event horizon LBS

So. Where was I? Oh yes. The London Business School (LBS) Senior Executive Programme (SEP). October last year. In my last post, I wrote that the SEP experience was transformational. But I didn’t explain what the programme was or how it changed my life. A twitter buddy wrote that I left the post on a “cliff-hanger”. In the present post, I want to document what made SEP such a powerful, emotional and delightful experience for me. And in a third post I will write about my transformation. These two new posts, I hope, will address the cliff and the hanger!

Now, about the title of this post. One might argue that using “event horizon” is perhaps a little melodramatic. After all, LBS wasn’t a black hole. It didn’t suck me in so I couldn’t escape. Yet, looking back from the vantage point of ~4 months since graduation, I can clearly see that SEP marked a point of no return – in some senses. So please forgive me my melodrama; it brings me just a little joy to link this post to a key scientific concept.

To paint a clear picture, I should also explain that I am writing this series of three LBS-SEP posts mostly for my own benefit. It’s extraordinarily valuable for me to record my feelings and experiences, so that when I return to them in years to come the detail I might otherwise forget will be crystal clear. (and just in case you didn’t pick that up, “crystal” is another scientific concept that I like including in posts/blogs). Anyway, I hope that these trilogy of posts will benefit others. But I recognise they are very self-focused, so I won’t be at all offended if you are not interested and don’t read any further. Please be gentle with comments. 🙂

So why was LBS SEP such an incredible experience?

powerful, planned, prepared

The gravitational pull began a long way out, ~6 months prior to the course, with the on-line expression of interest. This required detailed responses to questions about where I was in my career, what my learning objectives were, and how and why I thought I would benefit from the course. I had to think deeply about my professional journey (lucky that I’ve been writing blogs on that for a few years!), where I was going, and what was stopping me progressing. Following this, a phone interview was set up with the LBS programme director to ascertain my “interest and suitability“. I was on tenterhooks taking the 30 min call from the UK one evening late in April last year. There was a grilling of course – why LBS? why SEP? how was my organisation supporting my participation? how would I hand over my current roles during the 4 week intensive course (“there’s no way you can do both“)? how would I set aside time for the extensive, compulsory pre-reading and preparation? Fortunately, at the end of the phone interview I was given verbal assurance that I was accepted, though it wasn’t until 8 May 2015 – when I received the official email: I am delighted to confirm that your application has been approved and we would like to offer you a place on the programme” – that I really celebrated. After all, I was about to embark upon an educational journey that will likely transform (my) professional life.” Hurrah! Champagne time.

Information from LBS flowed in regularly from then on. Importantly, we were advised early on that we would have 5 free evenings and 4 free weekend days during the 27 day programme “you may wish to arrange your own social and business activities”. Being an organisationophile, I pre-arranged a weekend visit to friends in Rugby for the single free weekend during SEP, booked a 4th row seat to see Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51 one free Saturday evening, and signed on to attend “Bridging the Gender Gap – How Men Can Be Allies For Women in STEM” in nearby King’s Cross one free Wed evening.

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Preparation didn’t end there of course. There were colleagues to invite (thank you!) to complete questionnaires on my 360° leadership skills and on the organisation’s strategy execution capabilities. I too had to complete those questionnaires as well as surveys on personal health and wellbeing, media background, and Hogan personality (bright side), Hogan development (dark side), and Hogan motives, values and preferences inventories (inside)  (Hogan reports would help reveal my “core values, goals and interests” – “hmm” I thought, “this should be interesting!”). Not to mention the short bio, photo, corporate logo, and org chart (to show where I fit in the organisation) to be uploaded onto the portal. Then there was the email discussion with other participants from this part of the world about our contribution to the mid-programme International evening (what food we would like prepared, what antipodean souvenirs we would bring to showcase this part of the world, what we might present in our 5 minute overview etc). And a week prior to leaving, I downloaded a bunch of pre-reading material (case studies and articles) and printed them off for perusal on the long-haul flight from BNE to LHR via SIN and DXB).

delightful, enchanting, charming

SEP is a residential programme. We were housed in the London Business School campus in Regent’s Park (a posh suburb of London) just a nip down the road to Baker St and Regent’s Park tube stations and Marylebone railway station. Nice. We were allocated “executive” rooms – tiny British bedrooms outfitted with all the mod cons: TV, en-suite, hairdryer, internet (essential for skype calls home). The proverbial cat would have trouble being swung within those confines, but somehow we all managed with our 1 month’s worth of belongings. One overachieving senior exec training for a triathlon whilst undertaking SEP even managed – somehow – to secrete his bicycle into the phone-booth sized bedroom.

