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Core courses: done

Posted by: Gonzalo

After a rather quick ten months the EMBA core courses are all but done – only a couple of individual assignments left. Some of us will be moving swiftly into the Capital Markets and Financing block week, some will be going on the South Africa International Assignment and others will chill until September. Good stuff.

I was advised when I started writing the blog that I should try to make lists, that bullet points make posts readable and appreciated. So I thought I’d summarise some key personal learnings from the core experience:

- From reading all (well, sometimes not all) those cases across several modules it appears that common sense is not that common in business. I’ll be careful when making decisions not to hold my opinion too highly and to question my assumptions.
- It seems that more than half of the value of the EMBA journey is to be found in figuring out exactly what it is you want to do. Over the course of the last ten months, time became a constrained resource and paths became easier as I intuitively preferred to do some things over others. Being very busy can, temporarily, be a good thing.
- My partner will be doing the full time MBA starting in four weeks. They’ve already had a bunch of networking events. Over the last ten months I’ve made some good friends and forged key connections for the future. Someone pointed out yesterday that I haven’t done enough networking. Big ‘to do’ for 2014/15.
- I’ve read some articles questioning the value of the EMBA. I think this is very hard to assess objectively. Empirically, I have made a couple of moves at my current job that wouldn’t have happened without it and I got interviewed by a company that wouldn’t have paid attention to me before I had the MBA stamp on my CV. I believe it is worth it now and value will increase as I go along my career.
- Horses for courses. I just love that phrase. No literal translation to Spanish. Probably hard to tailor the core courses to everyone’s development wishes and I certainly found some content repetitive from my previous education. Same with the faculty, hard (but not impossible) to find unanimous opinions. I think it is key to segment quality of content from quality of delivery though. Hard to tick both boxes all the time (but not impossible).

Looking forward to the electives…

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A sense of community

Posted by: Gonzalo

It seems hard to believe, but the September EMBA has now transitioned into the final term of the first year. I was really eager to get back to school after the break and the Corporate Finance 2 and Operations Management modules look like they are going to be very interesting. The Social Committee guys, who go out of their way to organise events, send a newsletter before every weekend and in it the EMBAs can find the “quote of the week”. I am not one for quotes, but I will remember the “who to be impressed by” rule of thumb provided by the Finance professor: “[In Central London] don’t be impressed by the person who has a Ferrari, be impressed by the person who lives above the ground and has more than one loo”.

Over the first two terms I went through a bit of a hard time – a lot going on at work, pressure on the EMBA, ill health, etc. – which coloured most of my interactions with classmates and some of my impressions around day-to-day life as well. Fortunately, I’m doing a bit better now so I’m trying to be more perceptive of a number of positive things going on around me – a surprisingly easy task once you keep your ‘eyes’ open and I wanted to share some examples here:

- Due to the ill health portion of the mood darkening events I could not attend the much expected Moscow trip. Bummer! During this first weekend back, the EMBA crowd that went to Moscow approached me to have a chat, they made a little circle and gave me a gift – an ushanka ( . I’m not the kind of person that would cry, but I was really touched by their kindness.

- During the first term I applied for the LBS Mentoring Scheme and I was lucky enough to be paired with an alumnus. My advice for next year’s applicants: don’t over-spec your request – the perfect match in terms of all of your requirements may not exist. My mentor has been very generous with this time and has been a great sounding board for me to discuss some difficult events in my professional life. He just brings a totally different perspective for me.

- As I carry on with deciding what to next in my professional life many of my classmates have offered advice during our days at LBS, have introduced me to other people that I could ask questions to and have met with me after work to answer some of my questions.

- Even between strangers I have seen surprising things recently. A neighbour found a lost key chain in the street and posted a note in a tree nearby offering to return them. A pharmacist offered advice to a customer on how to reduce the overall cost of her prescriptions. A young lady helped an aging man cross the street.

- Etcetera, etcetera.

