Leadership dilemmas

Among the big things that Smurfit offers is the opportunity to learn about and enrich ourselves. One of these points came during the conflict resolution and mediation workshop carried out in February this year. We had to role play a few different conflict situations and see what we learnt from these interactions.

In one of the situations, I was the leader of a project where the team had three staff with excellent competencies and the fourth member was a new staff in the company. My leadership style is very much a mentoring-coaching-facilitating style, so during the (pretend) conflict, I tried to listen as much as I could to what the team members had to say and asked them how they thought the issue should be solved. Time ran out, and we weren’t able to fully close the issue.

The feedback I received from one of my role-play group mates was – “you’re the nicest leader” before she shot the steel bullet, “I was waiting for you to give the direction, but you never did.” She was frank, and I really appreciate that. This comment hit a really strong cord in me because in my previous life, the first time I had people formally report to be at work, that was the same feedback I felt they were giving me (though they never said it aloud, in retrospect, I knew sometimes they needed my direction more than my ears).

Leadership is very contextual. Despite the amount of literature doled out on the importance of being humble leaders, facilitating leaders, coaching leaders, empathetic leaders, at times a leader has to be what he has to be – give the directions strong and clear. The question is, sometimes you don’t know which situation you are in, and which role you should play. And often, just reading Harvard Business Review articles or Academy of Leadership journals don’t prepare you for the real role you have to play when you’re in those shoes. In the real world, you just have to learn to lead and think on your feet. Read, do, think, get feedback, improvise and keep getting better.

Nur Zahirah M Sukran

– Nur Zahirah M Sukran, FT MBA 2012/13

A day in the life of an MBA student/ wife/ mother

Before coming to UCD for my MBA, I did a few searches on the internet to find out what a day in the life of an MBA would be like. Having two children and seeking the ever so unreachable work-life balance, I wanted to get a feel of how much time I would have to spend on school work vs the time I could spend with my family and my other projects.

A search on the internet for the schools I was applying for wasn’t very promising. Only one ‘A day in the life of’ was found and it didn’t look too appealing. Despite that, I still decided to delve into an MBA hoping that it wouldn’t be as bad as the person wrote. So here’s sharing what a day in the life of an MBA student with family responsibilities looks like ;-) . By the way, I am a Muslim, and we have five prayers each day – at dawn, mid-day, afternoon, sunset and at night, so my typical day would revolve around these prayers as well as the other obligations.

The class times differ in different semesters, in the first semester most classes would start from 830 up to 2 pm, in the second semester we would start at 11am and end at 4 or 5 pm. In the summer semester, most classes are ‘block’ style, which means the classes run from 9 am to 5 pm for a specific number of days. We are also starting Capstone projects next week, so that will depend on whether the company requires your presence in their premise or for you to work on your own schedule and place.

I like to think of my day as starting at the end of the previous day, then add in my six or seven hours of sleep from there, if I can get that six/seven hours. The day usually ends at between 1145 pm to 130 am – after one to two hours of studying, cooking dinner for the family, cleaning up, reading and checking my six year old’s homework, getting my two kids ready for bed – which includes about 45 mins of chasing the two and six year olds to get them to brush their teeth, clean –up and reading a bedtime story. Once all the chores are done, I would perform the night prayer and then do my reading or assignments, so generally my bedtime would depend on when I think I’ve met my study goals for the day. Performing the final prayer before retiring helps me to refocus and reflect on what I’ve done throughout the day in preparation for tomorrow.

About an hour and a half before the actual sunrise, I would rise and perform my morning prayer. This would usually take five or ten minutes, but I would stay awake for another half hour to read and reflect the verses from the Quran and sometimes study for one hour.

In winter, the sun rises at around 8 am, so by the time I am done for my prayer, I rush off to class. But in spring and summer, I would have some time to sleep again and would wake up at 8 am to make breakfast, get my son ready for school, and depending on when I start class, send him to school. Once my son is in school, depending on the workload and class schedule  I usually spend the rest of the time between 9 am to 5 pm doing schoolwork – at times on campus, at times at home. If I am at home, I take a two hour break to prepare lunch and eat it with the family as well as perform my mid-day prayer. When I am on campus, I usually have a packed lunch while reading cases or finishing assignments and do my prayer in the multi-faith prayer room on campus.

The afternoons are then usually spent with the children or doing housework and squeezing in ten minutes for the afternoon prayer.  The time is spent sometimes studying, sometimes going out for groceries, sometimes doing NGO work. During the weekends, 50% of it is committed to do NGO work, so the rest of the 50% is divided between family, housework and studying. I don’t know how they have all managed to fit in, but God has been kind in helping us achieve our goals for the year despite the challenges along the way.

