A Path that Leads to Enlightenment

A wooden bridge over a shallow stream, leading to a gravel path through a grassy clearing with a backdrop of deciduous trees

Ever stop to think what a “business” really is? With a quindecennial work anniversary coming soon, and having gained a wealth of experience in the design and development of technical solutions from concept to finished product as a Chartered Engineer, the idea that a company and its business is more than my regular profession or occupation began to crystallise in me.

David Packard, an electrical engineer by profession and one of the founders of Hewlitt-Packard, once famously said, “I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being. As we investigate this, we inevitably come to the conclusion that a group of people get together and exist as an institution that we call a company so that they are able to accomplish something collectively that they could not accomplish separately—they make a contribution to society, a phrase which sounds trite but is fundamental.”

This idea that every business contributes to society has always stood with me, and I have been intrigued by how different businesses achieve success on their respective missions to improve society. However, it was not until a coffee table conversation with my better half sometime in May 2020 that I finally decided that I needed to do an MBA to understand this. With bills to pay, I did not have the luxury of taking a year off for my pursuit.  I researched the best universities and courses in Ireland, and was glad to find the Executive MBA programme by UCD’s Smurfit School of Business, one of the top business schools in the world.

One year into the Executive MBA program, time seems to have flown by. Some of the things that I’ve learned include: how an effective Competitive Strategy is drawn up based on the business environment; the role of effective financial control in Corporate Finance; how Managerial Accounting influences behaviours; how Operations & Supply Chain Management transform a business; the importance of Leadership & Organizational Behaviour, together with Human Resources & Management in transforming the culture of a company; and much more!  

The subjects I have learned have most definitely opened my eyes to a new understanding of the business world, through the lenses of some brilliant lecturers and a class of highly experienced and talented individuals. 

The learning curve has been steep and intense, with a plethora of readings, case studies and project work that are bound to challenge even the more seasoned academic enthusiasts. Add a full-time job and a family into the mix, and you are surely in for an awakening into the world of business and the importance of time management!  However, you begin to realize that every aspect of the course is like a melting pot of ideas and experiences. The MBA makes possible a unique environment: a diverse pool of professionals from different sectors of our society: ranging from medicine to manufacturing, human resource to finance, all sharing a common passion for business.

For the two years of the MBA, you get to experience many lives in this microcosm of society, this sandbox of business scenarios and solutions, this fellowship of friends…..

I will cherish this enlightenment for years to come. I think Bill Lazier, co-author of the book Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0, explained this perfectly when he said, “You can go at life as a series of transactions, or you can go at life building relationships. Transactions can give you success, but only relationships make for a great life.” 

Tony Korah, CEng MIEI — Executive MBA Class of 2022

Fresh Off the Plane

I arrived in Ireland last year for the full time MBA program at UCD Smurfit. I chose Ireland because I wanted an international life, I wanted to see Europe but most importantly, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. 

I figured: Hey, they speak English. I have a red beard. It’ll be a nice way to break into the European lifestyle. What could possibly go wrong?

A young man in a blue button-down shirt sips a full pint of Guinness
Nathan Jones

If I could go back in time and give myself some advice, these are some of the things I wish I knew: 

  1. The Irish are self-deprecating in the best way possible. In the US, if you drive a nice car, have a nice house, or live in a nice area it’s lauded– you’ve worked hard, go-ahead and talk about it. In Ireland, self-glorification is almost always viewed negatively. It’s okay to talk about yourself and your background just don’t go overboard, it may make the Irish uncomfortable.

    This has been the biggest culture shock for me. An entire country of people that don’t solely care about their self-interests? What is this?
  1. What’s the craic? Small talk is an artform in Ireland. Be prepared to talk about the weather, what you did yesterday, what you’re doing today, what you’re doing tomorrow, etc… Deep conversations are typically reserved for people you’re close to and only after multiple pints. Don’t expect any heart-to-hearts out of the gate.

  2. Nobody here really cares that your great-grandfather is from Ireland. I recall one of my first nights out with the lads:

    Me: “Did you guys do ancestory.com?
    Them: Crickets… 
    Me: “Oh, yeah, I guess you all know you’re Irish… ha.” 
    Them: Crickets… 
    Me: “Well, I’ve got Irish blood in me!”
    Them: Crickets… 

    Just avoid the conversation, you aren’t Irish… save it for the heraldry shop. 
  1. Southern hospitality on craic. You need to be aggressive and preemptive if you’re going to pay for your own drinks anywhere. I’ve stayed at people’s houses after meeting them twice. The Irish have driven me hours out of their way out of pure generosity and hospitality. There’s a sense of trust and community in Ireland that just doesn’t translate to anyplace else I’ve been.

