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 sixth post in a series.
When I was making the decision to join an on-campus EMBA program, I had to wrestle with two fundamental questions. First, is spending the time on campus really worth the investment? In today's age, the Internet alone offers a wealth of information for free. One could argue that the nature of the business world today is so dynamic that reading the Financial Times and the Economist on a regular basis is much more effective than any academic degree from the best business schools. Second, why not just take an online program that allows you to put the same three letters (MBA) at the end of your name? These degrees are much cheaper and, after all, it is not the letters but the on-the-job performance that earns you professional credibility and career success.
Almost halfway into my EMBA program, I am really glad I made the decision to earn my degree in a classroom environment as there are numerous intangible aspects that can never be learned any other way.
Just imagine, for example, applying modern sophisticated accounting ratios and principles in the context of a medieval feudal system. Yes, one of my assignments for an accounting course was to analyze productivity and prepare a set of financial statements (shareholder's equity, balance sheet, cashflow and income statements, for example) for two farms in a non-cash economy. One may think that advising on business strategy in bushels of wheat and simple productive assets such as plows, oxen and land is easy. Unfortunately this case and, most importantly, debating it in class with your peers will certainly convince you otherwise. This seemingly simple assignment really challenged my understanding of business concepts and principles and demonstrated the value of common sense. At the end of the day you just cannot depreciate half an ox. You will not believe how much easier it is to work on the financials of Microsoft and Starbucks having experienced the nuances and complexities of the medieval times.
Perhaps the most challenging class so far has been corporate finance. Just when I thought that the counterintuitive and intimidating concepts of time value for money were becoming my best friends, we were given the task of actually evaluating the financial feasibility of several projects. Although simplified, the cases were very close to real-life situations when the information is limited and the future uncertain. That there is no "right" answer as the end result is influenced by every assumption made during the decision-making process. Working on those cases for my finance course and discussing them in class brought me as close to the real world as I could ever hope.
And there are the "soft skills" that any modern manager is expected to have. Wait, isn't business school all about the numbers and concrete concepts? As it turns out, the business world values leadership, communication, ability to influence and convince just as much, if not more than the non-profit sector I am so familiar with. While so many of these skills are usually developed on the job, the EMBA program accelerates the learning process. Together with my peers, I am learning "cutting edge" leadership and decision-making frameworks and applying them to the Battle of Agincourt led by Henry V, the U.S. Civil War, modern-day industries and our own work environment. And if learning the theoretical concepts was not enough, we all are going through an intensive leadership program that combines hours of self-reflection, professional coaching and application.
When was the last time you asked your peers, clients, direct reports and bosses to put their hesitations and manners aside and evaluate you as a leader? Well, I have just done it as part of my EMBA program. As expected, there is a lot of mileage I need to cover before getting close to the ideal, and the remaining months of the program will keep me busy working on the core leadership skills.
And finally, you would think that after years spent in different countries, boardrooms, offices of politicians and multinational corporate leaders I have become a confident presenter. Well, as it turns out, I'm not – at least when being given real-time feedback by 64 of my equally, if not more accomplished, classmates and a professional public speaking coach. And certainly not when being videotaped while making the presentation. Luckily, the awkward first attempt was followed by intensive coaching and the presentation made at the end of the workshop exceeded all expectations.
Needless to say, it would take years to individually develop the skills we are gaining through the program and almost none of this is possible to do online. In addition, there is an unexpected but quite amazing perk that comes with being a student of a big, well-known university. One has access to whole range of seminars offered on campus every week. I did not expect to be able to attend talks of Nobel laureates, chief executive officers of leading manufacturers and prominent writers, or to participate in conferences on the future of innovation and crowdfunding. However, I am taking full advantage of these opportunities presenting themselves every day. Did I mention that I am not even halfway through the program yet?