It is not always possible to map out one’s future career path. Sometimes, you just have to react to changing circumstances, see where new options have opened up, and then decide which to take.
Huijin Kong, who has worked as a programme leader and counselor with the LinHart Group in Singapore for the last 18 months, did just that over 10 years ago.
Kong had never intended to enrol for an MBA soon after completing her BSc in finance and management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. After graduating in 2001, she had joined McKinsey, the international management consulting firm, as a business analyst but, hitting something of a roadblock, instead seized the opportunity to gain a much broader view of business and leadership.
“Due to the oversupply of junior consultants in 2001 to 2003, analysts like myself didn’t have the option of staying on for a third year or becoming an associate directly,” Kong says. “People advised me to go to business school to gain more perspective and balance.”
When choosing the programme to take, Kong aimed high, targeting Harvard Business School in Boston, which is consistently ranked one of the best in the world. It is also where case studies were first introduced as a key part of the curriculum, and they still feature strongly today.
“My MBA was a two-year, full-time course focused entirely on case studies,” says Kong. “But we also had lots of contact with alumni and leading figures from the world of international business and politics.”
One such figure was then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, which gives some idea of the pulling power of the Harvard “brand”.
Kong’s time in Boston proved well spent and the programme definitely lived up to expectations. “I got broader perspectives, especially about leadership, and gained a more balanced stance towards work,” she says.
The experience also confirmed her earlier interest in management consultancy and strategic business planning as a preferred career direction. “Originally, that came about because investment banks and consulting firms recruited heavily from my undergrad course. Also, I had enjoyed my internship with McKinsey,” she says. “My initial goal had been to become a CEO and McKinsey, along with GE, had a reputation as a CEO ‘factory’. Then I shifted to leadership development.”
Two specific reasons convinced her to make that switch. Firstly, she wanted to help other people realise their potential. And, secondly, she saw that leadership, not strategy, was often the obstacle to better performance.
So, on returning to McKinsey in 2005, it was as an engagement manager, leading a team of business analysts and associates and responsible for determining how to help clients solve practical problems. The role required strong consulting and leadership skills, as well as mentoring team members.
Four years on, her next move was into the media world, with a 12-month stint as director of corporate development with the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. And since joining LinHart early last year, her focus has been on coaching and designing development programmes to help senior executives tackle leadership and organisational challenges.
In doing that, she acknowledges the ongoing benefits of having a Harvard MBA, believing it carries extra weight with potential employers and clients, while also providing a valuable network of friends and contacts. “We support each other through the highs and lows in our lives and careers,” says Kong, who was born in Urumqi in Xinjiang and, aged 10, moved to Canada with her parents, living first in Winnipeg and then Vancouver. “I have also mentored several Harvard Business School students.”