  2. I’m staying in Ireland. In spite of COVID, this has been the most transformative year of my life. I came here to get out of my comfort zone, that has happened in more ways than one. This has been a year of self-reflection and self-refinement. I’m grateful to have had this experience and would highly recommend the UCD Smurfit MBA to any American looking to explore the European lifestyle.
Beer taps and a Guinness Harp next to two pints
Photo by Ana Ribeiro on Unsplash

Bonus: It’s not a joke, the Guinness actually tastes better in Ireland. Some say “it’s a different formula in the States”, it’s not. All Guinness distributed throughout North America, The UK and Ireland is sourced from St. James’ Gate Brewery. The difference is… The Irish pubs regularly clean the tubes that connect the keg to the tap. Also, the freshness is unparalleled. At most you’re drinking Guinness produced three miles (4.8 kilometers) away.

Nathan Jones, FTMBA Class of 2021

The MBA can be All About Competition–but I remember only Cooperation

The one-year, full-time MBA at UCD is widely recognized as a grueling pursuit – one that requires its students to excel and accelerate their learning in a wide range of business subjects. The course adheres to the original mission statement of an MBA as defined by the Association of MBAs: “to enhance and develop previous relevant experience”. It is extremely time-intensive and is best suited for students who already have a strong background in business fundamentals. In such an absorbing environment, you expect not to lose a single minute without being productive or outshining at academics, networking or extra-curricular activities.

Sumit Madan

However, my MBA experience has been quite different. After getting a strong emotional hit, I have happened to survive this intense MBA journey based on Extensive Cooperation from my school and cohort. Right in the middle of the spring trimester, Covid hit me and my family very hard. Between April and May 2021, the apocalyptic second wave of Coronavirus in India took away from me my father, my elder brother and my childhood friend, who contracted Covid while arranging medical facilities such as Oxygen cylinder, Remdesivir, etc. for my family. Further, the health infrastructure collapse in my home city, Delhi took my mother to the verge of death.    

From those tough days, I only remember controlling my emotions while talking to my sister and uncle. I would frantically call them to question what was going to happen next. Whenever I received a call of another demise, I used to instantly feel defeated. I was still grieving the loss of one member, and the cycle of grief would begin again. Travel restrictions didn’t allow me to visit my home for even a few days or perform my duties for their last rites. I was just filled with sadness and regret over the fact that I didn’t get to say goodbye to any of my beloved ones or take care of my mother in her critical condition.

While I was fighting this Covid-war at home, my MBA spring trimester was in full swing. The week my elder brother expired first, I had one mid-semester and one end-semester exam. To the credit of Smurfit school, when I reached out to the MBA program office in my distraught state of mind, I was offered full support and empathy. I could reach out to all my professors to explain my situation. Not only the school (management and professors) promised that they were always available for help but when I needed them the most, they opened all their doors. I received the best of advice both on the personal front (on how to hold myself together) and on the study front (when and how to cover for the lost time).

Most of the content on the internet describes MBA students as sharp-elbowed, one-dimensional, destructively competitive beings. Hence, when I started my MBA journey, I expected highly ambitious, keenly clever and fairly competitive souls around me. However, I experienced totally different dimensions of my cohort: collaboration, care and concern about the world around them. I can’t remember a single member of my class who did not pray incessantly or extend extra-ordinary support to me and my family. My classmates in Delhi would drive hundreds of kilometres and those in Dublin would relentlessly make thousands of calls to find hospital beds or oxygen cylinders for my family members. They ensured that during those tense days, I did not miss my meals or lose my sleep. And this is when they themselves had to deal with the immense pressure of end of semester examinations and assignment submissions.

At present, it helps that things are getting better – with vaccines rolling out and the weather warming for outdoor business. It has been about three months since I lost my family members to the virus, and the grief will stick with me for far longer. But despite the grief, I have moved on with my life for which I express my heartfelt gratitude to my classmates and school management.

However, when I sometimes question myself “If, God-forbids, such a situation arises with any of my classmates, could I support so much?” – The candid answer is that I can’t confidently say a “Yes”. This is something for me to self-reflect and develop my ability to empathize. My class is full of people who have seen corporate life inside out and with more than 325 years of collective corporate wisdom available in my class, the peer learning that this year has offered me is incredible. But most importantly, the course has given me the time to discover myself and bridge my deficits before I start managing others.

