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Financial Times item sparks MBA debate

I was amazed and encouraged by the overwhelming response to my article published this week in the Financial Times (“Rip up the MBA and start afresh”, The Financial Times, Monday 16 April). My mission to reinvent the MBA has sparked quite a debate.  In the article I call for a review of the MBA, arguing that, if it is to continue to provide business with well rounded, effective leaders, it needs to change.  I have long been an advocate for the MBA and have first hand experience of its benefits.  I will continue to recommend the MBA as a means of broadening your business knowledge, acquiring new skills and achieving a step change in your career.

My concern is that the MBA curriculum has become too crowded and confused, partly because business schools have, to their credit, responded to changes in business and to demands for more skills and specialisms in the MBA syllabus.   The time has come for a fundamental review starting with a fresh look at what it takes to be an effective business leader.  I would like to see an MBA that truly reflects the needs of business today and that places a much greater importance on the development of practical leadership skills.

I demonstrate in my work every day that, with the right support and coaching, people are capable of learning how to lead effectively. It would be a significant step forward for the MBA if leadership development became central to the qualification.  The mission continues.

To read my FT article go to

Jeanette Purcell at City Business Library

10 reasons why you should get an MBA

Free lunchtime event, City of London, City Business Library

Thursday 10 May
12.30 – 1.30pm
Walbrook Room

Are you considering an MBA? Or are you wondering whether a member of your staff should take the qualification? The MBA is the leading international qualification and can represent a life-changing experience. Jeanette Purcell will offer 10 reasons (or more!) why you should get an MBA.  But you need to understand what MBA study involves, how to choose the right programme, how to cope with the demands of the course. Before founding “Jeanette Purcell Associates” Jeanette was CEO of the Association of MBAs (AMBA). Her expert advice will help you to understand the MBA’s value and how to get the best return on your investment.

Free, but you must book in advance 020 7332 1858;

The Imposter Syndrome

I heard the term ‘imposter syndrome’ for the first time today.   It described a situation I recognised immediately and have often talked and written about – and I was fascinated to hear that the situation has a formal definition.  The term popped up during an interview with one of the world’s leading astronomers – Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell – on Radio 4 this morning.   She described how she pursued a career in astrophysics in the 1960s, struggling to achieve recognition in an entirely male dominated field.   She applied for a PhD post at Cambridge University not expecting to get in and, when her application was accepted, she was very surprised.  Jocelyn Bell-Burnell remembers her first year at Cambridge as a very daunting experience.   She felt she didn’t deserve to be there and, in her interview, talks about ‘imposter syndrome’ as a way of describing her feelings.   To paraphrase Jocelyn’s explanation of the syndrome :  it is experienced by people, mostly women, who lack confidence and who believe that the success they have achieved is the result of some terrible mistake.  The feeling involves a nagging fear that at some point the mistake will be uncovered, revealing the person as an undeserving imposter.  

This feeling will resonate with many women and, perhaps, some men.  To some extent I experienced it myself when I was first promoted to a senior management position.  Despite the rigorous selection process, I couldn’t help wondering whether I got there by luck or by somehow pretending to my seniors that I had got what it takes.  My older sister, a successful occupational therapist and academic, has told me that she occasionally felt like a fraud in her job.  She half expected someone to tap her on the back one day and say “sorry, we’ve just realised you’re not up to this job and you’ve been getting away with it for too long”.     When I am coaching women in senior roles it is not unusual for them to express feelings of doubt about their ability to do their job.  They are also quick to tell me why they are probably not capable of progressing any further.  I rarely encounter a man expressing the same reservations.

Women who suffer from this lack of confidence are often their own worst enemies.  They fail to aim high, underrate their own capabilities and do themselves down in front of others.  I am not suggesting that women should learn how to be more arrogant – it is often the sincerity and honesty of women leaders that earns them respect, trust and success at the top.   Rather I wish that women would believe more in themselves, acknowledge their strengths and realise the positive impact they have in business.    I can well understand Jocelyn Bell-Burnell suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’ in the scientific field in the 1960s.  It shouldn’t still be happening today.

Keeping the customer satisfied


UK customers are more likely to complain about poor service than customers anywhere else in Europe.  A study of 11,000 adults across Europe found that 96% of people in the UK would complain if they were unhappy with the service they received.   This compares with the European average of just 67%.

The study, by Kelkoo, found that poor customer service, rude employees, poor quality products and delivery issues were the main reasons for complaints in the UK.  Gone are the days when we would ‘put up and shut up’.  Today’s customers know their rights, they are better informed and have more choice.  And in a highly competitive environment, it is far easier for customers to take their business elsewhere if they are dissatisfied with the service they receive.

So the business imperative for good customer service is clear.   Treat your customers badly and they will complain.  Deal with their complaints badly and they will leave you.  Worse, they will tell others about their bad experience.  

But there’s a positive side to all of this.  First, it’s not hard to get customer service right.  With some investment in recruitment and training, and with committed leadership from the top, you can create the culture, attitudes and behaviours required to deliver great customer service.  Second, all customer feedback (even complaints) is valuable and can be used to inform the development and improvement of your services.  Third, an unhappy customer can be turned into a happy and loyal customer if their complaint is dealt with properly.

