Tuesday 26 June 2007

Train surfing in Soweto

Instead of going to school, children living in Soweto, with absent fathers and other family problems go to the train station to jump on trains and perform daring stunts. They get limbered up by drinking alcohol and smoking weed. Then, urged on by their girlfriends, they get on the roof of the train and duck under high-voltage cables which the train passes at 40 km/h. One guy gets out of the train while it’s cruising along and hangs underneath it. One false move and he’d get killed. Kids do get killed. Sometimes they misjudge one of the cables and get thrown off the train. This was the subject of a documentary scripted, filmed and edited by a young guy from Soweto, Muzi.

Muzi, aged 23, showed us his film this morning. It was originally put together as a story for his class. One of his teachers put him in touch with George Mazarakis, producer at Carte Blanche, and the film ended up being screened on national TV. He was shy and nervous but was keen to share the story with us.

Everything is not as rosy as it seems on the surface. In some quarters there is a lack of hope and not a lot is being done about it. In Soweto there are no real opportunities for these children and a lack of role models. To escape their problems and to get a high, to feel good about themselves, they put their lives at huge risk. They don’t care if they die. Surfing the trains, they are the centres of attention, revered by their girlfriends when they succeed, insulted when they get injured: forgotten when they die. Muzi’s film has persuaded some children to stop and raised awareness of the issue but it still continues.

Soweto now has its first shopping mall, which we saw a couple of days ago. The development has encouraged economic activity and benefited the local people. Yet nothing has been developed for the youth and it seems nothing is being done to deal with the fundamental social problems that mean the children lose hope.

Muzi is now working on his next project, a film about gangland funerals and how the young, impressed by the image the gangsters give off, want to join their ranks.

Sunday 15 April 2007

European Business Schools Case Challenge 2007

It was an unlikely crew that stepped onto the train to Fontainebleau on 12th April. Ramyani Basu, Greg Davis, Fumi Ota, Henry Zhang and Alex Guest were simply picked out of the hat to participate in the ECCH European Business Schools Case Challenge. Some of the other schools, which included IESE, INSEAD and LBS, had gone through rigorous selection procedures and one or two of the teams spent half their time on the road at other inter-school challenges. Well, rumour had it that our classmates’ expectation of success were low.

We had lunch a few weeks beforehand with Benoit Leleux, MBA programme director, to get some advice on preparing for the competition. We were thinking about extra case study sessions in our ‘spare time’. His advice: “don’t prepare. Enjoy it. Be creative.” We took this fully to heart.

Getting to Fontainebleau around 11.30pm, we chose to walk to our hotel rather than wait for a taxi to pass, with Ramyani telling us how much she enjoyed walking. So a short trip took forever as Ramyani tottered along refusing to give up her amazingly heavy luggage to any of her companions.

We missed the class’s session at the UN on Friday. Instead, we were presented with a long case about one man’s dream to turn the car industry on its head. Hugo Spowers, who worked at Morgan, had come up with a concept for the ‘OSCar’, designed around a hydrogen fuel cell, with a much reduced weight compared with current vehicles, far fewer components, sold on a lease basis. All the time, the design was to be ‘open source’. We were to imagine that we were a group of investors with €1m to invest. How much would we invest in this enterprise?

While other teams spent hours working on NPV calculations 30 years hence, we debated at length about whether there was anything in fact to invest in. No spreadsheets from us, then. We just kept talking and talking, writing things up on the flipchart. With 45 minutes to go, we got started on our long report, sharing out sections amongst us all. We’d decided that we wouldn’t touch OSCar with a bargepole, unless some massive changes were made, including a new CEO. We didn’t know that we’d be meeting Mr Spowers the following day.

Saturday morning, up early and into the auditorium for a case teaching. Everyone’s heart was beating a little faster in anticipation of the short-listing at lunchtime. We’d have happily spent the afternoon relaxing before the evening’s party but IMD was called to the next round. Having shot the OSCar concept to pieces in our investor report, we now had to play the part of the OSCar senior management. In typical MBA class style, we had just 1 hour to prepare a press conference in response to a new (fictitious) EC Directive. This time we were all enthusiastic about the emissions regulations and Greg delivered a great tub-thumping speech.