In conclusion, I would like to mention that cultures of many B-schools around the world may seek to repress the worst tendencies engendering from the competitive spirit and lack of time, but some schools are more successful at this than others. UCD Smurfit is definitely amongst the top.

Sumit Madan, FTMBA Class of 2021

The Real MBA was the Friends We Made Along the Way

Coming into the final lecture week of the MBA my mind was focused on how close to the end of the journey we all were, with only 6 weeks of the Capstone ahead until we were once again thrown back into the big bad world and all the opportunities it has to offer. I thought back to the different modules, the late nights working on assignments, the many, many zoom meetings and the chilly weekends in the Smurfit room trying to get study done somewhere other than my flat, and I realised something. Even with all of that, what I got looking back from the other end was far far more than I put in. The knowledge that will stand to me for years to come: the experience of studying during Covid and the amazing people who had my back, gave me advice and even just listened when I needed an open ear were more than adequate compensation for all the Zoom sessions in the world.

A trip to Brazil’s Carnaval, via Zoom

Coming into our final lecture week of the year and with that on my mind, I chose to enjoy the Doing Business in International Markets module to its utmost. And what a week it was, kicking off with an incredibly enlightening piece on the impact of Covid on the Americas and a spectacular Samba session filled to the brim with homemade percussion music. The rest of the week was a whistle stop tour, from a baking giant in Mexico teaching about the ins and outs of business in Latam, to the heights of the Andes in Chile and on to Silicon Valley where we learned that hobos and billionaires can be pretty indistinguishable. Wednesday we ended the day with a nice cup of Columbian coffee, and a walk-through of how it was made by Cafe San Alberto.

Coffee tasting kit–our virtual trip to Colombia

The highlight for me was the deep dive into the China/USA relation in LATAM, led by the inestimable Ambassador Jorge Heine. His session was an equal mix of thought provoking, insightful, engaging and pushed one to reexamine preconceived notions, and I for one walked away with much to ponder and happier for it.

Finally come Thursday we came to the main event, the DBIM closing BBQ, long awaited and much enjoyed. For some the first time to put a body to a screen and for all a great time to reconnect offline, enjoy some good food and well-earned rest while reminiscing about MBA shenanigans, lecturer quirks and that one exam you knew you could do better if given another chance.

Sláinte to the end of MBA coursework!

Walking home at the end of the night I realized this wasn’t the beginning of the end. Sure the MBA might be coming to a close, but the relationships we made along the way, the experience we gained and the trials we overcame will stand to us for the rest of our lives. With that I jumped on the bus with a smile on my face, looking forward to tomorrow–but probably not the accompanying hangover.

The end of the evening, and the end of an era

Paul Kilroy-Glynn, FTMBA Class of 2021

Journey from Exploration to Chaos to Exploration

I would like to dedicate this blog to our late Prof. Eamonn Walsh. His energy was infectious! May his soul rest in peace.

“Life is short and the world is wide!”
I often ask myself:
‘What do you want to do in life?’,
‘What is one thing you are passionate about?’
Every time I ask these questions, I don’t get a reply.
I see an artist, a sportsman, a businessman live for their passion,
But who would tell me what I like?
One thing that needs to be kept in mind:
When life gives you an empty canvas,
Draw your own design!

A group of smiling young people in the UCD Smurfit School main hall
MBA Orientation: Day 1 of the new adventure!

‘Keep exploring new constructs’ has been the mantra of my life. After my under-graduation, I got a job as a Software Engineer. After a certain period when everything was settled, I felt stagnated and so I transitioned my career from a technical role to a business role in a start-up. This transition was huge as two changes happened simultaneously: role change and cultural change from an MNC to a start-up. Bitten by the proverbial ‘entrepreneurial bug’, I decided to start a business: Sababa Miteri, an e-commerce for maternity wear. As I lacked any experience in the apparel industry, the journey of starting a business was full of challenges and satisfaction. Trips to several cloth markets in India, negotiations lessons, team building, sleepless nights, happiness at every milestone achieved, and a lot more has been received during my entrepreneurial journey. I could not have traversed these if I had not decided to leave my stable job.

