Tag Archives: Business Skills

How Applying the Learning and Experience from an MBA Enhanced the Career of Civil Engineer Tony Walters

As one of our earliest Sainsbury Management Fellows, Tony Walters has forged a far-reaching and illustrious career in the construction industry. His engineering journey started with a successful application to Cambridge University. Then twelve years post-graduation and having achieved his professional qualifications he spent a year studying for an MBA at IMI, Geneva with the help of an SMF scholarship. This broadened his skill-set giving him the breadth of experience and the confidence to take on roles at the forefront of some of the world’s most fascinating and challenging infrastructure projects. The Channel Tunnel, High Speed 1, Crossrail, the Trans-European Railway, Boston Central Artery in USA and high-rise buildings in Hong Kong are a selection of his career highlights. Transitioning between contractors, consultants, project management and client organisations with the continuous thread of major infrastructure projects has enabled him to direct major project work in some eighteen countries. He has seen his industry become more integrated and innovative as well as witness the growth of the Sainsbury Management Fellows – a network that started with ten scholarship awards and now boasts over 375 graduates representing all engineering disciplines. Here, Tony shares his career highlights which all began with a simple desire to “get things done”…

An interest in theory, a passion for its application
My journey to becoming an Engineer was progressive. At secondary school maths and the sciences were, without doubt, my favourite subjects, which led to my choosing double maths, physics and chemistry at A level. My subsequent short-list for degree courses was Architecture, Maths and Engineering. Realising that my two favourite A level subjects of Applied Maths and Physics aligned very well with Engineering I applied to Cambridge. I was very keen on their engineering degree as the first two years included subjects that underpin civil, mechanical and electrical engineering disciplines leaving options open until the final year when there was the chance to specialise. I was fortunate to gain a place at Cambridge and have no doubt that a grounding in a breadth of engineering disciplines is very beneficial. Most projects involve several professions and the greater the ability one has to understand and therefore build and co-ordinate effective project and business teams the better the outcome will be. Similarly, I would counsel that a grounding in the breadth of business disciplines afforded by an MBA is also very beneficial for a career in the construction industry.

At the time the Cambridge entrance exam required a single term 3rd year sixth and my father suggested applying to the Borough Engineer’s Office where we lived to ask for work experience from January to August prior to taking up my degree place. This was successful and I spent eight months in the Drainage Department undertaking both office and site work in a very supportive team. As it happened while there, I was involved in my first tunnelling works as part of a surface water drainage project. This was all superb preparation for my degree, enabling me to see applications for what I was studying. I returned to the council for a couple of months during my second summer vacation and was fortunate to be given a different experience this time in its Bridge Department.

Nurturing a strong affinity with the built environment
In my third year at Cambridge, I chose subjects from the Civil and Structural Engineering options so a career encompassing those branches of engineering beckoned. Sensing at the time that there were two distinct career paths in the UK construction industry, broadly consulting and contracting (or project design & development and project construction) and fairly certain that I wanted to land up in the former I, perhaps perversely, applied to join a contractor. There was method in the madness however as it was with the specific aim of learning about construction by being immersed in it and figuring that it would be easier to make one move from contracting to consulting rather than hop back and forth. My overall career development plan at that time was to obtain broad industry experience, attain professional engineering qualifications and then undertake some formal management training. It is an indication that the industry has become more cohesive that I have in fact moved back and forth several times during my career and also into project management and client organisations.

So, I joined Laing O’Rourke (formerly John Laing) being one of the major UK civil engineering contractors as a Graduate Civil Engineer training under agreement to become a Chartered Engineer (CEng) and a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (MICE). Two years heavy civil engineering construction experience on a major oil-fired power station was followed by eighteen months in the design office as part of the training agreement. That Laing had a reasonably large design office covering both permanent and temporary works was unusual outside a few of the major contractors and more akin to how the industry is organised overseas. This was followed by a return to site in a management contractor role on a large office construction project. During that period, I was successful in becoming a Chartered Civil Engineer and began looking to make a move to an engineering consultancy.

I was successful with a speculative application to the engineering consultants Arup and joined them some five years after graduating. Based in London I worked on structural designs for projects in the UK and Jersey working closely with external architectural practices. I then moved into a team responsible for the design of two high-rise building structures in Hong Kong (Exchange Square and Admiralty Lot 2) both in excess of forty storeys. This was awesome. Engineers at Arup are given significant responsibility and three years there was, without doubt, better than taking a Masters in structural design! I gained sufficient experience to sit for and become a member of the Institution of Structural Engineers (MIStructE) during this time.

Exchange Square, Hong Kong

Pursuing my true passion for civil engineering
As enjoyable as working at Arup was, I had gained further insight into the construction industry and more certainty as to where my real interests lay. These were civil engineering, project management and the direction of major infrastructure projects. At that time Arup focused almost entirely on structural building projects and they wished to continue in that vein. So, I looked around and found that Mott MacDonald was almost the mirror image of this.

Another speculative application resulted in my joining them, initially working on an arbitration. This was very useful, providing an early chance to interact with senior members of the legal profession and experience how contract documentation can be interpreted. I then moved into the Tunnel Division working on such projects as the Medway Tunnel, Cairo Wastewater Sewerage Scheme and then the Channel Tunnel. Again, significant early responsibility was there to be grasped and I found myself managing a team on this latter project designing several kilometres of tunnel and associated shafts forming the start of the landward and seaward railway tunnels. Mentoring team members and assisting graduates with their training to become chartered engineers was an inherent part of the role. This all confirmed my thoughts that having achieved professional engineering qualifications and with a burgeoning interest in project management that I should seek formal management training.

