Our man in Brussels goes to business school
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
The end of my executive MBA was supposed to mean the beginning of freedom after 15 months of gruelling work on top of my day job. But I caught myself reminiscing about the good old days when I had no life. This was a surprise because, during the last few weeks and months, I had found myself resenting the assignments and forums that consumed the little time I had outside my work as the FT’s EU correspondent.
When I was preparing to start the EMBA, I made a list of all the things I needed to cut out of my life, albeit temporarily. These included my subscription to The New Yorker, trips abroad, my weekends and reading fiction. My semi-regular morning jogs had to stay if I were to keep my sanity. The biggest trade-off was giving up Saturdays, my favourite time of the week, when you have the time to catch up with your thoughts.
The EMBA, taught at IE Business School in Madrid and online, was a test of my stamina and that of my classmates, who came from diverse business backgrounds and nationalities. Labelled as a part-time programme, the degree looked anything but. In 15 months, we devoured roughly 700 pieces of reading — mostly case studies — spread over 35 courses and some 245 in-person and virtual sessions.
We also had to contribute at least two posts a day to online discussion forums. I spent, on average, 30 hours a week cutting my teeth on fun topics such as managing people and negotiation skills, but also more painful tasks, such as calculating the cost of equity and learning how to put together business valuations in corporate finance. Our last project — called SubHero — aimed to do for mobile subscriptions what Amazon has done for online shopping.
I came out of the programme with crucial gains and many lessons. I made sure my performance at work always took priority, but I vastly underestimated how much the EMBA would take over my life. I would wake up already feeling behind, trying to squeeze in the reading and the posts for the forums before I started my day job. I felt like someone was holding a gun to my head all the time and I often had a heaviness in my chest.
I learnt how to be more confident, which — as we have seen time and again in UK politics — can get you chosen as prime minister regardless of competence. But my confidence is still a work in progress and I have no ambitions to lead any country any time soon. Another important lesson was that competence is measured not only by what you do but also in the way you shape the narrative for others.
You do not need to go to business school to discover that, in the end, it is the relationships you build during study that matter the most — but the course was a timely reminder. I also learnt that, no matter how many hours you spend studying something, you are only scratching the surface. However much you learn at business school, only real-world practice can properly teach you what to do.
Like a marathon runner, I began to falter as I approached the finishing line. I counted the last miles every day and could not wait for the torture to end. The EMBA is one of the hardest things I have done and took over my life — but it stopped suddenly and has left a big gap that I am slowly filling with new projects.
It was a bumpy journey. We started in April 2021, when lockdowns and travel restrictions were still hindering mobility for most, and we finished when the war in Ukraine was a few months in. We had to juggle not only our jobs but personal events — the death of a father, or the birth of a child, a break-up or a new start.
There are moments when I find myself feeling empty without the pressure of business school. I miss the structure that pursuing a degree gives you. Unlike real life, an EMBA gives you a script to follow and it can become like a challenging game where you complete tasks and win points. It gives you an added sense of direction.
I am not alone in feeling this. Lucy Tsotsorina, a marketing director and a former classmate from Ukraine, agrees. “I was happy to have my Saturdays back, but I felt I lost some purpose and a sense of belonging,” she says.
“I refined my skills in terms of teamwork,” she adds. “It was challenging to work with people with different business ethics, based in different countries and timezones. We’re more skilled [working with people] we meet, to find the path to communication, mutual understanding and patience.”
I miss the people, too, despite their complications. Put humans in a room — even a virtual one — and politics soon arise and issues emerge. Having worked in a British environment for the best part of two decades, it was eye-opening to collaborate with people from different working cultures. It was challenging, for example, to adapt to their sometimes more relaxed approach to deadlines.
As for the value of the degree, I do not think an EMBA alone is the key to unlocking a promotion and a higher salary. But the way you use the skills you learn can have a transformative effect on the way you interact with your peers and how you drive your career.
For now, I am relishing having my Saturdays back, nursing my withdrawal symptoms with a Netflix overdose and rediscovering what it is like to waste my time.
The Financial Times and IE are partners in Headspring, an executive education venture