I tried to think what all these elements have in common as it is very comforting to ‘find’ unity in disjointed events. I believe it could be argued that the common thread is a sense of community that I normally overlook and will try to notice a bit more.

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The last couple of weeks have been a bit more packed than usual for me. Lots of readings and assignments – as we approach the end of the second term for the September EMBAs – and a particularly demanding time for the team I work for as we are mid-way through a bid for the Scottish rail network. Some interesting things came to mind during this busy period.

First, I stumbled upon the blog of a full-time MBA student from Peru who wrote a short piece as a tribute to her grandfather – a giant of business in Peru – who had recently passed away. For those of you who speak Spanish find the link attached here. I was touched by what she wrote for a variety of reasons, one being that I am very close with my grandfather (who I send postcards every two months or so). I wanted to highlight two ideas from Lucia’s blog:

• She characterises her grandfather as a “Monday Person” – those who start every week with massive enthusiasm about their work and projects
• She emphasizes her grandfather’s love of his family and country.

When I think of my earlier post about a career worth having I see that I didn’t factor this into my decision making formulation. I thought briefly about this – while on the train to Glasgow – and I came up with some interesting ideas:

• To the extent that there are parts of my current job that I really like, I definitely couldn’t be described as someone with contagious enthusiasm for what I do. It’s scary to consider that the times when I’m more in flow happen when I am pivot tabling our performance data sets for analysis purposes!
• It’s clear that a commitment to something greater than oneself taps into a source of energy that I haven’t exploited yet.

I definitely need to do more detective work on my future career. Need to find this kind of passion. I’m really looking forward to the Entrepreneurship courses in the summer term as I have some business ideas – that I’ll share in due course – which I believe can take me in the right direction in years to come. Exciting times!

Second, at the start of the EMBA I decided to create some time to engage in volunteering activities. It’s unbelievable that it took me so long to get it done but yesterday I did! I went to a Fitzrovia Youth Action event organised by the LBS Volunteers Club. I was supposed to tutor a “class” of A-level business students and I was quite nervous about it. After being briefly trained by the FYA lady I stepped into an empty classroom and waited for the kids to come. We didn’t consider half-term though and the attendance rate is not exactly LBS-like, engagement is a big issue for this school. In the end I spent my time with the one kid that showed up. While solving a bakery P/L case study he shared some facts about his life. I couldn’t help think about the quote I dissected in my last post: “Fortune favours the bold”.

I will make this event a twice-a-month must for myself and would encourage other students to join. Maybe together we can change some initial conditions and shape some fortunes.

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On the train (again)

Posted by: Gonzalo

It would be unfair to say that the EMBA has not had an impact on my career since starting 5 months ago (someone noted that we were already half way through our first year – boom). I approached senior management in my company and I said I was ready to do more for them. A week or so after that one could argue to be bold action, I became part of a project looking into new markets outside of Europe. Transport revenue is correlated to GDP so yesterday we were looking at GDP growth rates. This morning as I travel to Glasgow, I recalled our Understanding the International Macroeconomy discussion on convergence of countries with a similar steady state and diverged into some detective work on the internet. Not hard to find a GDP per capita data series and plot some charts – which as some of my classmates might know I do a lot for work. By no measure I am an economist or know too much about countries in South America but I decided to group Peru, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador.

GDP per capita

Quick inspection tells me that:

- Starting point matters (doh!)
- Something happened in Chile that made it jump before the others.
- Ecuador seems to be slowing down.

I won’t go into politics but I found the trajectories of all these countries interesting. If a hypothesis was made of a potentially common steady state, what could the bottom 3 countries do to catch up with Chile? Do politicians care? Time for an MPA?