Seeking formal management training
Seeing an advertisement by The Royal Academy of Engineering in New Civil Engineer (the magazine of the Institution of Civil Engineers) seeking engineers to study for an international MBA sponsored by David Sainsbury and with the encouragement of my employer I applied for one of the ten scholarships on offer. My plan was for the MBA to augment my engineering and to return to Mott MacDonald afterwards. The choice at that time (the second year of the Sainsbury awards in 1998) was between three business schools. These were INSEAD, Paris; IMEDE, Lausanne and IMI, Geneva. I chose IMI on the basis that students on the programme had a similar number of years work experience to me and that the curriculum comprised a good balance between formal teaching and case study work. The availability of the Sainsbury scholarships was the catalyst for my choosing to progress along this particular management development path. Without it and with a young family it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to undertake such a high-level intensive programme. I would most likely have taken a part-time MBA or MSc in project management in the UK, which would have been a good option.

The year spent at IMI, living in Geneva with my family, exceeded our expectations in every way. Firstly the immersion in an international setting both from living abroad and from the twenty nationalities drawn from just forty-seven students on the programme. Then from the intensity of the course, the no holds barred class debates during lectures, undertaking exercises in small international teams and presenting the outcomes to the class together with the sheer volume of work. For some professions on such a course certain subjects are not new whereas for engineers they are all new. This is a challenge but more importantly an exceptional learning and personal development opportunity (as well as representing good value for money!). In order to apply the learning while on the programme I chose to investigate the effectiveness of the business development activities of my industry as the topic for my individual research project.

Returning to the workplace with new skills and taking on new roles and responsibilities
The MBA provided a body of management knowledge and understanding most notably in accounting & finance, management & human resources and business development & marketing to bring back to my employer and broaden career development opportunities. It was a catalyst that Mott MacDonald gave me the opportunity to exploit becoming involved in strategic planning, business development and business and project management. This entailed positions as Associate for European Business Development and subsequently, at my instigation, returning to line management as Divisional Director for an engineering division. This convinced me that it is possible to combine the ongoing development of an engineering career with developing, managing and directing the business side of construction industry projects and organisations.  The MBA enabled me to assume a broader range of responsibilities with confidence and with a significant international flavour as evidenced by increasing responsibility for managing and directing a broad range of international projects and businesses. This involved numerous trips to Europe, USA, Malaysia and Taiwan. While all roles used skills and knowledge from the MBA programme, establishing and implementing a company-wide strategy for entering western and central European markets, determining the business case for and setting up joint venture companies in Hungary and the Czech Republic and liaising with European Community Directorates in Brussels concerning project funding made most specific use of them at that time. Other projects included the Boston Central Artery, Sungshan Airport Highway Tunnel in Taipei and the Kuala Lumpur Mass Rapid Transit. Development and introduction of enhanced project progress monitoring and bid management initially for these before they were rolled out more widely was, I believe, a further direct influence of the MBA.

Boston Central Artery - Complex installation of highway tunnels under rail tracks serving Boston South station (photo: courtesy Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections)
Boston Central Artery – Complex installation of highway tunnels under rail tracks serving Boston South station (photo: courtesy Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections)

No problems, just challenges to be overcome
After a total of thirteen years with Mott MacDonald, seven of which were post-MBA, I wanted to become more focused on the management and direction of mega-projects. I began looking for an organisation with such a focus. Coincidentally the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) project was just commencing, and I was tempted by the prospect of involvement in the largest private infrastructure project in Europe at that time. I sent a speculative application to the project promoter London and Continental Railways, which was passed on to the consortium Rail Link Engineering (RLE) that had just been awarded the contract to engineer, procure and manage the construction of this high-speed railway from St. Pancras International to the Channel Tunnel. The US company Bechtel was part of RLE and I joined them specifically to work on CTRL and to work through the full project cycle from engineering into procurement and on to construction (termed EPC). A colleague said that they thought my career would follow projects from then on and this has proved broadly correct. With this, my first appointment with an overseas company came new philosophies and ways of working. In particular, I was struck by the very strong sense of corporate identity, the process-driven environment and the mindset that recast problems as challenges that would be overcome. With overall responsibility for around one-quarter of the CTRL route, my experience of railways grew substantially.

Eurostar train enters the Medway tunnel on CTRL (photo: Alamay)

Mega-projects have for some time been defined as those with a cost exceeding £1bn. This is a somewhat broad definition and depends on context.  However, with a budget of £7bn CTRL falls squarely into this category.  I consider that the process for such projects is akin to building a FTSE250 company to produce a single product and when completed dissolving the company. This is all while meeting peoples’ career aspirations, managing risk and change (the world outside a mega-project does not stand still) and looking to develop and adopt appropriate innovations. The ramp-up, implementation and ramp-down phases all present unique challenges in the mobilisation of people, securing finance, procurement, stakeholder liaison and interfaces with government, other projects, stakeholder businesses and people. Expenditure on CTRL was in excess of £1bn per annum during the construction period. The knowledge and experience gained from an MBA are very valuable in undertaking such projects.

Liaising with Brussels
After completing the design, procurement and civil construction on CTRL over a four-year period the opportunity to become involved in international projects again opened up and I joined a second American company, Parsons Brinckerhoff. I joined as a Director in the Major and Overseas Projects division with responsibility for a range of work. The largest was a 170km section of the trans-European Railway Project in Central Europe. The project scope included the development of the design and construction proposals as well as the business case and preparation of the financial model for both the construction and subsequent operation of the railway. This entailed close liaison with the European Union in Brussels for project viability, environmental impact and ultimately to gain funding approval. Once again MBA-acquired skills and knowledge together with subsequent experience were of immense value in directing an international multi-disciplinary team and driving this infrastructure project forward successfully.

