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It's not just an MBA

What did I learn?

What has changed?

Was it worth it?

These are great reflection questions at any time, but they are particularly useful after you’ve gone through a major life event: divorce, birth of a child, or unexpectedly leaving a job you loved. These are questions I’ve been asking myself after I finished my MBA program at HKUST this past June.

In fact, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering these questions whilst trying to write this article. And I still haven’t come to an easy or straightforward answer.

So, I went back to the beginning.

I reread my admissions essay and the goals I had when I enrolled in my MBA. Although slightly embarrassing, here they are:

1)     Successfully manage and grow RC HR Consulting

2)     Change the perception of HR and help to redefine HR as a strategic partner

3)     Become a CHRO

4)     Enhance my commercial acumen

5)     Grow and expand my network

Now that the MBA is over, it’s a good time to assess my progress against each of my goals. How would I rate myself on a scale of 1-10?

1)     Successfully manage and grow RC HR Consulting (7/10)

I often say that my MBA and RC HR Consulting were both competing and complementary activities over the last two years. Competing because there was simply never enough time to fully devote myself 100% to either pursuit. I may have used one as an excuse for the other. Complementary because many of my classmates became clients and I was able to immediately apply some coursework to client engagements. For example, I pitched for a client engagement that I never would have secured if it hadn’t been for what I learned during my Management Consulting class.

2)     Change the perception of HR and help to redefine HR as a strategic partner (8/10)

Admittedly, this is a huge undertaking. HR has a reputation for being a bit of a black box. Employees don’t understand how or why decisions are made. Most employees only interact with HR on the day they are hired or the day they are fired. Through countless discussions with my classmates, I tried to help dispel these myths, guiding them through hiring processes, offer negotiations, bad bosses or career crises. Hopefully, I was able to lift the curtain a bit for them and show them how valuable a strategic HR partner can be to their careers.

3)     Become a CHRO (5/10… obviously a WIP)

Big, hairy, audacious goals* are sometimes hard to admit – both to yourself and out loud to others. However, if we don’t have a destination, how will we know which direction to travel in? I have a long-term goal of becoming a CHRO, sitting on the Board of Directors of a large, publicly traded company and aligning the people agenda to the business objectives. The MBA gets me one step closer down the path. *BHAG – courtesy of Jim Collins.

4)     Enhance my commercial acumen (8/10)

I’m a business person with a specialization in HR. In order for me to feel confident saying that, I’ve spent 10 years working in large multinationals. I started my own company. And I pursued formal business education via an MBA. I can tackle business problems from a strategic point of view and I can ask 'why' and 'so what' until I get to the root of the problem.

5)     Grow and expand my network (8/10)

When I started my MBA, I thought I already had a pretty good network. Fast forward two years and my network has grown horizontally and vertically. During my MBA, I met people from a myriad of different backgrounds: manufacturing, family business, shipping, aviation, etc. It made me realize that Hong Kong wasn’t just full of bankers, accountants and lawyers. I’ve given myself an 8/10 here and would likely have given myself a 10/10 if the social unrest in HK and the pandemic didn’t derail many of the networking opportunities in 2020. It wasn’t quite the MBA that I had imagined. Instead of going out for drinks after class, I was starting at my classmates through a Zoom window. On the flipside, I was really lucky to have a completely normal, face-to-face MBA experience during the first year of my program.

It’s uncomfortable to reflect and rate my goals on a scale of 1 to 10. But if I’ve learned anything these past two years, it’s how to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” This is a question that I commonly ask my coaching clients to help identify the things that are truly important and break them down into manageable actions. 

My takeaway is that although I didn’t hit a 10/10 on all of my goals, I made some pretty damn good progress.

Ultimately, I think the answers to the aforementioned questions will reveal themselves slowly and over time. Why? Because of the nature of the MBA: it covers such a broad range of topics and is taught at the “manager” level. It gives you just enough knowledge to be dangerous in every situation but only when you apply it will you realize what you’ve absorbed. It gives you a strategic point of view and the confidence to ask 'why?' and challenge 'so what?' until you get to the root of the problem.

The MBA has given me the foundations on which to build throughout my career and I’ll have more and more opportunities to utilize my newly acquired skills as I continue along my career and entrepreneurial journey.

I’ve already seen some immediate impact. Last year, I put together a client pitch that included a competitor analysis, budget and client acquisition forecast. Without the skills I learned in my MBA, I would not have had the confidence to even pitch for that piece of work (which I got, by the way).

At RC HR Consulting, I interact with clients from all different backgrounds – finance, operations, marketing, accounting. Because of the MBA, I have a deeper understanding of what they do and can ask the right questions about their work to demonstrate to them that I know enough to add value. As a business owner, I can sit in their shoes and see things from their perspective. And I am always listening and eager to learn more. 

Finally, throughout the course of the program, I observed that there are three different types of people who enroll in an MBA program.

1) Those who just want to collect another degree and only do the bare minimum

2) Those who want to change or advance their careers

3) Those who actually want to learn something and contribute back to the program

As you can probably already tell from what I have written here, I fall into the third bucket.

In fact, I was humbled and honored to receive a Citizenship Award at our celebratory gala dinner to mark the completion of our program. The awards are given to just 10 students and recognize those who have shown strong leadership and made significant contributions to the program, while also serving as great ambassadors internally and externally.

Whatever contributions I made to the program and to my classmates, they’ve come back to me tenfold.

There’s nothing more to say other than thank you. Thank you to my classmates, my professors, team 17, and HKUST for an amazing two years! Onwards!

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Renee Conklin is a career coach and HR Leader who writes about talent attraction, employee engagement and the future of work. Check out more of her articles on LinkedIn.

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