The train just passed Preston and is on its way to Lancaster. I spent a year there, it was a good one. For the last couple of weeks I have been reading The Savage Detectives. I guess it could be said that it is an acquired taste. At the beginning it was a bit confusing but now that the stories are converging I am enjoying myself a bit more. Last week there was a presentation as part of the Careers stream that I did not attend – honest disclaimer. The visitor was, according to some of my classmates, quite engaging and one of the phrases he left was: Fortune favours the bold. As I read my book which narrates a duel (with swords!) from different points of view I couldn’t help wondering if this phrase was incomplete – or indeed if I missed the context because I was not in the presentation. I would think that ‘Fortune favours the bold… that are fortunate’ or maybe ‘Fortune appears on the way of the bold sometimes’ might be a bit more realistic making allowances for unforeseen events and the actions of others. As our lecturer of Decision and Risk Analysis was saying we need to value the quality of a decision making process and not just the outcome of those decisions (the fortune). Going to Lancaster for further study was a whimsical decision in many ways but it opened the way to a new series of chance events and decisions that have been made with more mature judgment – like attending LBS. So maybe being bold shapes fortune in ways difficult to assess at origin. (But then that reverses the argument doesn’t it?). Anyway, I don’t want to offer advice or be perceived to be preaching but I feel fortunate about where I am now and how I got here while not assuming that it was all down to my choices and abilities. Don’t overthink it. I shall turn to some work now.

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On the train

Posted by: Gonzalo
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I was a bit lazy this morning and only left the flat at around 820 as opposed to the usual 720. Given that I was already running a bit late, I decided to take the scenic route to work and strolled down to West Hampstead to take the Thameslink into Farringdon station. I started a new book yesterday, reading in Spanish for a change, something my brother recommended: “The Savage Detectives”. I made my way to the rear end of the platform which is normally less crowded, boarded the train and carried on with my reading / pretending to read for the next 13 odd minutes (You can’t really read for 13 minutes). I looked up and there was a guy with a Vargas Llosa book. Well that is random, I thought. Maybe I should start a conversation? No, I shouldn’t, that’s just weird. The train called at Kings Cross, the fellow reader-in-Spanish stayed on so I took the plunge asking which book he was reading. In the four minutes from Kings Cross to our common stop at Farringdon we figured out we share our name – Gonzalo – and of course a mother tongue, but not a profession, nationality or post code; so much for destiny! A truly random event one could argue. I commute to work every day through different routes and at different times, and he was diverted from his everyday route due to a delay in the Piccadilly Line. Alas, I’ll probably never see him again but we had a nice chat today. When modelling a business decision, one could argue that even more variables interact (i.e. time to leave house, route to take to work, walk to West Hampstead or not, decision to talk to stranger, decision of stranger to engage in conversation, etc.) and sometimes the unexpected happens. When only conservative scenarios and upbeat forecasts are considered, the range of potential outcomes might be reduced. I guess being aware of this issue is one of the points of the Decision Risk Analysis class we are taking as part of our second term at LBS.

While I was having this very odd conversation with my architect name-twin which clearly created some interest from our fellow commuters I was feeling quite warm. At first I guessed it was due to my 20+ minute walk to take the train but then I realised it was the train’s heating system which was clearly well above the required temperature. Beyond making people sweat and grumpy, this is just poor usage of energy and it adds up to the carbon footprint of the rail industry. One would imagine that modern trains which are properly maintained wouldn’t experience this issue but the UK fleet is certainly not modern (with some trains over 30 years old). Angry passenger groups and activists tend to blame the “rail barons” for this lack of investment but I would think it is more related to the structure of the industry during its inception in the 90’s. This is a gross oversimplifications but during privatisation, a few companies gained control of the ‘rolling stock’ and they exert quite a lot of supplier power over rail operators who don’t exactly have a menu of options to choose from as there are no substitutes at the moment. Add this to the fact that the government is trying to cut costs at every corner and the possibility of widespread investments in new trains vanishes. The first sessions of the Strategic Management module introduced business model and industry value creation / capture analysis frameworks that could help solve problems like this in the long run. Beyond the static analysis of one of Porter’s forces, I am quite interested in the interaction between them (in this case between suppliers and regulator) and the ideas it generates for everyday businesses (i.e. development of new suppliers for trains).

