Deeply saddened by the untimely passing of David Bowie this week, I was reminded of a thought bubble from a colleague some years ago. (You know who you are). It went something like this: “There’s no situation in life, love or death that cannot be captioned (or perhaps it was captured) by a Bowie lyric or song title“. In honour of David Bowie, and in a hat-tip to my colleague, this post – pointing to a transformational experience for me last year – duly follows that rule.
For me, 2015 was actually a bit of a blur. I guess that is mostly due to a very intense travel schedule, with five international work-related trips and more than a dozen national trips for various committees and presentations. The in/out of office balance was well and truly tipped in favour of being out more often than I was in. Despite all that, there was at least one trip to the UK that remains etched into my memory. That’s because it was quite literally life-changing.
On that trip, I traveled to London to undertake a 4-week intensive Senior Executive Program at the London Business School (LBS) in October. Four weeks. That’s a serious chunk of a year. “Why would you do that?“, I hear you ask. Actually, many people had a similar question after they heard I was taking this course. “What are you doing that for?” was a common response, usually said in a high-pitched tone of astonishment and incredulity. I even began questioning myself “What the hell are you thinking?“.
The truth is, I don’t know what I was planning when I first decided to take the course about a year ago. What I do know is that as a successful research scientist and academic at a research intensive university (the same one for more than 20 years), I nevertheless had had a growing and unsettling sensation that I was treading water. I spoke about this with my circle of peers and colleagues (probably ad nauseum, if you were to ask them).
Anyway, the most helpful feedback I received was to investigate senior leadership training, as that might help me to set a new direction that would also accord with my research career goals. After some online searching, and consulting with peers, I chose to apply for the course offered at the London Business School. Why that one? Well, it’s true, I could have taken a course at my own university which also has a very highly regarded business school. It would have been a whole lot cheaper too. But I wanted to be taken out of my comfort zone. I wanted to reflect on where I was at in my life, and where I was going in my career. For me to do that required removing the urgent pressures of my everyday role and my everyday life. Moreover, if I was going to take several weeks of my precious leave entitlement to undertake a course like this, I wanted an experience that would give me an entirely new perspective. And – as I was taking leave, after all – I wanted to be situated in a place I enjoyed visiting.
Believe me. I know I was in a very privileged position. I had sufficient leave accrued to take time off for the course. I lead a highly capable research team that runs like a well-oiled machine whether I am there or not. I had the support of a husband who would hold the fort at home while I was away for a large part of the year. And he also supported the decision that we make a significant financial investment in me, for a ch-ch-ch-change that I had not yet clearly defined.
Importantly, the cost of the fees was also defrayed by a considerable contribution from my employer (thank you UQ!) – providing genuine evidence that they supported this investment too. Do you want to know how that happened? Well, I’ll tell you anyway. I had fully intended to pay the entire cost of the course fees myself. As I entered the course dates in my calendar, I realised that it overlapped with a commitment I had made to sit on an important multi-day panel for the university. Rather embarrassed about having to withdraw from the panel, I spoke to a senior exec about what I should do.
After explaining the situation, his first response was a sombre “The Vice-Chancellor will be very upset“.
“Oh dear,” I said “should I cancel my enrolment?”, fully expecting that I wouldn’t be permitted to attend the course. Sometimes I really am rather thick.
Till the end of my days, I will never forget what he said next.
“No, of course you shouldn’t cancel your enrolment. We’ll work something out. And what’s more, we should support you to attend this course. It’s important that we provide leadership training to senior women. This is an expensive course (too expensive he actually said!), but let’s see if we can find some of the cost to help you to attend.”
My initial response, a classic I guess, was to remonstrate strongly. “Oh, no, no, no. No. I will pay for this myself.“. There’s a life lesson right there, I think.
So that was that. I was going to London to take a Business School course. Me. A scientist. It ended up being a 6 week trip in the end. The first week I had arranged meetings related to my scientific and committee responsibilities, the middle four weeks for the course were taken as leave (so I wouldn’t be too tempted to feel guilty and try to work at the same time as undertaking the course) and the last week was a week of actual, real leave. On that last week, I caught up with friends from my Oxford days and visited the Lake District with the hope of processing all I’d learned and been exposed to on the course, before returning to Australia.
To give you a first little taster of the experience, here is an excerpt of an email letter I sent to my research team, as well as to family and friends after week one of the course (additional comments in italics):
It’s Sunday afternoon 11 Oct 2015, 12 days since I arrived in London and 1 week after starting the programme. It’s been fabulous.
The course started on Sunday last week at London Business School which is situated in a lovely old building of 26 terrace houses designed by John Nash and facing Regent’s Park.
The building has been renovated so that only the facade is from the early 19th century. Regent’s Park is fabulous to walk about at lunchtime or Sundays when we get a day off, and I’ve managed to walk to the top of Primrose Hill a couple of times to get a beautiful view across London.
The course participants (there were just shy of 50 of us) are all signed up to wellness sessions including yoga, pilates and circuit training. (we were each assigned to a health and wellness coach, and trained to the mantra that improving your health and wellness gives you a competitive advantage – I definitely won’t argue with that). We’ve been issued a pedometer and our coaching groups of 4 people each have to log our combined steps walked at the end of every week. As you might guess it gets very competitive with senior executives from around the world (the cohort included senior people from over 25 countries representing commercial companies, not-for-profits, government departments as well as academia e.g. Adidas, Electrolux, Woolworths, the Royal Navy, St John Ambulance, UK National Grid etc).
Last Sunday we started with a 1-day refresher on finance and accounting so that (hopefully) we’re all on the same page with the metrics used in business. I now have a fair idea of what net present value and accrued rate of return means. (not sure that’s still true) Since then the course has thrown us some challenging ideas about the predicted 100 year life and how that will impact us in the future. Not to mention the digital revolution of networks, information and big data and how these are changing the world.
On Thursday we went to the Royal Society of Arts where we were coached in performance skills in a program called “Leader as performer“. That was fun! Afterwards, I walked back from Trafalgar Square to Regent’s Park (to get those steps up) via the National Portrait Gallery where I had dinner at their rooftop restaurant overlooking Nelson’s column.
There’s been a bit more walking in Regent’s Park today….and walking to a few other places nearby – one of which might look vaguely familiar. Can you guess where it is?“
You can see that by the end of week 1, at least, I was pretty happy with the course and the venue. But what did I learn at school? And how did that lead to the changes alluded to in the title?
Well those details, dear reader, will have to wait for another day.
Vale David Bowie: Ch-ch-ch-changes. Time may change me. But I can’t trace time.