One thing I realized while running my business that I did not have enough tools in hand to grow my business. I required validation to the techniques I was using and needed a structured approach to strategize business growth. I took the GMAT and applied to a few top business schools that met my criteria. The whole process was frenetic along with the daily challenges in my business. And one fine day, I received an offer from UCD Smurfit for a full time MBA. 

No one knew that Covid-19 would bring chaos to everyone’s life, and I wasn’t spared. All the plans started falling apart. My business went down with a country-wide lockdown. I was not sure of how to get a visa for travelling to Ireland to pursue MBA as the offices were closed. It was a hustle to arrange all the documents required for visa formalities. Moreover, no one knew if international travel would be allowed. Apart from all this, I started to wonder if this is the right time to do my MBA. I got through this phase by keeping calm and making careful decisions.

Amidst all the chaos, there were two biggest learnings:

  1. Be agile! It is important to adapt according to changing situations. I appreciated seeing how the whole world adapted to the new ways of working.
  2. You can have multiple/alternative plans for the future, but none may work. And so you have to be prepared to think on your feet.
A man in a yellow shirt wearing two masks, glasses, and a face shield in his airplane seat.
The New Normal of traveling

The chaotic time ended, and I reached Dublin where I had to quarantine myself for 14 days. New country, new life, new people, but I had to wait for a few more days before I could experience that. There has been great support from the university throughout, especially in this challenging pandemic situation. 

A screenshot with four vertical Zoom squares.
The New Normal of MBA teamwork

The exploration phase began again. I roamed around the city, met new people, explored the UCD campus and the course commenced, with introductions, coffee sessions and realizing that this one year will be teaching me a lot of new things. It has been a wonderful journey so far and I am excited to discover what stores next. I would like to end it by a quote that really touched me:

“You can’t fall if you don’t climb. But there is no joy in living your whole life on the ground.”

Anonymous

Shashwat Acharya, FTMBA Class of 2021

The MBA ‘X-Factor’

With the first half of my Smurfit Executive MBA now complete (where did that year go?), I’ve had a chance these past few weeks to pause, catch my breath and reflect on what I have learnt to date. The breadth, depth and pace of learning on the EMBA has been challenging, but immensely enjoyable. If someone had told me 12 months ago that I’d be spending most of my non-working and non-sleeping hours analysing fleet management models for power tools, brand relaunches for peanut companies, continuous improvement programs at Children’s hospitals or workplace psychology at sewage treatment facilities, I would have suggested they have their head examined. Today, I could give you chapter and verse on these and many other real-world case studies, as well as the theory that underlines it all – from Financial Management to Competitive Strategy – and I have enjoyed it all immensely.  

Barry Dunning

An MBA is about far more than academic learning, however, and I have found clear, practical ways to integrate these diverse learnings into my work. Having spent the majority of my career in public policy, communications and nonprofit operations roles, applying a Managerial Accountant’s perspective (‘You get what you measure’) or the knowledge of  Supply Chain Operations and offers a different perspective from which to analyse a situation and implement a solution. 

Reflecting on this first year, I’ve come to the conclusion that an MBA is a bit like surfing, with continuous waves of knowledge replacing the waves of water. Each semester Executive MBA students take on four diverse subjects, with a deluge of readings, case studies and project work that grows week by week. This is combined with a full-time day job, making it even more challenging to maintain your balance atop the ‘board’ – and all too easy to ‘wipeout’, or in this case burnout. (As an aside, I am in awe of my course mates who combine an EMBA and full-time work with raising young children – I simply don’t know how they do it).  As the weeks progress, however, and the linkages between the subjects and what’s come before begin to click into place, it becomes that bit easier to maintain your balance and to surf the wave to the shore.

Visual representation of the first EMBA year
Photo by Anton Repponen on Unsplash

It is the different perspectives that I have been exposed to that I have found most rewarding from the MBA. The Executive MBA draws a diverse bunch of people, from a wide variety of sectors – from medicine to manufacturing, technology to finance – and it is from them that I have learned some of the most valuable insights this past year. Specifically, the different approaches which my classmates take to analysing and solving the same problem, as they bring their expertise, experience and insights from different fields to bear on an issue, have taught me as much, if not more, as I have learned from lecturers and module materials.

The approach that a Surgeon and an FMCG Category Sales manager take to solving a problem is often radically different to the way that I would have approached it (and to each other). No method is necessarily better than another: on the MBA as in real life, while in some cases there is a single right answer (e.g. Financial Reporting) more often than not, there are multiple potential responses depending on a weighting of different variables.

