very strong on international finance and organisational development. The key thing was that the course demystified a lot of aspects of business. One of the biggest advantages my MBA gave me was a thorough understanding of corporate finance.”

After completing the course Chris used his new skills to tackle the trend of poor technology decision-making he had spotted over the previous years. He and a partner set up the consultancy as part of Marex in late 1989.

Early success, including a series of contracts from Courtaulds, was followed by Chris leading a management buy-out of the consultancy to form Paras Ltd. Growth over the ensuing years created a team of 40 professionals at offices in the UK, Holland and South Africa.

In the early 90s Chris’ attention turned to the growing trend of companies formed around technologies from leading universities and industrial research. He joined a fellow engineer to set up an early stage feed capital company after recognising that embryonic companies founded on campus research required expert outside help.

Chris and a growing number of expert colleagues created a string of successful technology companies including Solcom, which develops web-enabled systems monitoring and management systems, Despatch Box, a data encryption and security company, and SpiroGen, a biotech spin-out developing the technology to stop cancer cells replicating by binding specific DNA strands.

But it was Sciona and its potential for putting a truly groundbreaking health product in the hands of ordinary people that really fired Chris’ imagination. “It’s a really fascinating area to be working in, with some tremendously talented people.

“I’ve never been a traditional chemical engineer but the scientific foundation combined with the skills and knowledge I gained through my MBA have enabled me to take my career forward in challenging and, I hope, innovative ways.”

He concludes, “Every day I see that there is a significant change in the UK climate for entrepreneurial innovation. There are now a lot of well-educated, ambitious young people using their technical education to launch themselves into business. When the SMF scheme started more than dozen years ago, this was almost unheard of.”

You may also be interested in reading interviews with the winners of the SMF MBA Scholarship.