Dinner at a chateau. Beautiful setting, champagne, canapés, exquisite dinner. Yet at the back of our minds, the whole time, was the result. Having put in the effort all the way to the end, it would be nice to get on the podium. That feeling would not abate while the photographer, the ECCH staff and some of the other teams kept telling us they reckoned we were on to a winner. The third prize went to Otto Beisheim School of Management, Germany and we began to doubt our chances. The second to Smurfit, Dublin. So that was it, then. Until we heard first place to IMD!

We can’t say how proud we are to be the first IMD team to win the competition. We know that we were lucky to be part of the team that went there and we feel as though our success was that of the whole class against all the other schools.

Wednesday 28 February 2007

Wrapping up February

At 5.30pm, I stood up from my seat and picked up my name plate. Tomorrow the class changes seating plan, as it does at the start of every month.

To close off the month, this afternoon we had two talks from distinguished businessmen, 'executives-in-residence'. One of them is the former CEO of Tetra Pak, Nic Shreiber. He was an IMD MBA about 30 years ago and a former partner of McKinsey. A very unpresupposing man, he earned the class's genuine respect, not just that of a captain of industry.

I took 3 lessons from his talk. First, harmony in your career. It's ok to work flat out 24/7, so long as you understand that 24/7 doesn't leave a lot of hours for anything else. If you want to have a family or any personal pursuits, bear that in mind.

The second lesson for me, was that power is increased inversely to its use. Or, if you like, using power diminishes it. The CEO of a $10bn company should rely on more subtle leadership - and we've spent a lot of time learning about that subject over the past 8 weeks.

Finally, in paradoxes lie opportunities. For example - and this is not one he gave - how can you save energy and increase the temperature of your home? Easy, insulation. Ok, now apply it to everything else in life. The paradox, not the insulation.

February made the course increasingly 'real'. Already we've had a number of graded projects and papers. The first was the Leadership paper, exploring the dynamics of the study groups we've been working in. Next, the Industry and Competition Analysis project. Finally, an individual paper on predicting, explaining and influencing the behaviour of individuals within organisations. With tight deadlines, it's hard to concentrate on devoting a lot of energy to our start-up projects - real companies in need of business brains.

Amongst all this, there's been a tiny bit of skiing and walking in the mountains. The first of a series of Sunday night films - Blood Diamond - screened in the auditorium. The broad theme running through them all is Africa in advance of the Discovery Expedition in June to South Africa. This coming Sunday we'll be seeing My name is Tsotsi.

Then there's the MBA Olympics. Well, the event, held at HEC in Paris, is not until May but I agreed to join the organising committee headed up by Ole (Danish), along with Tom (German) and Paul (Canadian). I'm responsible for sports. In other words, of the 90 people in class, plus however many spouses, I need to pull together teams for all the various sports. Sounds easy. You haven't seen my spreadsheet. But I'm grateful for the effort of the team captains.

What else?

Well, it's been a year since I left my job in Maidenhead. I'm still not regretting it. We had a session on power naps and other ways of sustaining your personal performance. I was picked out of the hat, along with four others - Henry from China, Fumi from Japan, Greg from Australia and Stéphane from Canada - to go to INSEAD in April for 3 days to compete in the European Business School Case Challenge. Careers planning is underway with draft number 783 due in soon; plus I had an online chat with a potential employer at the MBA Online Career Forum: he happened also to be an IMD MBA, from 1994. And... Perrine and I are still together.

Tomorrow is the start of the 48-hour graded integrative exercise, pulling together everything we've learned so far. Next week we have projects to hand in for Marketing and Economics. The week after we have a day-long Finance exercise. A few days later, the final version of our Leadership papers are due. There's also an Operations project; and an Economics 'quiz'. Then revision and exams. No doubt some surprises along the way, too.