It looks like this will be another fun term at LBS

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End of First Term

Posted by: Gonzalo

So, just like that, the first term of the EMBALS2015 came to an end. At the beginning of the term I didn’t really know what to expect but: so far, so good.

I have said this before and I will say it again, I really enjoyed the Developing Effective Managers and Organisations (DEMO) module – and from the looks of our Christmas Party so did some of my fellow classmates. Our lecturer was kind enough to share with us takeaways notes from each class which became the backbone of my study for yesterday’s test. My key takeaway from the first term overall is to be prepared for each class. I kept up with all reading materials and I feel that made all the difference to my learning experience – I even did some pre-reading for Accounting and Finance (where I knew I was weaker) before Orientation Week! During the Christmas break, I will be making a dent on the second term’s reading list which seems more quantitative than the first.

I also enjoyed Managerial Economics, in particular the lecturer’s use of newspaper clippings to underpin some of the key messages from each topic. I will take the liberty to share some of my own as they touch on the message from the quote I shared in my last post:

“The figure of economic activity as a race or contest is somewhat vague in its particulars, but it would appear that, as a race, it has no finishing line and therefore no natural end”.

After reading the excerpt above I kept trying to find a job-hunting target industry where these races based on some form of never-ending counting or accumulation do not prevail. For a while, I thought that academia or some form of research and development job might be my solution – but then I read this article. Don’t get me wrong, some form of output tracking is fine, I do a lot of work around KPI analysis as part of my job but one of my colleagues always warns me about the dangers of “death by KPIs”. I then thought that if it is all about volume of output, what happens to quality considerations? This week I stumbled on this other article. Randy Schekman is quoted here criticizing top-tiered journals that use measures of citations as a proxy for quality by stating that: “A paper can become highly cited because it is good science – or because it is eye-catching, provocative, or wrong.” It would seem that counting is pervasive – how to row against that current? I’ll start with moving my own and my assistant’s yearly objectives away from just focusing on output. With my study group, we agreed at the outset of the programme that we would aim to enjoy the EMBA experience, not just trawl through it.

After reading Schekman’s critique of some academic journals (especially the mention to eye-catching and provocative as factors related to publication) I recalled a BBC documentary I watched about my home country. A journalist represented Peru as the “cocaine capital of the world”. I remembered being incredibly upset by the portrayal of my country as just a drug paradise. Circling back to DEMO, I think I was upset because a number of people will always remember Peru as tied to drugs due to the availability heuristic. The story presented by the BBC was vivid – with clips of a police operation and chats with drug producers – and was aired shortly after two British ladies had been imprisoned for drug smuggling in Peru. Why can’t the press include some good stories to present a balanced picture? I’d take being tied to Machu Picchu, trendy cuisine and even Paddington Bear ahead of cocaine! Note that I am being deliberately obvious in my choice of symbols that could be tied to Peru, there are many great things about the country, and no shortage of calamities either. A short reflection led me to think about ratings, viewership and the counting goes on… This bitter memory led me to do something this morning though, I gave my first Kiva loan to a Peruvian farmer in need of a new cow, so thanks BBC for increasing milk supply. I was feeling very good about myself and then I saw two features of Kiva that made me think about DEMO again. They asked me to donate (15% of the value of my loan) and to share the story with my friends through Twitter. I fell victim to both commitment and consistency and social proof influence techniques by donating to Kiva and spreading the word by tweeting (and now here again).

Clearly, I have memorized those DEMO takeaways, time for a break

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Over the last couple of weeks I spent quite some time visiting the offices of two operating companies co-run by the transport group I work for. This meant a lot of time spent in trains, hotels and meetings. I am rather afraid of flying so I really enjoy my train rides. The scenery on the train from Manchester to York is quite peaceful and gave me some time to read and reflect on some impending choices I need to make. As a substantial proportion of LBS students, I have some doubts about my future career that I hope to solve in the next couple of years. Since the start of the EMBA programme I have frequently been thinking about what kind of job I want to have for the next couple of years. I probably started thinking more about this after we were asked to write about our dream job and eulogy back in Orientation Week.

