The first “Michaelmas” term met many of the expectations I had about doing an MBA at Cambridge. Brilliant classmates, long days, late nights, spires, gown wearing, candlelit pre-dinner grace in Latin, conversations about balance sheets and the weighted average cost of capital, as well as developing a close relationship with my bicycle (and its basket).
However, there were several things that surprised me. My growing fondness for the brightly coloured, slightly mad building that is the Judge Business School. My sense of achievement and, dare I say it, excitement at successfully valuing a business project using the net present value method. But, most of all, my take on the themes of this term. They were not, as I would have expected, the importance of profitability or how to be successful at board level (though we discussed those, of course). No – the emphasis, in my eyes at least, was on the principles of uncertainty, story-telling, and curiosity.
Discussion about the uncertainty inherent in the global economy by no means came out of the blue. What I was struck by was the time spent discussing the role of uncertainty in business decisions. There is a subjective moment in every choice and, while those choices must be made and justified, uncertainty remains because average numbers plugged into a model do not produce the average outcome. And with uncertainty comes luck, both good and bad, which frequently goes unacknowledged.
In the lecture on luck, one of the examples used was J.K.Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, whose book was finally accepted because the daughter of the 12th publisher she tried found the discarded manuscript and couldn’t put it down. Which leads to the next surprising theme – the importance of telling a good story. It was a key element in classes at both ends of the quantitative/qualitative spectrum. Models, charts and graphs are all well and good but we learnt that the strength of numbers lies in the explanation of their relevance. Just as any new leader, strategy change, or managerial vision must be accompanied by a compelling story.
Last but not least, curiosity may have killed the cat, but it is a facet to be nurtured in successful professionals. Curiosity about ourselves helps carve out a fulfilling career path. Curiosity about others and our classmates oils the wheels of effective networking. It can even help with nerves before giving a presentation. A “mindfulness” expert urged us to be curious about the sensations of anxiety, and assured us that paying attention to those butterflies in our stomach would help us feel an ownership of the situation.
The theme also came up in Professor Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday speech which I attended when I should have been studying for exams. “Be curious,” he said. “And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.” So with those wise words from the humbling septuagenarian ringing in my ears, I plunge into the second “Lent” term.