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Friday 9 February 2007

Dark circles

Two hours' sleep and I crowbar myself out of bed. This morning at 8am is the culmination of the Industry and Competition Analysis project. 6 teams - each a pair of study groups totalling up to 16 distinct nationalities - present their analyses of a wide range of industries.

The night was spent refining presentations, rehearsing and preparing detailed industry reports. Naturally, the burden of the latter task fell principally on native English speakers. It's fortunate there are enough British and North American students to go around.

The skies were clear at 4am and the stars and the half-moon were shining bright. This morning the skies are blue and the sun is beaming into the auditorium. My attentions is divided between Brad's (American) and Dimitris' (Greek) slick slides on the oil and gas industry; the blue skies outside; and the darkness behind my eyelids. Whichever the choice, I feel sick from lack of sleep. I'm short of breath, my muscles are achy and my stomach, fragile.

Some time during Sean's (American) presentation, I inspect the back of my eyelids. A little too long, as I don't recall too much about the fascinating topic of shipping ports. Ming Teck (Malaysian) brings a change of pace in talking about renewables, quoting Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani:
"The Stone Age did not come to an end because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will not come to an end because we have a lack of oil."

Brazil, it turns out, is the world's lowest cost producer of ethanol biofuel. I wonder what the correlation is with the destruction of the Amazon jungle. Brazilian Francisco chirps up to answer my question: "people have to eat" he tells me! We took a short break in which a Brazilian mob insisted that the world wants to protect the Amazon because Europe and the US destroyed their forests many years ago. And anyway, people have to eat.

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Sunday 4 February 2007

A typical IMD weekend

We were all looking forward to Saturday night. Last week a few of the guys had found a decent nightclub in Lausanne so now the plan was to check it out en masse. Before that, however, was all the other stuff that gets in the way of sleep around here...

A morning of working on my slides for our group industry analysis project - drugs and disease management in the US diabetes market. Then a meeting for a couple of hours: nothing like a good fight over one word - ‘delivery’ - to set you up for the afternoon.

Next, my plan was to spend some time on my leadership paper, an investigation about what has really been going on in our groups. How is the group operating? what are the real reasons for the interactions? what ‘fish’ are lurking under the table, causing a stink? But instead, I made myself some lunch. I can do the paper later or tomorrow.

So off to the White Horse to meet some of the other Brits - Laura (English) and husband Kevin (Scottish), Alistair (Scottish) and wife Clare (English), Jonathan (Orkney) and Mike (Kiwi) partner of Anna (Kiwi). The first game of the Six Nations pitting English determination versus Scottish flannel. The Scots weren’t singing any more after half time.

Did I return to my paper? nope. Made myself some dinner and took a quick nap before heading out to meet the guys at Café Louis around 22.30. Just one cheeky mojito before walking up the road to Red. And there I remained, dispensing relationship advice and making up with my study group after today’s little argument, until 05.30 when we were encouraged to leave.

I set the alarm for 09.00. I get up at 12.30. There goes my morning’s leadership paper writing schedule. I get to work after some breakfast then feel a hangover kicking in around 15.00. I need to make real progress - I’m meeting my study group at 18.30 to press on with the industry analysis project. We agree on most things! quickly!! so I get away early enough to make dinner, make a couple of phone calls and settle down to write at 22.00. Four hours later, I’m done. I think I’ve done a passable job. I email the paper and password with 6 hours to spare before the deadline and head for bed. Tomorrow it’s micro-economics for four hours starting 08.00.

Friday 2 February 2007

Getting a career off the ground... or a business

It’s only the second day of February, 10 months from graduation day, but at 8am Careers Services have us in the auditorium for a 4-hour session to think about getting a job. The intention is to start working out what skills and experiences we have to offer and what our ideal jobs are.

If we contemplate what we really want to be doing, it’s often a far cry from we’ve been doing. For example, I’ve been doing marketing in the financial services industry in the UK. What I’d like to do - possibly - is to set up a business serving the tourism industry in Argentina. What’s the link?