I fancy myself to be quite rational, but I am aware that this is not always the case. Therefore, I started to write some notes on a piece of paper after the train called at Huddersfield to help me better consider my decision. During my undergraduate degree in Peru I took 65+ modules as part of my Engineering degree (5.5 year undergraduate programme). I would lie if I’d say that I enjoyed Industrial Electricity, Thermodynamics or Mechanical Design, but I quite enjoyed Operations Research. Without going into too much detail, the idea that you can study “systems”, simplify reality with a model and look for better outcomes was quite appealing to me. I am really looking forward to the Decision and Risk Analysis course in the second term to see if I remember anything! Let me now use some concepts from Operations Research to model my decision making process:

Let my goals be: to have a family, to complete my education, and to live in Asia.

Let’s imagine that these can be smartly constructed into an objective function with appropriate weightings. I want to have the best time possible so I will imagine that this function is crown-shaped (i.e. I am a king!). These goals have a limiting effect on my choice set (i.e. feasible region). Articulating these limitations and the ineluctable loan payment, let some constraints be:

• Healthy work-life balance (i.e. working hours less than H hours a week),
• Research-friendly environment, and
• Company with global operations.
• Minimum salary requirement

After seeing some salary numbers during Orientation Week and in the omnipresent MBA rankings, I started thinking a lot about the “minimum salary” constraint. For a couple of weeks I was thinking Portfolio Management, Consulting, Private Equity! I guess it all goes down to my/your “crown”. A series of meetings with Careers Services provided some valuable input as I got information that has further refined my choice set. I’m really curious about what will happen in the next couple of years! As a part-time student my first port is to try to re-shape my current role into what I would like it to be and I am actively doing that.

To conclude and tied to the notion of salary being a constraint and not a part of the objective: Someone was kind enough to comment on my last post jokingly suggesting a writing career and so did a classmate (!). I don’t quite feel up to that task but I’ll share with you a passage by J.M.Coetzee that I read in my favourite hotel in York. I will confess that I am taking his idea out of context as he was writing about nations and I am thinking about individuals, but I still think it’s relevant:

“The figure of economic activity as a race or contest is somewhat vague in its particulars, but it would appear that, as a race, it has no finishing line and therefore no natural end”.

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A happiness formula

Posted by: Gonzalo

Five weekends done of the first term. A number of assignments need to be submitted, time is getting tight, the social committee is planning a trip to Winter Wonderland, and Movember is visible in the classroom. Good times. I arrived at the concept for this post via two different situations. First, in the last session of the CSR/ethics module our spirited lecturer brought a guest speaker to class. He is an alumnus of the school who has set up a business that partners with the NHS to provide heart related services (RPHC). Beyond being impressed by the idea of his business I was reminded that I have a mild heart problem that has drastically changed the way I approach my day-to-day life since it started in 2008. Second, last Monday I was back in St. Barts Hospital to get an echocardiogram to track my progress. It is always humbling to switch from student to object of study as a nurse was discussing the structures of my heart with an apprentice technician. The sound of the machine is quite relaxing though, sort of watery, so I normally have a short nap while being assessed. Without a doubt, birth and death are the flip sides of the same coin, however, probably not standard in this day and age to spend much time thinking about it at the age of 25.

Anyway, as part of the reading for the last CSR session a happiness formula was proposed by Lyubomirksy et al to be the sum of:

S – a biological set point
C – the conditions of your life, and
V – the voluntary activities you do.

With regards to S, I will only say that I am certainly not the happiest person around by any yardstick. I am confident that my seat-mates in the class, my study group, or my colleagues could confirm that I am a bit grouchy.