Having a family and young children who are growing up with lots of attention needs, I’ve had to be very selective on where I spend my time. This means that I haven’t attended 90% of the social, networking, club and other extra events that the school or my classmates have organized. But these are the conscious choices I made when I prioritized my goals for the year in Dublin. I have to say that despite the stretch on my time, brain, physical being and psychology, I am very happy that I’ve taken the year off to do this MBA.

Nur and Family

If you’re also a mother and you’re thinking of doing the MBA, it’s not going to be an easy journey, but it will be rewarding if it’s something that will add value to your long term goals. If you need specific feedback, I would be glad to communicate with you :-)

– Nur Zahirah M Sukran, FT MBA 2012/13

At the end of the final class – was it worth it?

At the end of my final formal class for the MBA, I am reflecting back on my experience this year at Smurfit. Despite the humongous workload, frustrations and occasional tears, the experience at Smurfit has totally exceeded my expectations.

I am a big dreamer. In my MBA applications, I decided to only apply for the top schools. I applied for Said Business School and Harvard Business School. I got wonderful replies from them – you have a great application, but we’re not able to offer you a place at this time. Said Business school even sent me the same email twice, either because they like me so much or because they wanted to remind me that I should try for another business school :-) .

I am very happy, thanks and praises to God for putting the best plans in order, with the way that things have turned out by coming to UCD. I have benefitted greatly from the program (you can read some of this on my personal blog, my son went to a wonderful Muslim National School in Clonskeagh, and is now fluent in English while doing extremely well in Gaelic (better than English!) in his class. My husband and I learnt a lot about ourselves amidst the challenges of his NGO work, my MBA assignments and the kids running up and down between us. My little girl has had a lot of nurturing from being at home with dad and me (when I don’t have classes and meetings). And I have met so many wonderful people here – both from the school and through the volunteer work I am doing with the Malaysians studying and working in Ireland.

The first day of class, I remember trying really hard to understand some of my classmates who had really strong Irish accents (those from Cork, Limerick, you know you who are!). Today, I understand them perfectly well and the Irish-English accent just comes naturally to my ears. I’ve even caught myself inadvertently using the Irish ‘ya’. That’s lasting proof that I spent a year in the beautiful Irish land of Dublin :-D . And to answer the question in the subject line – was it worth it? Totally yes!

Nur Zahirah M Sukran

– Nur Zahirah M Sukran, FT MBA 2012-13

We need more women leaders

I would like to dedicate this post to all the women who believe in themselves and enrich themselves, including my dear classmates in UCD Smurfit Business School.

We need more women to step up to the forefront because despite the hullaballoo, men are still dominating the leadership spheres of both for profit and not-for profit organizations as well as communities, nations and countries.

But why is so important for us to have women leaders?

And no, it’s not about men being better than women, or women being better than men. It’s about working together, in synergy, using our strengths to make a better world.

When thinking of the role of women, I am reminded of the story of Mary, the blessed mother of Jesus, peace be upon him, whom I have named my daughter after. Despite the double standards and persecution that religious groups have put on women for the past centuries, Mary, may God bless her more, is probably the epitome of a woman’s great contribution to humanity.

Her parents, when she was still in the womb, decided to dedicate her to the service of God. In their mind, they had imagined dedicating a little boy in the service of God. Of course at that time, there was no way for Mary’s parents to know that she was a girl until she was born. As Mary’s mother delivered the small baby, she was in for a surprise because in her hands was a baby girl! “O Lord, it is a girl!”

How could she devote a girl to the service of God? Would that even be thinkable? Doable? Nobody had ever done it before! Only boys are great leaders and spend their lives in God’s service! Yet because of her earlier promise, that she would dedicate her child to the service of her Lord, she did just that.

And that message from years ago is still valid today, that whoever we are, if we’ve made a commitment to succeed, whether we are a man or a woman, we can all be valuable contributors to improve and change the world.

Nur Zahirah M Sukran

– Nur Zahirah M Sukran, FT MBA 2012/13

Welcome Second Leg of MBA

It’s a beautiful day outside. The sun is shining; the trees and grass are green with only a slight wind is blowing. It’s been more than two weeks since the start of a new semester for the full time MBA class. We’ve begun our option classes this semester, with only five core classes ongoing, including the overseas study trip due in March. The earliest class starts at 11 am this semester, good news for the owls among us.

We received our last semester’s results on Wednesday during the first week of class. I still feel a bit incredulous that I had actually completed studying seven subjects in three months. This semester, thus far, feels a lot less hectic compared to the last one.

A few of the class members mentioned that they felt like there was a lack in work/study-life balance last semester and wanted to re-prioritize their lives. Personally, I had occasional very high stress levels adjusting to the amount of work required last semester, along with my two young children and other domestic responsibilities. The ‘stress’ points were usually when the internet wasn’t working at home, had two or three assignments due and my beloved little ones were still running around the house when they should have had their morning bath.