Well, it’s a bit like the theory of six degrees of separation between you and anyone else in the world. Except in this case, it’s only 3 steps. Maximum. So, one option is to do the whole stretch in one leap. It’s more advisable, however, to get at least one common area, be it sector, role or region.

This afternoon, we have a class on entrepreneurship where we investigate the case of a MBA candidate (from another school), who presented his business plan for his entrepreneurship elective, thinking of commercialising the idea in an industry he had at best little knowledge of. He was torn to shreds by the panel. The point is, that Venture Capitalists are more interested in the team than the idea. Clearly, the opportunity must be fairly attractive but the VCs will not buy into the best money-making concept in the world if the wrong person is doing it.

So our MBA went off to get experience at a big name software company, learning everything he needed, while thoroughly re-writing his business plan. This time he attracted the funding he needed and got the company off the ground.

Well, it would have got off the ground if it hadn’t been for a French postal service strike lasting 2.5 months, in which 80% of his catalogues were forever lost. Unable to deal with the backlog, the postal service simply burned all commercial post stuck in the system! The business was all but dead. The money spent. No customers.

But the first 10% of catalogues had got through and produced great results. So he managed to get the same investors to plough another few million to relaunch. The long and the short of it is that there were other critical moments in the history of the company but that today it is listed on the NASDAQ and it’s worth several billion dollars. Our professor of entrepreneurship was one of the original investors. Well, it took 12 years to get a return but it was a huge gain.

Thursday 25 January 2007

Return on MBA Investment

This morning Corey Billington, in our first Operations class, shared his experience on reducing Inventory Driven Costs, a term he coined while at Hewlett Packard. It became clear to me while I pondered the effect of time on cost that IMD candidates must be particularly economically rational. Unlike MBAs at other schools, we like ‘pain’. Our pleasure is not in dining in chateaux, like our contemporaries at Club Med, Fontainebleau. But it all makes sense.

At the start of the course, somebody claimed that we were paying CHF 25 per hour for the pleasure of being here. I guessed that this figure had been arrived at by dividing the cost of the course by 8 hours of lessons per day, 365 days the year. If we deduct the days when we are officially on holiday, it comes to CHF 31. So to derive the best return on our investment, we need to work as many hours as possible. Working for 365 days, 24 hours a day, gives us a very reasonable cost of CHF 8.56 per hour.

So it is that, after completing a set of annual accounts for a fictitious manufacturing company, it’s 10pm and we’re just about to launch into discussing the case of a bearings manufacturer in preparation for the marketing class tomorrow morning.

What’s not clear is if the sleeping heads in the front row this morning were suffering the results of working late or…

Wednesday 24 January 2007

Winter hits IMD

In a quick break from this morning’s class on ‘leading people in organisations’, where I’ve discovered that my main motivation is ‘Power’, followed closely by ‘Autonomy and Growth’, I’m taking the opportunity for a quick update...

The storm that struck northern Europe a few days ago has finally reached Switzerland. At last, the snow is coming down. My car this morning had about 10cm of snow on it. It’s really winter now and the temperature is dropping. Fast. Minimum forecast temperature in Geneva for Friday is -21C! About -10C during the day.

This is great news for the many ski resorts in the area. It’s clear that the Christmas holiday season was bad for all the businesses whose livelihoods depend on 4 or 5 months from December to April. With little snow on the slopes, many people chose to cancel their trips to the mountains. Many of the pistes have been brown for much of the last month. For day trips, it’s fine. We’ve been up to Verbier a couple of times over night and found enough decent snow to have a good time.

Tonight I’m meeting the start-up company that I’ll be helping over the next 5 months . I’m not sure what they do - other than that it’s a hi-tech company looking for US$5m - are what they want from our little group. However, they are going to get some 500 hours of help from 5 IMD MBAs. For free. We have about 35 years’ experience between us across a number of industries and disciplines.

The start-up project, just one of the assignments keeping us in the ‘Dungeon’ every night till midnight (or so), was one of the main reasons why I chose to come to IMD rather than take up one of the other offers I received. The school’s strapline is Real World. Real Learning. It’s cheesy but true and a clear differentiator.