We were also developing the second Bosporus rail crossing in Istanbul, establishing an office in Poland to work on Polish and other railway projects and involved in Dublin metro. Projects closer to home included the Southern Rail power upgrade and review of the proposed Public-Private Partnership (PPP) contract conditions on London Underground. The team for this latter appointment required a wide range of contractual and legal as well as railway knowledge. In this context, while there is a school of thought that management is a skill with universal application, I firmly believe that knowledge of a range of disciplines makes for more efficient direction and can engender greater respect and thereby enhance business performance.

Appearing before Parliamentary Select Committees
Four years on saw me join a client organisation for the first time. This was Cross London Rail Links (CRL), responsible for Crossrail Line 1, a £15bn project providing a new east-west railway under London joining Shenfield, Stratford, Abbey Wood and the Docklands in the east with Heathrow and Reading in the west.  This project was at a much earlier stage than CTRL had been, with several years to go before a hybrid Bill seeking powers to build the railway was due to be put before Parliament. As Chief Engineer I assumed responsibility for all engineering on the project and as a member of the Project Executive found myself, as many years before, in close liaison with the legal profession in the form of Queen’s Counsel in preparation for promotion of the hybrid Bill. I bought inter alia the experience from CTRL of implementing the same type of powers that we were seeking on Crossrail.

Discussing Crossrail with the Duke of Kent (photo: courtesy Crossrail)

The opportunity to appear before Select Committees in both the House of Commons and House of Lords was an honour and I was reminded that Brunel famously championed major infrastructure projects in Parliament. During my time on Crossrail I found that the MBA also enabled me to understand our stakeholders better. I was able to understand the drivers within their businesses, organisations and communities and how our project could impact them. I assumed specific responsibility for liaison with the London Olympic Development Agency (ODA), Network Rail and London Underground and my team managed negotiations with over fifty utility providers. Powers to build the railway were granted ultimately and awards of the numerous detailed design and construction contracts followed.

Returning to contracting
My initial plan was to stay with CRL for the eight years that the project was scheduled to take through to opening. After eight years and owing to factors outside the direct control of the project, construction was quite advanced but opening was still some way in the future. Eight years is in any case a fair time to spend exclusively on one project however large and when the opportunity to join a major contractor as Engineering Director presented itself, I realised that it was perhaps time for a move. As Engineering Director for Kier Construction involvement in the business of the Board called on all my previous experience with particular emphasis on technical issues as well as commercial, contractual, safety and strategic matters. We had work in the UK, often in international joint ventures and overseas notably in the Middle East and Hong Kong. There were two major railway projects in Hong Kong involving major underground works, one as it happened being the construction of an underground interchange station beneath one of the forty storey towers I had designed while with Arup. Almost déjà vu.

Company and project management
With the successful completion of numerous projects, I learnt from a professional colleague that a small engineering management company that works on major infrastructure projects and for whom I have a lot of respect was looking for someone to take the helm and manage the company through a succession issue. This sounded very interesting and on a personal note would provide the opportunity to work in a small organisation that I had not had previously but had often thought would be rewarding. It might also be a step towards more of a portfolio career. I joined this company, London Bridge Associates and once again the knowledge of business developed on the MBA and consolidated by subsequent experience was of immense benefit. Inevitably in such a small company with 50 staff, undertaking management and direction of the business was combined with some direct project involvement. This included the High Speed 2 rail project, some further Crossrail work and as a complete contrast advising on the provision of the infrastructure for a large radio telescope project in Chile. The portfolio took shape with the above combined with periods of work in Malaysia advising on a major underground rail project in Kuala Lumpur and scaling up my involvement with the Institution of Civil Engineers becoming a reviewer undertaking Professional Reviews of aspiring members.

With team leaders in Kuala Lumpur

Advice on developing management skills
There are myriad opportunities and challenges that both clients of and the construction industry itself face globally. The chances this39 presents to use the combination of an engineering degree with formal management training from an MBA are many and varied. I have found that an MBA provides a valuable augmentation to an engineering degree increasing one’s breadth of skills, imparting confidence to challenge the status quo together with the tools to develop and direct the implementation of both project and business change. With the advent of AI, robotics, virtual reality, new materials to improve performance and drive down carbon together with the requirement this brings for new ways of working, new contracts, more efficient risk allocation and new sources of finance the need for engineers who understand business in its widest sense has never been greater.

My advice to those in the construction industry contemplating undertaking an MSc in project management or an MBA? It is quite a commitment so think about how you are going to use it afterwards to benefit yourself and your employer. To look at it in the context of your current employment. This can also be a catalyst for changing direction or moving on, but you need to want to set out in this new direction rather than simply to leave your current role.  A project management course will tend to focus on the industry from which students are drawn whereas an MBA will tend to provide a wider business education. For me, the latter has proven valuable in enabling me to understand from first principles the businesses I have worked in and those of other organisations that it has been necessary to do business with during my career.

The Sainsbury Management Fellows MBA Scholarship
If you are a professional engineer considering a full-time MBA as a stepping-stone towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could

From Watching Diggers Construct the M25 to Shaping the Future of the UK’s Aerospace Industry – this is SMF James McMicking’s Story  


When discussing his fondest childhood memories, you certainly don’t expect Sainsbury Management Fellow James McMicking to recount tales of spending hours (and hours) sitting and watching diggers go about their work to build the M25. For James, it was these hours, plus a ‘traumatic’ incident watching his engineer uncle disassemble and incorrectly reassemble his parents’ broken washing machine at the tender age of 3, that was the start of his journey into the world of engineering. And what a journey it has been. Since these early days, James has had a passion for all things mechanical. It led him to study engineering at university, but it was the completion of an MBA via a Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship that took his career to new heights (literally) as Aerospace Technology Institute’s Chief Strategy Officer. This is James’ story… 

Where my passion for engineering began
Faulty washing machine aside, I’ve always had a knack for mechanical things. Even at an early age my parents were convinced that I’d become an engineer! I loved seeing machines in action. That’s when I’d be at my happiest and this passion endured as I grew up, with my thirst for knowledge seeing me gravitate towards mathematics, physics, and sciences.

