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emba diary

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Oksana Chikina, who hails from Uzbekistan, is an international development professional on a leave of absence from Population Services International (PSI), a U.S.-based non-governmental organization. Having spent the past 12 years living and working in 10 countries on four continents, she is spending a year as an international student attending the executive MBA program at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. This is her ninth post in a series.

As I observe the discussions in the team projects of our advanced accounting course, I cannot help but marvel at how far our class has come. Our instructor promised us a journey "from the alphabet to Shakespeare" and he delivered. In less than a year, our classes have matured from the basic steps of understanding financial statements and T-accounts to questioning strategies and predicting financial performance of large publicly traded companies. The numbers tell us fascinating stories and we are equipped to critique share prices and predict market performance. The scale of this progression takes my breath away.

It has not happened overnight and was not easy. Each study team spent months reviewing financial statements for two publicly traded companies in the same industry, running advanced calculations and analyzing output forecasts. Some of us almost lived at school and almost all had no life outside the accounting project. Everything we have learned in finance, statistics and marketing was put to a test by numbers. And being able to see the results is probably one of the peak experiences of the program to date for me.

The learning curve in other courses was far from flat either. The third term demonstrated how everything we learned so far is connected and how an ability to leverage those connections is deeply rooted in the quality of thinking. And now I am acutely aware of the vast transformation in the way I think and approach problems. Some of the courses forced us to dig deeply into the reasons behind personal convictions and decisions in our personal and professional lives.

Imagine spending a few weeks analyzing conflicting situations and forcing yourself to admit to biases and conceptual shortcuts you did not even suspect existed before. Confronting and contrasting mental models and seeing the tremendous role they play in our decision-making has been very painful but well worth the struggle. For some of my classmates this process changed a lot in their lives. For me, this was a great, albeit an unexpected eye-opening tool that will be constantly be used in my personal and professional life.

In addition to learning a new way to think, one of the main expectations of the program is the transformation of our leadership styles. Throughout the year we came up with development plans and "growth challenges." This term took us on a more challenging journey. We had to identify the underlying beliefs, values and fears we carried throughout professional careers and to develop plans to transform them.

I cannot even begin to describe the level of discomfort with this module. This "soft" exercise called for self-reflection and took a lot of courage. Class sessions used meditation – something that is quite difficult to align with the image of an executive MBA program. Nevertheless, most of us really enjoyed meditating sessions in Rotman classrooms. In the end, the course demonstrated that, despite our quite different career paths, cultural backgrounds and personal preferences, we have much more in common than we could ever imagine. It also showed us how much we can grow.

There are just three months left before the end of the program. For most of us, this realization is bitter-sweet. It has been an intensive 10 months so far. However, the process of progressing from basic concepts to true high-level integrative thinking has been incredibly rewarding. And so are the relationships we have built. Jealous of the journey of the incoming EMBA class, I am looking forward to meeting them soon. I am also very excited about the rest of my time at Rotman.