Best in class

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 January, 2012, 12:00am


Diversity is the main defining feature of the Kellogg-HKUST Executive MBA programme, with each new intake comprised of students with a wide range of backgrounds, industries, personal goals, and international experience.

What unites them is the motivation and ambition to go as high as they can in their respective careers, and the realisation that one can only get so far without the broader perspectives and all-round business knowledge provided by an academic programme designed for high-flying executives.

'The world has gotten so unpredictable, one needs to be as well equipped as possible,' says Isabel Tesoro, group chief executive of family firm Tesoro's and part of the incoming EMBA class. 'I expect to have many more working years ahead of me and even from the orientation, I've been getting new insights and ideas from the first meetings with my study group.'

Though already head of a business that employs around 100 staff in the Philippines and has interests in handicrafts and the residential property sector, Tesoro sensed in recent years that she was somehow missing out. Her business skills had essentially been picked up on the job - and around the family dining table - and a combination of hard work and natural inclination allowed her to assume ever greater responsibilities.

However, she also knew that new technology, intense competition, and ongoing fallout from the financial crisis would continue to change the business landscape.

'You can 'plateau' in your career by just sticking to the same approach, so you need to move beyond that,' she says. 'Instead of getting lost in your own world, it is important to acquire new qualitative and quantitative tools to get you to the next level.'

Joining the family business 'by default' in the 1980s after a first degree in humanities, Tesoro long wanted to take an MBA, but was always too busy. For her, the EMBA now offers a better alternative. The course load, travel and time required clearly represent a major commitment while still handling a full-time role, but she feels the programme's content and choices promise long-term benefits.

'This is a chance to move forward in the business and on a personal level - and maybe also to help my country,' she says. 'We are in touch with cottage industries, and so much can be done to improve their product development and sales strategies.'

Conceding that one peril of running a family firm is the tendency to dabble in everything, Tesoro aims to become less of a fixer and more of a reformer. The programme's reputation as rigorous, wide-ranging and intellectually challenging - if a touch daunting - is what appeals.

'I am especially looking forward to the group discussions where I'm sure there will be an element of 'conflict',' she says. 'That is good, though. We should have to defend our opinions and not be too accommodating. In general, I'm also aware that to bring change to other people in the organisation, I first need to change myself.'

Jake Sims reached a similar conclusion before submitting his own EMBA application. After 14 years in the IT sector as a consultant and, currently, chief architect for Cathay Pacific Airways, he could foresee his career options narrowing. In practice, even the most ambitious specialists hit a ceiling unless they have the skills and self-confidence to run not just a department, but a business. That means getting to grips with everything from financial management and HR strategy to marketing and corporate governance.

'I still like the IT sector, but wanted to broaden my business skills and accelerate my career,' Sims says. 'This EMBA seemed the best way to move up a step or two without having to 'pause'. The way the economy is these days, it is no bad idea to keep working.'

In his view, a big plus of the Kellogg-HKUST programme is the mix of people from different industries. The professors - and some of the students - are experts in their field, making for vibrant and detailed analysis of real-life cases.

Funding his own studies and with a family to support, Sims obviously thought long and hard before applying. Two things convinced him to forge ahead. One was the example of a colleague - a programme alumnus - who now has a much wider corporate brief. The other was the belief that you should invest in yourself to have the best possible chance of success.

'The EMBA is about the subject matter, but it is also about the intrinsic value and building a network,' Sims says. 'There is a lot [of content] on the qualitative side - subjects like marketing and organisational behaviour - to which I have not been exposed in my career. I know that there will be a need to apply the learning in the workplace to really understand the material and fully benefit from this investment,' he says.

Seoul-based Charles Lee, vice-president for credit and rates markets with JPMorgan in South Korea, has equally clear objectives. Over the next few years, he hopes to take on a wider-ranging management role with regional responsibilities and significant input in senior decision-making. To achieve that, he knows that expertise in the intricacies of global financial markets is simply not enough.

'I want to have much broader horizons and I am definitely looking for a new business mindset,' says Lee, whose employer is sponsoring his EMBA studies. 'Financial markets are a huge intertwining area, but you also have to see the bigger picture and be up to date with all the latest management trends.'

Lee had two main reasons for choosing the Kellogg-HKUST programme - he saw the curriculum as the most multi-faceted and he welcomed the opportunity to interact with fellow students from other industries and disciplines.

'I sell financial products to institutional investors, so the skill sets I have developed in the past 10 years are very specific,' says Lee.

'I feel the EMBA will give me more structure and provide the 'tool box' needed to branch out and be a general manager. To get there, you have to understand things like organisational management, supply chains, and marketing. The quality of the programme makes sure you will get that.'