It was the clarity of these subjects that appealed to me, and with an interest in sports and racing cars, there were clear signs that pursuing an engineering degree would be the natural next step for me after leaving school.

It was at the age of 15 or 16 that I started thinking seriously about studying engineering at university. I visited engineering departments and got a real buzz seeing what I could be involved in as an engineer. That grabbed me. The prospect of developing products and solving problems was something I got excited about. I could have an impact on the world and make my mark as an individual, so needless to say I was sold.

Talking to universities and graduates cemented my decision, and I was off. Studying for an engineering degree was a valuable and exciting time for so many reasons, a highlight of which was leading Bath University’s Formula Student team.

From watching diggers to building them
During my degree, I landed a one-year internship at JCB thanks to its sponsored undergraduate programme. I was back in my spiritual home but no longer was I simply watching diggers, I was building them! My time at JCB didn’t just help my progression as an engineer, for the first time, I began to learn how engineering businesses were run as well as what the job of an engineer is.

I’m very grateful for my time at JCB, I had the chance to be involved in so many aspects of engineering, from design through to manufacturing, testing and development, yet it was my interest in working on higher performance products that saw me move on to Ricardo Plc.

My time globetrotting as an automotive engineer
My time at Ricardo opened up a whole new world of opportunity. I was able to develop as an engineer and get amid lots of exciting, industry-leading work as part of its driveline transmissions business in the Midlands, not to mention travel all over the world.

Working internationally at Ricardo, I saw how well-regarded British engineers were and what made us different. I was lucky enough to get some real variety in this regard, working across Europe, North America, India, China and Korea. Besides seeing some amazing places, working with people from different cultures with different educational backgrounds showed me new ways of thinking and taught me a lot about working internationally that was important to getting things done.

I worked on many thrilling projects at Ricardo. Memorable experiences included testing the 550 hp Ford GT through the streets of Detroit to pushing hot-hatches to their limits at race circuits in France to diagnose transmission faults.  There were certainly times when I was thrown in the deep end by the company and still expected to impress challenging clients. These were often the most important development experiences for me and when you grew the most.

The moment I hit my career crossroads
Driving and testing cars and working on various engineering projects around the world was an amazing experience and I became a specialist at Ricardo and progressed in many aspects of my job as an engineer, but I started to develop a new craving. I wanted to extend my role on the business side.  At this stage, I was managing projects, leading and managing teams of engineers across the firm. I was interacting more and more with customers, which I enjoyed, and with this, I hit something of a crossroads.

I became particularly interested in the strategy behind the business, the markets we were working in, the competitors we were up against, and the decisions the management took and what made commercial sense or not.

My curiosity grew more and more. I asked myself what it took to run an organisation, how they built the business into the global player it had become, and how they would progress further. I had always been encouraged to develop leadership qualities, and always thought that one day I could be a leader of a business myself, but I needed more than my experience and skills as an engineer to achieve this. If I was to make the most of my potential, it would not be by continuing in the current role at Ricardo. I could change direction or keep doing what I was doing and build a long, and of course successful, career at Ricardo. After much thought, I decided that it was time for a change and that business education would be my catalyst.

There are so many options for getting a business education, and this can be daunting for engineers looking to unlock their potential by gaining business skills that support their engineering experience and qualifications. You can study part-time, go to a top business school, or go to a mainstream university that offers MBAs at a much lower cost.

For me, a full-time MBA made perfect sense. With a full-time MBA, I could give myself the time, space and focus to study how I learn best. It is not easy deciding to take that leap. It is of course costly, and as a successful and experienced engineer, potentially, there is a lot to lose. You must think about this, consider how much savings you have, and how much debt it could leave you with.  But remember, there is so much more to gain, especially with the various sources of funding accessible to those wanting to do MBAs. This brings me to the Sainsbury Management Fellows.

The day I discovered SMF made pursuing an MBA even more possible
Discovering Sainsbury Management Fellows (SMF) changed my outlook and made pursuing an MBA a stronger possibility than ever before. I did endless hours of research and spoke to others within the industry before being led to SMF by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Sainsbury Management Fellows’ scholarships offered the perfect opportunity to accomplish my career goals. The scholarship supports engineers who are passionate about engineering and technology and want to get a business education so that they can take up leadership roles.

I applied for the scholarship and was pleasantly surprised by the interview process. The interview was not a daunting formal experience as I anticipated. Instead, part of the event was an informal gathering with other scholarship applicants who all had interesting stories to tell and views to share about their careers. Then there was a personal interview with an assessment panel, and I discovered so much more about the benefits of an MBA from the people who had been to business school themselves. It was an enriching experience.

The assessment also involved presenting a real work project, so I shared a piece of work that I had done at Ricardo – it was great to have a deep technical discussion engineer to engineer. We talked through my logic for pursuing a business degree and discussed how I planned to use my newfound skills once I emerged at the other side of an MBA.

I had received two offers, one from London Business School and the other from Kellogg School of Management.  The latter was costlier, but Kellogg had a special appeal for me. It offered a combined degree – two for one so to speak – with an MBA and a Master’s in Engineering Management that focused on business and innovation.  Attending Kellogg would allow me to live in the US and immerse myself in a different culture, something I relished doing at Ricardo.

I was fortunate to make it through the process and be awarded the SMF scholarship. It gave me the freedom to study away from home and pursue career opportunities post-MBA with less debt. 

Working hard and playing hard at Kellogg
Chicago-based Kellogg School of Management was a special place. The high energy environment and feel-good culture meant you worked hard but also played hard, and I relished that it would challenge me in so many ways, not just academically.  Students were encouraged to get out and take risks on a personal front, and that’s something I have taken with me even now, years after graduating.