This has been particularly rewarding within the small project teams that we have been split into for each semester. These have enabled me to join unique cross-functional teams with expertise stretching from Actuary to Decision Science, Farm Machinery Sales to Telecoms Product Management. Sometimes my analysis to solve a project question was spot on from the get-go; many other times, however, a teammate suggested an approach that I had not even thought to consider, which unlocked a solution perfectly. By combining our diverse backgrounds and experiences on these project teams we have identified the strongest solutions. It is this blended approach where we learn from our peers,, as well as from the course, that I have found the most rewarding. This highlights the value of diverse cross-functional teams, where people with different backgrounds and experience can add real value to resolve an issue.  

So as I have time over the summer to synthesise my learnings, it is the perspectives from my EMBA teammates, as well as from the course materials, that I will be drawing on to solve problems in my work. And come September I look forward to joining a new team of classmates as we continue to surf the wave of knowledge into year 2.

Barry Dunning, Executive MBA Class of 2022

Figuring Out the Code

If you still have not figured out the text above it is all right but I can confirm that it is not a text error or a website glitch. It is rather like punching the right code to get into the MBA Suite (a room on UCD Smurfit campus that is reserved for MBA students’ use).

An Indian man stands next to a black marble fireplace, with an Irish flag and a poster saying 'Céad Míle Fáilte' ('One Hundred Thousand Welcomes') above the mantel
Shantanu in UCD Smurfit’s Main Hall

As I jumped from a cliff of unstructured start-ups into the structured world of the MBA, it felt like landing in the fifth dimension. My last education journey was nine years back, before I graduated as a computer engineer, and can be defined as the best days of the carefree life. I started the MBA program as a full cup, but soon realized that there will always be a subset of knowledge that I do not know. “Acceptance is a hard thing to accept” but once accepted it clears the head space and is self-motivating. This brought pivotal changes in my attitude and centered around the knowledge that was pragmatic and applicable in the real-world.

In addition to the MBA tasks, I was also very dedicated in deciding the best course of action: between working on the assignment for 48 hours or grabbing 4 pack of Guinness (always go for the latter). It was amazing playing futsal and going on random long walks. But, I have very few days when presentations, assignments and group meetings will not conflict with fun plans. In the midst of all the program commitments, it was important for me to keep myself engrossed with my passion. This provoked me to get a side gig associated with current projects in the technology majorly in the blockchain domain.

The United Nations estimates a global average life expectancy of 72.6 years, this one year at MBA is just 1.38% of an average life, but feels far more. Today is history & today will be remembered. It always excites me to meet new people and travel around new destinations, and the MBA journey has blessed me with both. The whole notion is to keep the excitement alive, be real, choose the key moments and maintain the balance between professional and passionate lifestyle.  

I never wanted to fit the MBA program on me, but rather to choose certain aspects from the program that can bring drastic change in my lens, the way I see the world. Soon, I will be entering a different world that hopefully brings in more spice in my life.

Shantanu Bamnavat, FTMBA Class of 2021

Diversity in the Workplace: SWIM Pride Month Webinar

Join us from 12:00 – 1:00 p.m. on Friday 25 June for Smurfit Women, Inspiring More‘s Pride Month Webinar: “Diversity in the Workplace.” We are honoured to be joined by Sara R. Phillips, Chair of the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) and Aongus Hegarty, President of Dell Technologies for International Markets. Sara and Aongus will discuss their experiences around building greater inclusion and equality for the LGBTQI community in society and in the workplace.

You can register for the event here.

Sara R Phillips has been involved with trans activism for over 25 years. She is currently in her third 3-year term as Chair of the Board of Directors of Ireland’s national trans organisation, Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI). She is the founder, researcher and archivist of the Irish Trans Archive and was one of the lead negotiators to the Gender Recognition Act 2015, serving on the Governmental review of the act in 2018. In that same year, Sara was honoured as Dublin LGBTQ Pride Grand Marshall. She is also a board member of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, the Treasurer of both the International Trans Fund in New York and Transgender Europe in Berlin. Sara is currently the National Manager in Ireland for multinational construction materials manufacturer CPG-Europe.