My room was on the top floor. Pros: the stunning views across Regent’s Park and the opportunity for extra exercise (more steps in the highly competitive pedometer challenge – spoiler, triathlon man won). Cons: the hot water struggled to make it to the top floor at peak shower times. The food provided on the course was incredible. My only complaint – too much of it for someone with very little yummy food willpower.

Social events were organised throughout the course by the SEP management team “to help capture that London experience“. Early on there was a cocktail reception hosted by the LBS Dean (Sir Andrew Liekerman) in the Dean’s residence – he gave a terrific history of the School and the beautiful Regency building including its bombing during the Blitz. To get our London bearings, we were treated to a dinner cruise on the Thames, with an unexpected “bonus” of a stop-start London A-Z tour during the 1 hour each way 5km trip to the London docks! There was a dinner in a swanky restaurant in the Old Royal Exchange Building mid-programme, and for graduation evening we were packed into a red double-decker bus to transport us to the farewell dinner on the top floor of Tower Bridge (Yes! Dinner in Tower Bridge!). We definitely captured an amazing London experience.

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Souvenir program for Tower Bridge Graduation dinner; restaurant located in the top span with glass floors to watch the traffic below

memorable, immersive, intense

As a strong introvert, the prospect of walking into a room full of people I’d never met, high achievers across the business, not-for-profit and government sectors, was – well – intimidating. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt incredibly nervous as I entered the lecture theatre. How do you break down those barriers, put people at ease, create the conversations that build a community from day one? You make it special. You set aside the same beautifully appointed, spacious and modern lecture theatre for the entirety of the programme. You remove the anxiety about where to sit by indicating each person’s spot with large font nameplates that slot into the front of the long curving desktops. On the nameplates you print the participant’s’ name and organisation as well as their home country flag – that’s more than enough to stimulate conversation. For example, my immediate neighbours in week 1 were from Indonesia (bank), Taiwan (pharma) and Nigeria (bank).

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Nameplate indicates my spot in week 4. Water bottle to the right. LBS loan iPad in front.

At the beginning of each week, nameplates were moved to new positions, so that over the course of 4 weeks each participant would sit in every locale of the theatre, and beside people from all corners of the world. Name badges in lanyards helped with remembering classmates’ names during breaks from the lecture theatre and could also be used to magically procure unlimited free coffees (hot choc in my case) at the local LBS cafe. Also provided on day 1 was the printed SEP course information in a leather-bound LBS folder, LBS pen and notebook (miraculously outfitted with the exact number of pages required for four weeks of copious note-taking), LBS water bottle (for health and wellness – important to stay hydrated), LBS coat and umbrella (it is London after all – people from some parts of Australia and Africa have never seen rain before), and LBS backpack (to carry all the paraphernalia). Well that little lot must account for some huge chunk of the course fee. And of course these “gifts” build a strong connection with LBS (not to mention the brand power when the commodities travel off to 26 countries). On day 1, we were also asked to submit to the programme managers a song that had a special meaning for us – the song should be one that transported us back to a precise moment in our life, that captured an important, unforgettable time or turning point.

Most days began the same way. After early morning wellness sessions (yoga, pilates, exercise class or gym), followed by a (possibly cold) shower, and sumptuous breakfast, we would make our way to the lecture theatre by 8.30 am. Then, when everyone was seated, we would be asked in groups of 4-5 to discuss our major learning from the previous day and appoint a spokesperson to write this on the whiteboard and explain the learning to everyone in one or two sentences. Photos of the whiteboard were loaded onto the programme portal for our records. Finally, 3 or 4 people would be called upon to relate the story behind the song they had nominated. These stories were riveting: hard-nosed senior execs were transformed into vulnerable souls with deep feelings and emotions. Stories of new love, of lives lost too young, of new life directions and of deep passion for country.

After a short break, we’d then move onto lecture content. We were warned beforehand. There would be “long days filled with thought-provoking lectures, activities, exercises, and group work” the emails said. This programme would be a “challenging, inspiring and intense (yet fun) experience” the emails said. And you know what? Those emails were right. It was challenging. It was fun. It was engaging. As evidenced by emails home to my husband, it was intense; Day 1 “It’s been very intense already. Met lots of nice people from all over the world.” Day 2 “Another long day. Started at 7am finished at 9pm. I’m somewhat exhausted” and later “Its certainly an intense course. Not much time left over for anything else.” “Week 2 is even more intense than week 1, if that is possible.” “Another busy day – got up at 6.30 am, wrote up notes, emails, showered, breakfasted then lectures from 8.30 am till 5.45 pm then a Women In STEM event at Kings Cross at 6.30 pm, returned back to room by 10 pm. Some reading homework to do now and then to sleep. I’ll try to get up for a walk tomorrow morning at 6.30 am.