I do feel that I was stretching myself a bit, and at some points wondered whether I would ever get to the end of the program! But I rationalized that it’s only for a short duration and I might as well juggle everything as best as I can. And it really depends on what we are looking for during this one year. Some of us may be using it as a stepping-stone, to network and get a better job while others may wish for academic excellence.

We all wrote down in our application essays what we wished to achieve during the MBA, though some people may have changed expectations and goals, but these objectives guide our decisions during the school term. For me, it has also meant forgoing taking any formal positions and attending most networking events because my aim is understanding with academic excellence while juggling a family, and bringing up and educating two future leaders (aka my children! ;)).

One of the great aspects of the MBA is that we get personal coaching which has helped us gain clarity into our own lives amidst the hectic MBA schedule. I’ve had two wonderful sessions with a first class Smurfit MBA alumnus. Coming out of the coaching session last Wednesday, I have asked myself a question that I felt I knew the answer, but perhaps I should ponder more on. I always have big dreams for my family and myself. But do I want to aim for eight things and only achieve 90%, or should I aim for only five things and achieve 100% on all of them? It’s a tough question. I would love to say I want to aim for eight things and achieve 100% but that would be stretching myself too thin and would definitely be bad for long-term health.

So to reach a middle ground, I will have to ask myself, out of those eight things that I want to achieve, which ones are the most important to me? What are my ‘key performance areas’ for this year? And for the long term? What are the strategic differentiators that I want to develop in myself? I know my priorities are my religion, my family and then only my career/ studies, but how much percentage do I devote to each of these, and how much do I have left for other things?

Deep breath.

Hard and tough questions to answer.

– Nur Zahirah M Sukran, FT MBA 2012/13

Is anyone regretting taking the MBA yet?

While having lunch today with a few classmates, Michael (the MBA LDP Manager) joined our table and asked how we were doing. All three of us laughed.

Is it because we’re really happy that we’re doing the MBA?

Is it because we needed the adrenaline and positive hormones we got from the laugh to ease our stress?

Rani, who was sitting with us, remarked, “One of the biggest myths in doing the MBA is that you’re going to have free time.” And I agree with him 100%. I thought I would take some time off working on a full-time job and enrich myself intellectually at a ‘normal’ pace. I have been proven wrong in a few instances :-D . But I think most of us still think we made the right choice to do our MBA..

Here’s why I think I’ve (still) made the right choice by taking an MBA:

1.    Special campus for graduate students

a.     Dropped by the student union to get some used books for class a few weeks ago and walking through the throngs of young students, I felt very thankful that the MBA is housed in a campus for graduate students. It feels different culturally, intellectually and makes studying feel more serious in the more peaceful and quiet environment.

2.    Case studies, thinking

a.     I love the intellectual challenge posed in analyzing and breaking apart the cases for most of the classes. This is apart from the obvious lessons and motivational values that I get from reading about these great companies (just to name a few: Ideo, Honda, Cemex).

3.    Classmates and teamwork amongst the bigger group

a.     The experience and maturity of the classmates, with such diverse backgrounds. I have learned so much from them and find that I fit in well with the group, as well as finding so much benefit in the conversations and reflections between classmates that I believe I wouldn’t find in a cohort with too little or even no working experience.

b.    Sincere and kind classmates. I couldn’t say this more. This morning, I spilt some coffee on the carpet. I went to the restroom to get some tissue to wipe it up, but came back realizing that Lien had already wiped it. It’s small thoughtful things done by classmates to help each other that makes school much less stressful and makes it definitely bearable and something to look forward to.

c.     We have come together as a team in great ways. It started off from the mandatory team building, the compulsory groups set by MBA office, and now we are comfortable enough to band up for reading groups.

So if you’re thinking of doing an MBA, think about why you would want to do it. For me, it’s mainly the intellectual growth, but the two other points really add to the positive experience in the school.

– Nur Zahira M Sukran, FT MBA 2012/13

Ethical Issues: Child Labor and Sweatshops

It’s been almost two weeks of classes. I’ve learned so much this past week. I’ve enjoyed my readings and knowledge gained, though I would say we are barely surviving with the amount of readings, case studies and homework.

I have updated my personal blog on a few of the readings and cases covered in class, and would like to share in this blog, the hot topic we discussed in our Business Ethics class on sweatshops and child labor.

The big question for decision makers in companies is: in conflicts of stakeholder interest – whose interest should be prioritized? And for businesses, that would usually mean – the shareholder’s interest, in the form of increased profits.

Continue reading Ethical Issues: Child Labor and Sweatshops