Aongus Hegarty serves as President of Dell Technologies for International Markets, an organisation spanning 170 countries where he has responsibility for all revenue, customer relationships and strategy. A respected communicator on business, innovation, leadership, digital transformation, sustainability and diverse and inclusive workforces, he was recognised by The Economist Global Diversity List as one of the Top 10 Diversity Champions and was appointed by the Irish Government to join the Better Balance for Better Business (BB4BB) Review Group to help increase participation by women on boards in listed and private companies. At Dell, Aongus co-leads the Global Women’s Network, is a member of the Global Diversity Council, chaired by Michael Dell, and co-leads the company’s Customer Advisory Boards.

UCD kept me coming back!

December 8, 2017. I landed in Dublin for the first time with my husband and my then 5-months old son, Yahya. One year later I reached a point where I was sleepless, jobless and hopeless! 

I worked as an architect for more than seven years back in Egypt. I enjoyed my career to the fullest, and was excited to start elsewhere and broaden my experience. I knew that finding a job in Dublin wouldn’t be easy, but it turned out to be nearly impossible: I had no connections; my experience was unrecognized and I kept enduring one rejection after the other. I had so many reasons to leave and I kept saying, ‘Dublin, I like you, I want to stay, but something’s gotta give. You have to give me a reason to stay!

January 2019, I came across the MBA experience day at UCD on LinkedIn. And that was it! The moment I entered the campus, I had this gut feeling that this is where I want to be, and this is where I will be. A couple of months later, I had my first acceptance letter from UCD and although I couldn’t secure a scholarship at the time, I knew it was worth coming back for. In July of 2020 I finally made it. With a spot in the MBA program and a generous scholarship, I couldn’t be happier to say I’m a UCD Michael Smurfit Business School FTMBA candidate for class 2021.

Zoom Star Yahya!

Since Yahya has been starring in most of the lectures, breakout rooms and meetings, I might as well reveal the surreal life of pursuing an MBA with a 3-year-old on the loose. After a pretty messy start in the first couple of weeks, I realized that I need to get myself together if I wanted this to work. There has been a learning curve to everything on the MBA, and managing family obligations was no exception. I had to adapt my mindset that I would do my best, bearing in mind that there will be few compromises here and there. I had to plan ahead, and when planning wasn’t enough, I had to micro-plan. I thought I had it all under control, but things got more complicated. By the beginning of the second trimester and with the new measures of lockdown, schools were closed for more than 6 weeks. Being flexible to unpleasant surprises was yet another skill I had to embrace. Nothing about parenting is easy, just as nothing about a full-time MBA is easy, but it’s doable and it’s definitely worth it. Going back in time, I’d do it all over again.

After all the planning, hard work and pressure; finding that one thing that gets you up in the morning is key. I’m thankful for UCD Business Alumni for setting a 30-day walking challenge. Getting-through a long day of lectures, deliverables, cook, laundry, dishes and finally putting the little one in bed, those 10kms in the evening were the highlight of the day.

Joining the MBA has been the most strategic, rational and emotional decision I have ever made. 

Yahya Elkordy, UCD MBA Candidate Class 2045

To me, UCD is a little bit more than just an MBA. It gave me all the knowledge, confidence and relationships I was looking for. But most importantly, it kept me coming back.

Noreen Mahmoud, FTMBA Class of 2021

On the Importance of Resilience for an MBA – Life, Matters…

“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.”

Maya Angelou

I would like to consider myself a reasonably resilient person. On the Resilience Assessment Questionnaire (RAQ), I scored a 147 (/175), which should be a significant number to those of you who like snooker. That doesn’t for a second mean that I haven’t at least considered throwing in the towel on a number of occasions. Sometimes, things seem insurmountable, and I’ve had to take a step back, gather my thoughts, remembered why I was trying to achieve something, and who I was doing it for. 

Here’s the thing. How do you speak about resilience without almost wishing that you had Baz Luhrmann’s “Wear Sunscreen” reassuringly playing in the background? Most of us think of it along the lines of the ability to bounce back, to bend but not break, and perhaps even to demonstrate personal growth in the presence of adversity. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress…” These reactive analogies are useful, but they don’t reflect our own unique, complex, innate biology, nor do they explain the social, culture, and psychological determinants which influence our responses. Truth be told, resilience is an incredibly personal experience, and dynamic, and something you can’t really contemplate until you face these challenges.

