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