The regular lecture programme was interspersed with extra-ordinary days: a mystery-shopping outing to Oxford St and Regents St for brand evaluation (complete with full-day tube ticket and map); a whole day session at the Royal Society of Arts in central London working with actors on performance skills (“leader as performer” – It was terrific! Lots of ideas on voice, posture and rehearsal); a full day of radio, TV and crisis event media training, including an unexpected and unrehearsed TV vox pop outside the lecture theatre (think hot choc in hand, backpack slung over shoulder, camera in face, mike likewise, interviewer: “Do you think media has too much power?”); and a day devoted to governance and board directorship including role-playing in a dysfunctional board setting.

Lecturers were incredibly skilful at describing new ideas by using a range of engaging techniques: citing the literature (eg how the natural phenomenon of regression to the mean reinforces incorrect use of negative feedback); asking questions rather than telling the answer; using videos to stimulate thinking (eg the invisible gorilla movie highlighting that selective attention in a complex task can lead to important detail being missed); setting a 10-min challenge to design our personal coat of arms (thereby defining our core values); using the marshmallow challenge to stimulate “collaboration, innovation and creativity”.

On graduation, as a record of our time together, we were ceremoniously presented with several items: an LBS graduation certificate (mine is currently being framed for display in my new office), a group photo, a 20 pound voucher to spend in the LBS shop (I bought an LBS fridge magnet and LBS phone charger – which came in handy barely a month later when I was stuck in Kolkata airport for 12 hours) and an LBS USB with MP3s of all the songs selected by participants – which was now the soundtrack of our journey together. What was my song? Well. We’ll have to wait for LBS blogpost 3 to discuss that.

Overall, LBS SEP lived up to its tagline London experience. World Impact. It was indeed a special, life-changing, immersive experience. A turning point for many. A point of no-return for me.

 

the visibility paradox

Growing up in a family of nine children, it was sometimes difficult to get the attention you wanted from mum or dad. There were, quite simply, too many little and not-so-little people clamouring for attention. Pushing the boundaries too far, acting up, or failing an exam at school could be guaranteed to get parents to focus on you alone to the exclusion of other siblings. From a personal point of view, that attention was not a good thing. On the other side, being singled out for positive attention could be achieved by, for example, cracking a funny joke (the Martins love a laugh), winning the school footy game (the Martins love their sport even more than they love a laugh), or making a chocolate cake (the Martins love their food even more than they love their sport). But doing what was expected of you, helping with meals, keeping the house (relatively) tidy, mowing the lawn, taking the bins out to be emptied, basically being orderly and keeping things ticking over – well that was baseline. No brownie points for that, only demerit points if you messed up.

It’s a cruel fact of life for researchers too that doing what you are supposed to do – being clever, curious and productive – is not always enough to succeed. Yes, these are prerequisites, the baseline if you like, but progress through the ranks is improved with visibility. Increased visibility helps get that job, grant, fellowship, promotion, award. One way of getting increased visibility is by speaking about one’s research to an audience – taking opportunities to talk about your favourite scientific subject.

Many new to research and academia don’t know this golden rule and let opportunities slide. They prefer to think they’ve dodged a bullet by avoiding having to speak to an audience. When the call comes out from PhD supervisors asking for volunteers to speak at a symposium/seminar series they don’t respond. When they attend a conference, they choose not to be considered for a talk. It’s too difficult, the work isn’t complete, the questions might be really tough, it’s easier to sit in the audience and listen to others. There are always many reasons not to put their head above the parapet.

This is the visibility paradox. Researchers benefit from increased visibility, but a lack of confidence or self-belief stops many – especially early career researchers (ECRs) – from seeking visibility.

This missed opportunity will then go to someone else who does accept the challenge. As a result, that someone else becomes more visible and moves ahead of the pack. That someone else may be naturally more self-confident but is probably no more clever, curious or productive than those that don’t put their hand up.

The increased visibility will have knock-on effects. Their speaking experience builds up a bank from which that someone else draws strength when they volunteer for the next scary speaking opportunity. Their CV will be bolstered, peers will respect them for taking on the daunting challenge of speaking in public, and research leaders in the audience will recall their work when the ECR’s name comes up on selection panels, or when ECRs need to be identified to speak at conferences. Increased visibility leads to increased success, leads to more visibility, leads to more success.