I worked with a company recently where most customer contact was by phone or email.   Dealing with demanding, unhappy, confused and angry customers was the responsibility of a busy call centre staffed by a young enthusiastic team.  The team were patient and polite to callers but lacked some of the basic tools and techniques to really delight their customers.  I put together some top tips for this team.   Feel free to download these tips and pass them on to others.  Top Ten Tips for keeping customers happy

In today’s complaining culture it’s unrealistic to aim for 100% customer satisfaction.  But making even the most difficult customers happy is not an unreasonable goal.

Ten top tips for getting on Board

There has been a flurry of discussion recently around women in the boardroom.  This follows the publication of the Davies Report which called on the FTSE 350 companies to increase the percentage of women at the board table to 25% by 2015.  Currently 18 FTSE 100 companies have no female directors at all and nearly half of all FTSE 250 companies do not have a woman in the boardroom.

The discussions have covered  a range of questions:  Are imposed quotas a good thing? (See my earlier blog.)  Is there any evidence that companies with more diverse Boards are more effective?  Why don’t women make it to the top?  Do women simply have different aspirations and views of what success means?

These are all important questions, but I have seen very little practical advice emerging from the Davies debate.  If a woman is interested in getting a seat on a board, what steps should she take?  Here are some top tips (with thanks to Sue O’ Brien, CEO of Norman Broadbent for her input) .  And guess what?  This advice applies to men too!

  • Do some research first.  What industry and types of companies are you interested in joining and in what capacity?   You need to be able to clearly articulate what it is you are looking for before you begin your search.
  • Be clear about what you are offering to the companies you have chosen.  Why should they be interested in you?  What can you add to their Board?  What are your distinctive skills and qualities and what evidence can you produce to support your past successes?
  • Use Head Hunters to help you in your search.  But be prepared (see above) before you meet them.  They will respond if they can see you have done your homework.
  • When dealing with Head Hunters don’t wait for them to take the initiative on the agreed actions and follow up.  You need to do your bit and they will take you more seriously if you are taking the lead where you can.
  • If approaching a company direct to enquire about a Board role consider sending  them a short narrative in the form of a bio rather than your CV.
  • Protect your CV.  It is tempting to pass on your CV to anyone who looks like they may be able to help you.  But hand it over with care.  Your CV is your brand.  Do you know who it is going to?  How will it be presented?
  • Make sure the Board role you are considering or are offered is the right one for you. Does the position really fit with your background and experiences?  What will this company do for you?  Do you subscribe to their values?   Be brave enough to turn the position down if it doesn’t feel right. 
  • When considering a role seek out those people who have recently left the Board to see if they’ll chat to you.  You might get a more accurate account of the company from them.
  • Don’t under estimate the time involved.  It is hard work if you are going to do a proper job.  Experts estimate that you can expect to spend 25 days a year on Board work as a Non-Executive.
  • Network, network, network.  Make it known that you are looking for a Board appointment.  Someone somewhere will be on the look out for talented Board members.

 Good Luck!   If you get the right position it will be a fulfilling and valuable learning experience.

Business courses fail to prepare young people

Vocational business courses in the UK’s schools and colleges have been largely condemned by an Ofsted report published this week (“Economics, business and enterprise education. A summary of inspection evidence April 2007 to March 2010”).   The Report’s criticisms single out those courses which are heavily dependent on  coursework and internally marked assignments.   It also comments on approaches to assessment as being “rather narrow and simplistic”.   Although students are achieving good results, the quality of students’ work and their knowledge and understanding is weak, the report says.  

“In 30 of the 39 schools, learning was limited by a focus on completing written assignments to meet narrowly defined assessment criteria, rather than securely developing broader understanding and skills.” 

As a result, the report adds

“students often had only vague ideas about the economy, interest rates and their impact, recession, inflation, why prices vary and the ownership of companies.”

 (Ofsted June 2011)

On the one hand the report fails to give credit to the many reputable vocational business qualifications that effectively test knowledge, understanding and practical skills to a high standard.   The Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT), for example, offers qualifications that are relevant to the needs of business and are supported by rigorous assessment requirements.  The AAT’s popularity and growth reflect the qualification’s proven success in helping people to get work, do a good job and progress in their career. 

On the other hand, anyone with experience of the current school system and further education won’t be surprised at Ofsted’s findings.   Business courses which rely on coursework and internally marked assignments are of variable quality.   When struggling with increasing demands on teaching staff,  scarce resources, the pressure to pass more students and a prescriptive regulatory system, colleges will take short cuts and standards will be compromised.      And of course it’s not just business education that suffers.  I remember my son’s remark when he was studying Romeo and Juliet for his GCSE exams.  I asked him what he thought of the play.  ‘Oh we’re not reading the whole play’ he said, ‘we’re only tested on one passage!’.   What a shame that my son and his classmates didn’t get to understand Shakespeare more fully and in a wider context.  How much did they really learn from such a selective approach?  Sadly, this is indicative of the general approach to education at all levels today.   The phrase ‘what gets measured gets done’ springs to mind.