I will focus my account of the C’s with two of its elements. On the one hand, I experience lack of control related to my heart condition which flares up in the most unexpected situations and reminds me that I need to be prudent. On the other hand, as I grew up and moved out of Peru, my circle of friends has contracted and now I keep in touch with a few meaningful individuals who I might not see all the time but who with I have a tight bond. With regards to my family I mostly communicate with my parents by Skype and my brother by email but I am probably closer with them now than when I lived in Peru with them. Finally, my girlfriend and I have settled down into our flat and I guess we have a blissful existence. No arguments, plenty of cooking and conversation, and a degree of faith that some things just work. Therefore, the other C that really resonates with me is relationships. In a way, the slowing down that resulted from my lack of control, has resulted in a positive change in my relationships, and an overall enhancement of the C-value of my formula. The adaptation principle in action.

What about the V’s though? I have just written an email advocating “process” KPIs instead of measuring outcomes. Some people might wonder if there is time for V’s during an EMBA, but surely V’s can help assess the quality of this whole process. I argue that there is always time and posit three examples of my own. Isn’t it annoying when someone says they are too busy to do something? I actively choose not to be in that group. First, I have decided that over the next 2 years I will teach myself basic Brazilian Portuguese. How? I will start with Duolingo. Come on, just do it, I try to take a lesson before starting to work, one at lunch, and two the evening. Why? Because in the future I want to work with Latin America and if you research why duolingo exists you might just want to join. Os meninos bebem leite! Os estudantes gostam de London! Second, I am trying to read a non-MBA book a month. Why? Because I think that literature allows us to expand our range of experience. When? Before bed, in the train, after lunch on the weekends, bit by bit. Third, I am going to volunteer for EnglishPEN. Why? Because I think what they stand for matters after growing up in Peru. When? Whenever they reply to my emails asking for further information….

We seem to live in a time of communal paralysis. Everyone wants to “do” but no one “does” in the belief that someone else will. I am looking forward to the last session of Managerial Economics so I can conceptualise this in terms of game theory. To conclude, I just wanted to say that I wouldn’t have embarked on the V’s had my C’s not changed back in 2008 and had I not opted to join the EMBA programme.

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EMBA: Halfway through first term

Posted by: Gonzalo
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The September EMBA 2015 is now halfway through its first term, economics mid-term is next weekend and our Academic Reps are earning their freshly acquired job titles by pushing back some deadlines that would not let the students exert their full talents on the Ethics/CSR tasks at hand. In the midst of all the academic work and as most businesses prepare for end of year reporting runs and planning, I thought I’d share some initial impressions about my time at LBS.

Coming from an Engineering background, I thought I would be more attracted to the quantitative subjects and would muddle through the “softer” Organisational Behaviour courses. I quickly discovered that I would probably learn more from these modules, at least comparatively, and that the discussions in the classroom could feed in directly into my day-to-day work. EMBA 1, full time 0 – from my perspective. We get to apply new nuggets of knowledge to our jobs week on week. A note on the quality of the faculty (both in terms of knowledge and delivery) is due here. I studied at one of the best universities in Peru and at a well-known institution in the UK, and LBS is superior by far.

Someone said something very interesting while walking to catch a train the other day: “If during discussion you have a contribution to make it is worthwhile waiting for 5 other people to speak. Most likely someone will make your point for you.” So much for being special! My EMBA class has people from over 20 nationalities, working in banking, manufacturing, oil and gas, IT, consulting as well as a number of entrepreneurs. You can be sure that there will be multiple ways of looking at the same problem which enriches the debates. The camaraderie was cemented during Orientation Week with the Dubai stream and now the Social Reps are making sure we stay together to enjoy the experience.

One of the things that initially scared me a bit about taking on the EMBA was that several people said that I would have no free time for the next 20 months. I believe this to be a bit of an exaggeration. Probably some discipline on time management and a Study Group that cooperates with the readings make things much easier. I guess it all boils down to the commitment one has to making the most of the programme. I don’t see spending half my Saturday reading or going to work at 7.30am to get some stuff done early as a big sacrifice. I am here to learn, become a better professional, expand my horizons and in the process have some fun.

All things considered, I am confident I have made the right choice.

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