Living in the US was another experience that would not have been possible at that stage of my life without doing an MBA. I met, conversed and interacted with people from different backgrounds and industries, and this rounded out my view of the world. This helped me think a little differently and act a little smarter.

Thanks to Kellogg (and of course the SMF scholarship that made it possible) I achieved more than an MBA. I developed the confidence to engage in and challenge business strategy and management practices.  I now have the vocabulary and insights I did not have before by doing my MBA. And I can honestly say I would not have gone into management consulting without it. The thinking space an MBA afforded me was also valuable. For once I had the time and space away from a busy day job to consider a broader range of careers and take my next step with confidence and clarity.

My status as a Sainsbury Management Fellow and Kellogg alumnus has given me the support I need, even now, years after doing my MBA. You find out quickly who else has done an SMF- sponsored MBA or attended Kellogg, especially with networks like LinkedIn. Let’s just say, if you get a message from a fellow Kellogg alumnus or an SMF, you respond!

Now back to my passion for engineering and technology
After graduating from Kellogg, I worked in management consulting for three years to further extend my learning experience.  That was an excellent way to rapidly acquire experience solving a variety of business and commercial problems. It also ensured I made the switch from pure engineer – I had gone from fixing transmission designs to fixing business strategies, processes and organisations as part of very high-performance teams. But I had an overwhelming urge to get back to my passion for engineering and technology and put my technical past together with my newfound business acumen.

Shortly after this realisation, I joined a small team to establish the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), a not-for-profit organisation created in 2014 half funded by the government’s Department for Business and half funded by the aerospace industry.

With annual combined government and industry funding totalling £300 million to spend on world-class R&D programmes and promote transformative technology within the aerospace sector, the ATI and the work it does was a real game-changer for the UK. As one of the founding members of the Executive Management Team, I was so thrilled and considered myself so fortunate to be doing something so significant for UK industry and engineering.

Unlike most start-ups, the ATI was fortunate to have solid and long-term funding to focus on delivering to the needs of the sector. To date, we have been instrumental in encouraging industry collaborations to the UK in some of the biggest global aerospace programmes that will lead to more sustainable commercial aircraft in the future. Our partnerships with businesses interested in doing R&D in the UK has created significant momentum towards achieving this goal and it has been the foundation of so many fantastic projects. We are encouraging investment in technology research and aerospace like never before and giving the UK leadership, competitiveness and even more business.

We recently created project FlyZero, a ground-breaking initiative bringing some 90 secondees and contractors into the Institute to research the potential of future zero-emission commercial aircraft in just 1 year. The ATI is part of the government’s Jet Zero Council, with the ATI’s FlyZero initiative seen as instrumental to the council’s future zero-emission strategy which ultimately aims to lead the world in zero-carbon emission aircraft with exciting and radical technologies. The initiative is unique in how it is harnessing the best of UK industry and Academia in a way traditional research agencies elsewhere don’t. Our FlyZero initiative represents a thrilling future for the UK and its place in the wider, global aerospace sector.

Every opportunity starts with a conversation
If I were to advise other engineers, I would say, start having conversations with people from different career backgrounds. I was headhunted for the ATI role having been recommended by someone I had met 18 months before the opportunity arose. Building relationships is important – you never know what might arise from these connections further down the line.

If you are wondering whether an MBA is right for you, remember that studying for an MBA is more than a qualification. Business school is the ideal place to explore ideas without fear of failure; gain the confidence to progress in your career; engage with and sometimes challenge the way things have always been and lead from the front to change practices for the better.

Having a good mix of engineering and business skills in your job is more beneficial than many give credit for. As a passionate engineer, I am very tempted and often guilty of getting drawn into the technology and spending days learning about it. The beauty of blending engineering with business is that you comprehend what a piece of technology means in terms of how difficult it is to deliver but also how it can be exploited. You will be able to determine the impact it could have, and then translate that into a business impact, an economic impact, and a societal impact – that is a powerful thing in any organisation or industry.

Engineers who are a little further along in their decision to study an MBA should reach out to Sainsbury Management Fellows and the Royal Academy of Engineering to learn more. Through SMF, you can not only get funding to pursue an MBA but get support from people like me throughout your journey. I have met and connected with many people during my time as a Sainsbury Management Fellow, helped with scholarship applications on the interview panels and mentored young engineers. There is nothing more rewarding than talking to young people about their ideas and progression and helping them to make their career-defining decisions.

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.

MBA Helps Engineer Imogen Rey Broaden Her Perspectives and Step Up to Strategic Challenges 

SMF Imogen Rey, Senior Manager, Bain & Company

Deciding to do an MBA is a big decision and cost is a major factor. For most, the cost of attending business school is daunting enough, let alone attending one of the most prestigious schools in the world in a country you have never visited.  For UK-born Imogen Rey, now a Senior Manager at global management consultancy Bain & Company, her MBA at Stanford Business School in California was an eye-opening and inspiring experience.

Imogen’s studies were supported by a scholarship from her employer and a Sainsbury Management Fellows (SMF) MBA scholarship, without which, Imogen says, she would not have been able to attend Stanford and build an exciting career in the US.  Imogen tells us how a business education enabled her to transition into a leadership role at Bain & Company.

Starting My Engineering Journey
My journey to becoming an engineer began with a love of maths and science and a natural aptitude for the practical, problem-solving aspects of both subjects. I was fortunate to be at a school with strong maths and science departments run by passionate teachers who encouraged students to pursue these subjects.

Initially, I was fascinated with biomedical engineering after having read books and watched documentaries showing the impact it has on people’s lives – from high-tech prosthetics giving paralysed patients the ability to walk again, to replacement valves keeping hearts beating.  Whether through prosthetics, bridges or aeroplanes, I was inspired by the impact engineers can have on the world around us.

