Photo by C J on Unsplash

Closing lectures, graduation, goodbyes to my living group members and the rest of the participants who attended the 3 September – 24 October, 2013 Harvard Business School (HBS) Advanced Management Program (AMP), AMP185. AMP185 and my two months in Boston at the business school has come to an end!

Since completing the program a week ago, family, friends and colleagues have asked me many questions about the Harvard AMP. Here are my answers to some of the questions.

Why did I decide to take time out to study?

After a decade and half financial services career spanning equity analysis, risk management, derivatives trading, business owner-manager, sales & marketing in asset management and general management, I felt that, ‘what got me here won’t get me there’. That is, if I was going to achieve a second wave of accelerated career growth, I needed to go through a personal renewal process. I really believed that I needed three things to achieve this; exposure to senior executives from many industries and countries across the globe, a global perspective and time to focus solidly on this process.

Why did I choose Harvard?

I didn’t choose Harvard. Rather, Harvard chose me. I was fortunate to be selected as a 2013-2014 fellow of the Harvard South Africa Fellowship Program by Harvard’s Committee on African Studies.

Why did I choose the AMP?

As a 2013-2014 fellow of the Harvard South Africa Fellowship Program, I had a fairly wide selection of programs offered by Harvard University to choose from. I choose the HBS AMP for a few reasons. It was the longest executive education program, had the broadest scope, had the most global perspective and it seemed to be the most intensive executive education program offered by the HBS. I also knew a few people who had been through the AMP who spoke very highly of it.

How did I manage to get away ‘from the office’ for the eight weeks?

I am very grateful that my current employer Momentum Retail, a division of MMI Holdings agreed to give me the eight weeks. As part of our planning for my time away ‘from the office’, I was in the fortunate position of being able to delegate away nearly 100% of my role before I left! The reason for this was that, we felt that there was a strong team in place to pick up a lot of my responsibilities in my absence.

I didn’t actually get involved in any of my business unit decisions while I was away – I left it to my team and the person who was caretaking my role and together with my team, he did a fantastic job! In the end I only received a few emails to respond to over the entire eight weeks, which was pretty good. I had only email contact with my Personal Assistant just to keep in touch with any routine stuff that needed my attention.

What were my expectations and were they met?

My expectations were very high for three reasons; I had been thinking of the personal renewal for a few years, what the people who had been through the AMP had said, and because of the quality of the faculty in the program. Some of the faculty are people, whose work I had admired, and learnt from, over many years and I was excited at the prospect of learning more from them in person:

  • Cynthia Montgomery – author of The Strategist, a book I had read and it had become one of my strategy reference books;
  • John Kotter – I had read nearly all his books and is quite rightly regarded by many as the world’s foremost authority on leadership and change;
  • Robert Kaplan – father of The Balanced Scorecard and author of seminal management texts; and
  • Michael Porter – I had read some of his books and is regarded by many as the world’s leading authority on company strategy and the competitiveness of nations.

My very high expectations were met and exceeded – the facility (HBS campus and McArthur Hall), content and general administration were all exceptional. There were great surprises – CEOs and retired CEOs as case protagonists in class or as guest speakers. We had:

  • Jeff Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric;
  • Jim Rogers, the former CEO and current chairman of Duke Energy Corporation;
  • Stephen Kaufman, the retired chairman and CEO of Arrow Electronics Inc;
  • Raymond Gilmartin, the former chairman and CEO of Merck & Co;
  • Kasper Rorsted, the CEO of Henkel AG & Co;
  • Anne Mulcahy, the former chairman and CEO of Xerox Corporation;
  • Reuben Mark, the retired chairman and CEO of Colgate Palmolive Company; and
  • Kasper Jakobsen, the President and CEO of Mead Johnson

The variety of the participants’ cultural backgrounds and industries was greater than I expected. This was a great benefit of the program. Seeing how people from diverse cultures approached the same business problems gave me great insights into those cultures. As our parent company, MMI Holdings executes its geographical expansion plans; I have no doubt that these insights will stand me in good stead in a company striving to become a global player.

What are the key things I got out of the program?

It’s only a week since I completed the program and I am still reflecting on this. With this background, I answered this question as follows.

On the relationship side, living in Boston, the living group experience, experiencing HBS’ famous case method, relationships with great faculty and relationships forged with senior executives across the globe.

On the content side, the finance and accounting classes were great, as improving my knowledge in these areas was one of my key objectives in attending the program. As a student of leadership, even before attending the program, the leadership classes gave me great frameworks and the current scholarly thinking in this fascinating and dynamic field. Strategy classes brought a laser-like focus on concepts such as competitive advantage, Porter’s famous five forces analysis, sustainability, and value creation. A surprise course which I found very interesting was Business, Government, and the International Economy (BGIE), taught by Professor Richard Vietor, author of How Countries Compete. The course provided great insights for strategic planning, particularly for companies looking to expand globally, as it illustrated very clearly the impact of economic and social policy on a countries’ performance.

Having the time and opportunity to reflect about our business was great. I had the opportunity to actively reflect on our own business problems and challenges against lots of ideas being thrown at us by the faculty, guest speakers and fellow participants in a very intellectually stimulating and carefully choreographed learning environment. There were great opportunities to discuss business issues with the faculty and/or fellow participants. This was often at least as useful as the formal discussions of course content.

The opportunity to examine lots of case studies as my main business during the eight weeks freed up my thinking and allowed me to delve more deeply into some of our current business problems and challenges.

In overall, I feel the HBS AMP has increased my ‘can do attitude’. I had a unique; if not once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to mix with such a diverse global group of leaders, engage them in and outside class on various issues. With these interactions, slowly, I began to realize that the HBS’ claim that the AMP “transforms proven leaders into global executives” is not just a marketing statement. As the Harvard AMP drew to a close, I felt I was  finally beginning to grasp what playwright S.N. Behrman meant when he said, “At the end of every road you meet yourself.”