Sadly, many excellent researchers, especially women, lack confidence. As Greg Petsko noted in his Genome Biology commentary “Almost without exception, the talented women I have known believed they had less ability than they actually had. And almost without exception, the talented men I have known believed they had more“. This observation is supported by recent research in the field of mathematics, reviewed by Curt Rice who summarised that “Men tended to overestimate their future performance on the arithmetic task, and women tended to underestimate it“.

So, how can we ensure that all clever, hard-working young researchers have an equal chance to succeed regardless of their level of confidence starting out?

Here are some thoughts.

If you are an ECR:

1. First, recognise that you are not alone in being nervous about public speaking. Most people are ridiculously apprehensive when they start out; I certainly was. Panic attacks, weeks of sleepless nights, wobbly voice, I have had them all. I still get edgy before a talk*. Fortunately, speaking in public isn’t actually life-threatening, and nerves do disappear to a great extent with experience. On the other hand, as my mentors advised me early on, nerves shouldn’t disappear altogether – a little adrenaline helps ensure a great presentation. One other thing to remember, people in the audience will want you to succeed – they were young researchers themselves once.

2. Volunteer. Take on the challenge when there is a call for speakers. Yes, it will be tough to put yourself out there, but there are rewards to be gained as well.

3. Practise, practise, practise. The one sure-fire way to help overcome nerves is to take control. Work out what you are going to say, and practise saying it to make sure that all the important points are presented within the allotted speaking time. Don’t read the talk from notes.

4. Ask for help. Give a practise talk in front of your colleagues/ supervisors or anyone else available. Ask for feedback on the presentation (was the text on the slides readable? did the data make sense? was the importance of the work clear? were the conclusions sound?). Ask for questions on the research, to prepare answers in advance of the real thing. Change the presentation in response to your colleagues’ feedback.

5. Celebrate afterwards. With others. Yes, it is stressful to present in front of an audience. Reward yourself on your achievement.

6. Learn and improve. Perhaps you didn’t get across all the points, or you fluffed an answer to an easy question. A day or so after the event, do the post-mortem. Work out how the talk could be improved for next time and make the changes there and then.

If you are a supervisor (or mentor, sponsor, colleague, friend) of an ECR:

1. Don’t assume that every new researcher automagically knows that speaking in public is important for success in research. Share this knowledge with each new team member when they begin their career, and frequently thereafter. Let the message sink in. Ensure ECRs have opportunities to gain confidence speaking, and to hone their presenting skills in group meetings. Reinforce the message when seminar series and conferences come up. Encourage ECRs to nominate to speak.

2. When asked to nominate speakers from your group for a departmental seminar series, don’t request volunteers. Instead, tap people on the shoulder: team members will gain a level of confidence simply from your belief in them. Share the speaking opportunities across all members of your team, especially those that shun the limelight. Ensure diversity – gender, ethnicity, seniority – when you are program coordinator. (check out my post on conference speaker policies).

3. When an ECR asks to be excused from giving a seminar because they don’t feel confident about speaking publicly, or don’t believe they have enough to speak about, don’t let them off easily. Explain the precious opportunity they are giving up.

4. If an ECR lacks confidence in their work, assist them to develop the research story they can present. Offer to help further by listening to a practise talk and providing constructive feedback.

In the end…

….overcoming the visibility paradox is not just about giving talks, it’s about building confidence and supporting diversity in the career progression of the next generation of research leaders.

So, back to the beginning of the post, am I now getting the attention I want from my parents? Well, my mum is now following this blog. Perhaps that might be just a little too much attention.

Only kidding mum! Happy 80th birthday for April 11.

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*Footnote:

Feeling edgy about talks probably harks back to the time when I started in research – and 35 mm photographic slides were used rather than a software program. The slides had to be loaded into a cassette upside down or back to front (or both?) to be projected correctly on to the screen. “Recipe for disaster” is an understatement there. Then there was the cassette. Inevitably, if you didn’t put the lid on carefully you’d end up dropping the whole thing on the floor, and there’d be a mad scramble to put all the slides together again in the right sequence and the right orientation. The most memorable occasion was when an eminent scientist discovered upon beginning his talk that the slide projector had morphed into a toaster. Every touch of the slide forward button launched another slide several metres into the air. Truly, it was hilarious. I have to say he took it in very good grace.

 

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