I did my engineering degree at Oxford University.  Apart from it being a prestigious university, I liked the environment and the people I met there.  I chose a four-year course; the first two gave me the opportunity to try out all engineering disciplines, and the last two allowed me to specialise in mechanical engineering, which I found I enjoyed the most.

Towards an MBA
While I was studying at Oxford University, I interned for two summers at Jaguar Land Rover. I worked on various projects and loved analysing different problems and working towards solutions.  I found that engineering training gives you a set of powerful analytical skills which enable you to tackle complex projects spanning different areas of business.

When I graduated from Oxford, I decided to go into consulting as a way to experience a broad range of industries and projects.  I was delighted when I was offered a position as an Associate Consultant at Bain & Company in London.  Bain is a global management consultancy that works with large businesses on projects spanning strategy, operations, finance, transformation, digital and more.  I used my analytical skills to help clients address their highest priority challenges. Around two years into my time at Bain, I started thinking about the benefits of business education. I spoke to colleagues and clients who had done an MBA and they all spoke so highly of the experience that I decided to apply. I believed an MBA would give me a deeper understanding of my clients’ problems, complement my engineering skills, and open new career possibilities.

I was accepted by several schools including Harvard, Wharton and Stanford, and visited the schools before making my decisionA few things made Stanford the most attractive option for me. It has smaller class sizes than the other schools, which I felt would offer a more personalised experience and allow me to chart my own path through the two-year course. I also liked that they use a mix of different teaching styles. They have lectures, case study-based teaching, and experiential classes. Stanford also has a strong leadership curriculum which I was drawn to as I am very interested in the people side of organisations. Stanford over-indexes on this area and has some fascinating pathways and approaches to teaching leadership skills.

Financial Support for My MBA
Once I had decided on Stanford I spoke with my employer and they were happy for me to take time out to do the MBA and offered some financial support contingent on my returning to the company after graduation.

Although I was sponsored by my employer, I still needed additional financial support – I did not have significant means myself, or family members who could support me, and while you can fund your MBA with a loan, I was uncomfortable taking on such a large debt. An MBA is an investment in your future, but it is a significant outlay.  Before I started researching other funding sources, I recalled a conversation with an engineer I met at an event, who was also working in management consulting and had received a Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship for her MBA.

I investigated the SMF scholarship scheme, submitted my application, was selected for an interview and, to my delight, was awarded a £30,000 scholarship. Without the SMF scholarship, I would not have been able to attend a world-class business school or move myself and my husband to California. The funding allowed me to show US immigration that we had sufficient resources to cover our living costs, allowing us to get the visas we needed.

The MBA Experience
Arriving in California was hectic – there was so much to do. I had to organise an apartment, buy everything I needed to get settled in at home and business school, and there were a lot of new people to meet and get to know.

The business school experience was very different to my undergraduate degree. At Oxford, I attended a lot of large lectures, followed by individual work on problem sets.  At business school, the classes were smaller and more centred around debate with no single right answer to the issues we were exploring.

The diversity in my class made for fascinating discussions.  There were people from so many different countries, industries and backgrounds, all of whom had different perspectives and aspirations – it was a melting pot of ideas and a truly unique experience.

Mixing with so many new people also opened my eyes to a much broader range of career paths.  Many students were involved in entrepreneurial ventures and there were lots of large tech firms in the area, and both sectors were hiring a lot of engineers. The experience showed me that the fusion of different skills and perspectives is essential for the innovation that will define our future.

Lessons from Business School
Going into business school, I was keen to focus on softer skills such as leadership. At Stanford, I had the opportunity to learn from leaders with decades of experience. They shared strategies to manage people, deal with difficult situations, drive organisations forward and problem solve. Their years of wisdom and expertise have been invaluable to my post-MBA career.

Among the most important things I have taken away from business school are the relationships with my peers. During the two-year course, I made life-long friendships and strong connections with many people I would feel comfortable turning to for career support, particularly when it comes to making big decisions or exploring new paths.

Going to Stanford also broadened my horizons and gave me the opportunity to explore different career paths, including an internship at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle.  It was fascinating to work at a big tech company, and it taught me a great deal. One of the key things I learnt was the importance of autonomy and the freedom to innovate.  I observed Amazon hiring talented people and giving them the freedom to spend time developing new ideas, an approach that I think has been key to their continued success.

An Exciting New Role at Bain & Company
SMF Imogen Rey, Senior Manager, Bain & Company - graduating from Stanford Business School

After I graduated from Stanford, I decided to transfer to Bain’s New York office, where I have been working for two years now. Returning to Bain has allowed me to gain further exposure to diverse companies and work on some of their highest-priority projects. The environment is fast-paced and challenging, and I am learning a huge amount, which is a priority at this stage in my career.

Having an engineering background helps enormously in my role at Bain. A big part of my job is to take a problem and break it down into components, and then analyse each component before putting them all back together again. My engineering training taught me how to approach problems in this way, and to find a logical path through complex issues.

Before my MBA my role was primarily analytical. Now I spend most of my time developing the approach, drawing insights from the analysis, coaching and developing my team, and building relationships with clients. Stanford gave me the leadership training, confidence and broad perspective I need to succeed.

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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.

How 4 professional engineers used an MBA to change their careers

The MBA is a highly desired qualification by both young professionals and employers.  Not only does an MBA equip the student with a wealth of business and leadership skills, it  shows clear signs of an individual’s focus and ambition as well as an adventurous spirit – leaving a secure job to study for an MBA requires not only funds but courage.

MBAs benefit individuals, employers, and the economy. Although it is essential to hone skills in specialist areas, businesses are keen on hiring MBA graduates because they have a deeper understanding of a range of business practices that enable them to be more strategic and agile in their thinking and problem solving.

