The first term of the Cambridge MBA has been highly demanding, to say the least. In the midst of completing seven core courses, a thorough Career Accelerator Programme, Leadership Seminar Series, Cambridge Venture Project (CVP), and countless extracurricular activities both within and outside of Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS) there has been little time for reflection. Now that I have emerged from the Michaelmas term, the family and friends that I have struggled to keep in touch with have asked what I have been up to; what keeps one so busy at Cambridge Judge Business School? I will give a brief overview of the activities which have usurped my time these past few months and, more importantly, what I have taken away from them thus far.

Though not exhaustive, highlights include: becoming a member of the Cambridge Union Society, being elected Sports Chair for the Cambridge Business School Club (CBSC), joining the Consulting and Women & Minorities Student Interest Groups (SIGs), rowing for Sidney Sussex college (albeit very briefly), participating in two international case competitions, networking with potential employers, as well as attending ‘formals’ at various college halls – complete with gowns. It is a greater challenge to find enough hours in the day to take advantage of the myriad opportunities than it is finding college events and SIGs to join.

Throughout the first term we were repeatedly encouraged to “fail fast.” Not to be confused with academic failure, this is the reassurance to intelligently use the 12-month program to ask questions, learn from mistakes, and experiment through praxis. After reflecting on my own experiences this term, I can summarise five learnings which stand out for their multi-disciplinary application:

  1. In order to get the most accurate and appropriate answers, it is critical to ask the right questions. Though seemingly obvious, we learned in Management Science class that posing the right question can dramatically alter information received in terms of project and risk analysis. Likewise when it comes to numbers, Accounting and Finance courses both made clear that there are different ways to share the same results, emphasizing the importance of knowing what questions to ask of the relevant professionals. This played out in the A. T. Kearney Global Case competition, in which I participated. When interviewing the ‘client’ to gain further insight into the case details, neglecting to ask the right questions left many teams without the essential data needed to proceed.
  1. Universally, people carry and make assumptions – the key is to hold up existing assumptions and mitigate the risk of developing beliefs based on limited information. Our Management Praxis class taught Peter Senge’s Ladder of Inference theory, which outlines a reflexive loop wherein limited data gathered leads to inferred meaning, becoming assumptions which morph into conclusions, beliefs, and then actions1. The risk thereby is that unless others’ assumptions are shared, they can quickly escalate up the Ladder leading to misunderstanding. We derive meaning from our varied backgrounds and experiences – professional, national, personal, etc. In collaborating with others during the Cambridge Venture Project it was critical to dynamically adapt to address others’ assumptions which were dependent not only on their background but also the intrinsic phase of the project.
  1. Different leadership types are needed in different project phases. A similar consideration is what helped you achieve yesterday may not set you up for achievement tomorrow. Understanding different leadership styles, their impact on a group, and how each relates to various project types and phases was foundational in this term’s Management Praxis and Organizational Behaviour courses then further explored during the Cambridge Venture Project. I now have a much better sense of my leadership strengths, flexibility, and areas for development.
  1. Define your personal brand. A short sentence but a life-long reflection, this was my favourite Careers Development course. Personal Branding Consultant Joseph Liu (@_JosephLiu), emphasized the need to think about who you are and what you stand for, a message expanded on in Accounting class where we were encouraged to consider our impact on the firm’s net profit. Defining one’s brand is only the first part, as you then need to self-market consistently across all professional points of contact. Students had the chance to reflect on related questions, then practice with peers and on external contacts through company dinners, recruitment events and career treks. I was able to test personalized branded pitches in several live scenarios with potential employers.
  1. The key to a successful organization is alignment between the interests of the firm, staff, and external partners. Financial rewards are effective for driving task-based solutions, but hinder more creative solutions needed in today’s increasingly complex organization. Richard Baker, successful British businessman and Cambridge graduate, emphasized the need for consistency and clarity during his Leadership Seminar to the MBA class, themes which were echoed in our Organisational Behaviour class. I further explored this challenge in action through a presentation and case session at a European bank which is going through changes to try to align the aforesaid interests; a process easier said than done in practice.

Next term we will be assigned new study groups, take on a new consulting project, and continue to network with people and companies of interest, all of which allows for further learning to build on the five points above. Cambridge Judge Business School’s culture of collaboration and “fail fast” environment continually inspires students to explore challenging themes and ask probing questions. I will certainly catch up on sleep over the holiday break, but am already looking forward to next term’s conversations and learning, both inside and outside the classroom.

1 – Senge, P.M., 1993. The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization, London: Century Business.

Maura is an international human resources professional with six years of experience working in professional services firms and an interest in the overlap between business and culture. With experience in five countries, she is a proud member of the MBA class of 2014-2015.