Business attempts to distil resilience into actionable points. Companies use these then to develop long-lasting systems using terms such as redundancy, diversity, modularity, adaptability, prudence and embeddedness. They talk about investing in procurement as a protective factor. The Global Workplace Study (2020) of resilience against COVID-19 illustrated a couple of unexpected, but important findings:

  1. Resilience is a reactive state of mind created by exposure to suffering
  2. The more tangible the threat, the more resilient we become

From an industry perspective it all boils down to three things: Routines, Simple Rules, and Improvisation. One cannot predict geosocial or economic, or even pandemic-related upheavals. However, through simulation, altering routines, using heuristics, and improvisation, leaders can build organisational resilience, much like hospitals simulating trauma/infectious disease outbreak protocols, or military personnel preparing for missions. 

I’m used to being told “no”. That’s generally what happens in the health service. I’m used to models of poor behaviour and leadership which set things up for failure, and I had always taken the approach to barriers as I would have on a rugby pitch: at top speed. However, the closest I had ever gotten to not being able to find a solution was in the first couple of weeks in Canada after bringing the entire family over for my fellowship. We were in a strange country famous for its bureaucracy, on our own and floundering, looking for some normality, and something to go right. It may seem strange, but a surgical fellowship is not arranged, it’s facilitated. You bear the full cost and hassle of moving, visas, accommodation, schooling, licensing, social security, insurance etc., of which only a tiny amount can actually be carried out before you emigrate. It was outside yet another unconstructive government office appointment, soaking in a thunderstorm with 3 crying kids, that I looked at my wife Sonia, and said, ‘I don’t think I can do this anymore.’ The consequences were enormous, but she looked at me and smiled and said she’d support me no matter what. That we were a team. 

Long story short, we didn’t go home, and we made things work. Coming home to Ireland in 2020 from Toronto in the middle of COVID-19,  we faced 8 cancelled sets of flights, having nowhere to live (our house still had tenants in it), and not even being sure if I had a job as I hadn’t formally signed a contract, and yet we knew that together through perseverance, grit, or just blind faith, something would just work itself out. Routines (Continue with work, and homeschooling. Keep looking for flights and animal transport. Keep in touch with friends, family and hospital back home). Simple Rules (Keep talking and communicating. Accept frustration . Don’t over-finance for potential flights. Don’t worry the kids. Don’t give up). Improvisation  (Be willing to travel through any airport. Don’t need to necessarily travel with the dog. Might have to stay in Canada. Could potentially go to the US. Might need to split flights. May need to work in a random locum job as a non-consultant doctor if necessary).

I’d like to think that I’ve become more resilient as time has gone by, and I fervently believe resilience is something that you can learn. Only a couple of week ago, my middle son had to be rushed back to the operating room for a bleed 5 days following removal of his tonsils and adenoids. We were  in the middle of the end of year exams during this unpredictable situation, and yet my experience, and knowledge of similar situations, allowed me to acknowledge the crisis, and a plan of how to work around it.

I would study and write in the hospital room, and do shift changes with my better half. I understood that emotion and concentration would both compete for my time, and that each would have to be (metaphorically) fed in order to allow me to function. Furthermore, I knew that I could afford to work at 70-80% and still be reasonably productive. Routines (Continue with non-movable items like the school run, kids’ dinner, bedtimes, work commitments). Simple Rules (Allow for emotion, understand and accept that productivity will temporarily decline, eat, spend time with the kids, respect deadlines). Improvisation (Work in the hospital rather than at home, relay shifts between home and hospital, have friends and family on standby [COVID-permitting], move non-urgent work meetings and clinics).

A wide-angle view of a pediatric hospital room. Foreground: a small table with laptop, notebook, ID, and a teddy bear wearing red pyjamas. Background: a small boy in a hospital bed playing on a tablet on the left; nurses' station in the centre; brightly-coloured curtain with a jungle motif on the right.
Multi-tasking

There have been many other moments, but again, it’s personal. How can I compare my experiences to others? For some resilience is based on chronic low levels of adversity and stress, for others it may be based on single life-altering events. I think I’ve had it easy compared to some of my friends–or is that just the resilience speaking?

At an individual level, resilience has been shown to positively influence workplace satisfaction and engagement, improve overall well-being, and reduce levels of depression. Importantly however, it is also positively affected through strong relationships and networks within our own lives. These can modulate our perception of the demands placed on us, and help us see a path forward to persist: much like my wife did in that stormy day in Ottawa. 

Conflict, adversity, and failure are inevitable. They can appear to the unrehearsed mind like raging infernos. The crux is therefore how to manipulate those fires to ignite you, rather than consume you. You don’t need to carry that burden alone.

Fardod O’Kelly, MD, EMBA Class of 2022