The MBA opens new career opportunities, helps students to gain better insight into their motivations and goals, and connects them with inspiring professionals who can support their career ambitions long term.  Taking an MBA is a major financial commitment and because of their prestige, the cost of attending the top international schools is high.  Consequently many students seek scholarships to support their studies.  For over 30 years, the Sainsbury Management Fellows (SMF) scholarships have been awarded to professional engineers who have clear leadership potential.   Today, there are 365 SMFs who, collectively, have been awarded £11 million in scholarships to enable them to acquire skills that help UK businesses succeed and the economy growth.

In this blog we introduce four Sainsbury Management Fellows who have used their MBA skills and experiences to steer their careers in new and exciting directions.

Engineering a Finance Career in Green Energy:  SMF Chris Gifford, Senior Risk Consultant, Chief Credit Officer, Vancity Community Investment Bank, Canada

After gaining his engineering degree at Oxford University, SMF Chris Gifford started his fulltime career in the power generation sector. He worked throughout the UK and internationally helping to operate and maintain the control and instrumentation systems of fossil-fuelled power stations.  He progressed into a commercial role, analysing the financial performance of the power stations, which gave him a deeper understanding of business and a desire to pursue his career in a business direction.

Chris decided that he wanted to work in the cutting-edge transition from fossil-fuel to green technology in a business and finance capacity, but he realised that he needed additional business skills to secure a top-level position in a leading company.  Because of his engineering background, prospective employers tended to pigeon-hole him as a techie. Chris knew that gaining an MBA would enhance his skills and make him more marketable.  The MBA, which he undertook at INSEAD, provided not only the vital business skills needed for a career shift, but accelerated an improvement in his interpersonal and leadership skills.

Today, Chris is the Senior Risk Consultant, Chief Credit Officer at Vancity Community Investment Bank in  Ontario, Canada where he uses his combined engineering and business skills to assess the viability and robustness of complex renewable energy proposals from businesses seeking finance, eliminating the need for the bank to use external professionals to carry out additional assessments.  In addition to identifying potential problems, Chris recommends improvements and efficiencies that allow important renewable energy projects to be funded.

Chris’ engineering background is a major asset in his role.  He explained: “My engineering skills are typically applied to evaluate whether businesses trying to access financing have fully understood the complexities for themselves.  There is a bias for optimism and sometimes blind spots when it comes to risk assessment; I provide an objective and pragmatic view on how likely a project is to succeed.”

Switching from a Technical to Management Role:  SMF Dere Ogbe, Shell Corporate Strategy and Portfolio Consultant, UK

SMF Dere Ogbe was appointed Senior Strategy and Portfolio Consultant at Shell after graduating from London Business School with an SMF-sponsored MBA.   He credits his MBA for galvanising his career in this new direction and says he now has the ability to lead both technical and commercial strategy projects.

Before taking his MBA, Dere was a Senior Operations Excellence Engineer at BP Exploration. This was a technical role which involved implementing best practices to drive continuous improvement across joint ventures in Europe, Middle East, and North Africa. This involved cascading business decisions into technical requirements and this gave Dere an insight into how commercial choices drive project design and operational requirements.  This awareness, coupled with the knowledge from courses such as Managing Engineering Projects, sparked his interest in business management.

Dere sites a number of ways that the MBA has helped to transform his career: “It has given me the necessary financial, strategic, and commercial skills to quickly analyse problems and propose possible solutions. The programme also enhanced my data analytical and leadership skills. Also, I feel very comfortable leading a wider range of people with different technical and commercial expertise.  With these additional skills, I can jump into projects and get up to speed quickly.  The part of my job I especially love is the challenge of thinking on my feet, rapidly uncovering the critical factors and, with the team, creating a roadmap to solve the problem.  The MBA has had a transformative effect on my career and leadership skills.” 

Billy Comes to Life Through Engineering and Business Talent: SMF Rob Deering, CEO, Billy, Australia

Before business school, SMF Rob Deeming gained a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Nottingham. After graduation, he spent five years as a consultant at Bain & Company where he developed practical skills such as problem-solving and collaborative working.  This role gave him the time and freedom to decide what he wanted to do longer term.  He said: “It was an incredible place to start a career. The level of learning, skills development and personal support available in consulting is second-to-none.”

Rob took his MBA at Harvard and says that it gave him both personal and professional perspective: “It opened my eyes to new career pathways, in particular, those which combined his engineering and business skills.”  Since graduating, Rob has lived in both New York and Sydney where he has built several tech-driven businesses, including three start-ups.

The most recent entrepreneurial venture is a technology company, Billy, which addresses the fundamental challenges of caring for seniors, while allowing them to remain in their own homes as independently as possible, on their own terms. Billy uses a series of Internet of Things sensors to identify patterns of behavioural routine for seniors, and shares this information through an app, in real time, with family members and professional carers. Billy can read all the activities of daily living using smart analytics to determine patterns in routine and identify changes before they result in medical emergency.

The future is exciting for both Rob and the company; Billy is growing in size and reputation and is now in 1,000 homes across Australia and the USA. Initial feedback shows that customer confidence is high and there has been a reduction in hospitalisations in the households where Billy is installed.

Winning an SMF scholarship enabled Rob to undertake his prestigious MBA, which gave him the skills to follow his entrepreneurial dreams.

Engineers with Business Skills Transform UK Industry: SMF Ian Peerless, Operations Director, ExRobotics, UK

SMF Ian Peerless and ExRobotics Colleagues

Ian Peerless’ route to an engineering career began at the University of Southampton, where he graduated with a First in Civil Engineering, after which he spent a year with British Leyland in a mechanical engineering role.  The hydrocarbon industry in the North Sea was booming and he was keen to move into that sector, so gained a Petroleum Engineering Masters at Heriot-Watt University and shortly after graduating joined Shell as a Petroleum Engineer and enjoyed an international career for five years.

However, he reached a ‘crunch point’ in his career, as is often the case with young engineers.  At this point there is a choice; to work up through the ranks of a company as a pure engineer or to diversify and move upwards in a different direction.  Ian chose the latter. His interest in business management led him to the MBA, with a scholarship from SMF to attend IMD in Switzerland.

The MBA gave Ian the credibility required to step into a management role; a role that would otherwise been out of his reach. He was one of the first engineers to benefit from the SMF scholarship programme, and proved that having engineers in management roles throughout industrial companies is extremely valuable.

After the MBA he joined British Steel, where he gained a wealth of management experience. He worked in Business Development, Sales, Operations, and finished as the number two in the Business Strategy department reporting to the main board.   After 15 years with British Steel, Ian was enticed back to Shell, where he was a key member of an internal consultancy group.  He travelled the world advising, coaching and facilitating leadership teams on project management and contract strategy.   When that project was completed, he set up an independent consultancy, IPKA where he continued to perform a similar role to the Shell position, but with different oil and gas companies.

In 2010, Ian took on a Shell contract to develop an oilfield robot. He gained extensive knowledge of this specialist robotic niche which led him to form ExRobotics, a company that is tackling the problem of oil and gas operators being sent into hazardous, harsh, and remote locations. The robots can be permanently stationed at those locations, removing people from harm’s way as well as cutting costs and reducing lost production.

Summing up the benefits of the MBA, Ian said: “The MBA gave me skills that I still use in my work. In particular, the ability to understand a business, its markets, its competitive position, and to turn that into an action plan for success.  Furthermore, the MBA made me understand that if you combine the strengths of individuals and create a motivated team, wonderful things happen. The MBA not only changed the direction of my career it also changed my industry.  The combination of my life before the MBA (technical) has been combined with my life after the MBA (management) to create ExRobotics.”

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.

Why Do Companies Prefer MBA Graduates?


In a business landscape that is becoming ever more complex and difficult to navigate, a company’s ability to hire assets is important. Although candidates with business degrees are becoming more and more common, the need for experience and specific training at a higher level is becoming very desirable.

If you are looking to climb the ladder, or indeed to become an integral asset within your given sector, then you might be considering the idea of an MBA. As you may know, the MBA is no small undertaking; it requires time, funding and energy. So, here’s the question; is it worth it?

Arguably, the answer is yes. Having MBA written next to your name on your CV is a huge advantage. That is not to say that having this qualification makes you a shoo-in, as companies are also more and more interested in the type of person you are; your attitude, ethics and personality. Having said that, to succeed in the quest for an MBA qualification, dedication and resilience are required.

Let’s look at what employers like about MBA graduates, what you stand to learn by undertaking one, and which desirable specialities you may want to develop.

Critical Thinking and Creative Problem Solving
The advantage of being a ‘box-fresh’ graduate of any high-level qualification is how up to date their references are, and a fresh perspective on the issues surrounding their industry or subject. Two of the key skills taught by most MBAs are both critical and strategic thinking. Throughout your training, you will have come up against various simulated scenarios, some common and some rare, ensuring that your ability to think in this way is limber and informed.

This is also true with the skill of creative problem-solving. Fresh MBA graduates are drilled in solving new and uncommon problems and are extremely aware of what is going on in their industry right now. When you have been in a business with a certain focus for some time, it can be difficult to see how to deal with issues that are far removed from the original remit of said business.

Financial Training
The MBA will equip you with a comprehensive knowledge of the intricacies of the financial sector; how it works, how to operate within it and how it relates to the wider business community. This is essential knowledge. In order to take calculated risks, an excellent understanding of finance is not only desired but required. It is an essential component of a business’ success.

Leadership and Communication Skills
Leadership and decision-making skills come naturally to some, but to be truly effective in leadership, training and refinement is required. Mid-level leadership is hard to be good at; it takes balance, patience and respect for a company’s values. This is also something that MBA graduates are great at. Even if leadership is not a specific focused skill in their training, the very nature of group projects, partners and general teamwork requires one to better their leadership and communication skills.

Marketing
We live in a world where marketing is more important and more complex than ever. The market is getting ever more crowded, the platforms we market on are growing and branching off, and marketing techniques are becoming more specific. Having a solid foundation in modern marketing is essential, and something that you are guaranteed to gain by gaining an MBA degree.

Collaboration
Collaboration is tricky. In order to collaborate effectively, you need to be able to hold on to and believe in your own values, but also be able to compromise for the good of the collective cause. It requires a lack of ego, equal respect for others and a light touch. Again, an MBA, by its very nature, fosters this skill naturally. Collaboration is a skill that is often underrated or forgotten, but one that is vital to the smooth running of a business and to make wise decisions.

Organisational Behaviours
You’d be surprised how hard it is to find employees with excellent organisational skills. This is perhaps down to the preconception that organisational nous is something you either do or do not have. However, this is not so, it can absolutely be taught; it is a skill that can be acquired and nurtured. An MBA fosters essential skills such as this to optimise both the quality and the efficiency of your work. This is another thing that employers find extremely attractive.

The MBA is as valuable for equipping you with technical skills and knowledge as it is for helping the individual become a good team player. The skills and behaviours covered above are just a handful of the assets acquired through the study of an MBA.

Gaining an MBA is worth the considerable financial investment because it opens new career opportunities, boosts your employability, significantly increases earning capacity and allows you to develop an international network of contacts that you can call on for years to come. As well as your management skills being a draw for global employers and exciting start-ups, employers will also be impressed by candidates’ ability to build and maintain influential networks.

If you are a professional ing engineer seeking a scholarship to assist with your MBA study, visit the applications page.