It is a shame that the press seizes on reports such as Ofsted’s to bang on about the general ‘dumbing down’ of education.   It’s not all bad and there are many examples of high quality, innovative courses that buck the trend.   But we must allow educators the freedom, flexibility and resources to develop well rounded students who are prepared not just for their exams, but for life.

Download the Ofsted report here:

Ofsted Report June 2011

MBA study – why you should be bothered

[Download Chapter from ‘The Growing Business Handbook at the end of this piece)

As Chief Executive of the Association of MBAs for over seven years I can claim to be a bit of an authority on the MBA qualification.   And as an MBA graduate I can personally testify to the benefits of the qualification both in terms of the learning experience and the career opportunities it gave me.   So when I was asked to write for ‘The Growing Business Handbook’  about talent development and the benefits of MBA study, I found I had plenty to say and lots of experience to draw on.  My contribution to the “Kogan Page” Handbook is attached for downloading.  Have a look.  It will answer most of your questions about the what? why? and how? of MBA study.  ‘The Growing Business Handbook’, endorsed by the Institute of Directors, was published in March 2011.  It is a useful reference tool for all businesses, focusing on issues such as funding, innovation, customer service and international expansion.   The Handbook costs £29.99 but you can have my chapter for free!

If you are seriously considering MBA study and want to know more, I am happy to answer your questions.

Growing Business Handbook Chapter 7

20 Networking Tips

This week I ran a one day workshop in Stockholm for senior women managers in Pfizer.   The workshop is part of a company-wide initiative to support and encourage women within Pfizer who have leadership potential – a great example of effective talent management.   The subject of the workshop was ‘Visibility & Networking in Pfizer’ and we spent time discussing some common anxieties about networking and how to overcome them.  It was a fantastic day and brought home to participants the value of networking, the importance of making it personal and of nurturing relationships.   What a pleasure to work with a great group of women with plenty of ideas and enthusiasm!  I reckon Pfizer will soon reap the benefits of this particular investment.

Do you need help with networking or some networking tools?  Have a look at my workshop handout ‘JPA’s 20 Networking Tips’ – it’s based on years of experience!

JPA 20 Networking Tips

It’s Good to Talk

Recently I completed a project for a highly respected financial company, renowned for its innovative approaches to staff development, engagement and communication.    The company had made a significant investment in a new project which involved some risk and uncertainty but was nevertheless considered essential for the company’s survival in a competitive market.  When I became involved the project was faltering.  Unease was growing about the likelihood of achieving success or, at least, of making any return on the investment to date.  On the surface there were a number of explanations for the anxieties.   Staff changes in key areas had led to some lack of continuity, feedback from some of the first trials had not been entirely positive, and there was a realisation that more investment would be required to achieve the original vision.   With no prospect of income from the project in the short term, there was a fear that the company had bitten off more than it could chew.

My task was to get the project back on track with a plan for the short and long term and recommendations for addressing the financial concerns.  This is the sort of challenge I love!   It involves elements of change management, strategic review, market analysis and financial planning and all of those issues came into play here.   However, looking back on my experience as a consultant for this company, I am convinced that the most important success factor in this project was in fact communication.   As I began to understand the context and to unearth some of the underlying issues affecting the project’s progress, it became clear to me that the expertise, the ideas, the information required to get things moving were right there in the company.   But communication had broken down, information was not being shared, grievances were being allowed to fester and confidence was fading.   I am not blaming the company for this – even the best organisations find that, in some situations, established practices for ensuring good communication just don’t work.  In these circumstances it sometimes helps to bring in an ‘outsider’ to find out what’s going on, get people round the table and encourage them to start talking again.  In this project I didn’t need to provide all the answers, the people I spoke to had a good idea of what had to be done.  All I did was to listen to views and ideas, co-ordinate the required actions and provide a structure and a plan for the way forward.   The result was a more energised, optimistic team with a clear understanding of what was going to happen over the next 2-3 years.  The vision was once again achievable.

Good communication is undeniably important in business.  It sounds so elementary, I wonder why so many organisation still fail to get it right.  If my experience with a company that knows how to do things well is anything to go by, I fear for the others.

Job interviews – 6 top preparation tips

If you’ve been shortlisted for a job interview, congratulations!  You’ve obviously put in a good application and have demonstrated, at least on paper, that you have the experience and skills required for the job.   Now you have to outshine the other shortlisted candidates and persuade the panel that you are the best person for the job.   The interview is your opportunity to make a positive impression so don’t blow it!   Preparation is key – here are six tips to help you get ready for the big day.

  1. Research the company you are applying to work for.  Look at the website and the annual report.  Do you know anyone who has experience of the company?  If so, ask them for some advice or information that might not be in the public domain.
  2. Think about what evidence you can provide which shows that you meet all of the job requirements.  Prepare some examples which demonstrate your experience and skills.  It is not enough to say ‘I am really good at dealing with difficult customers’.  Better to say ‘I dealt with a particularly difficult customer when I was at …….’; then give details of the situation, the action you took, and how the matter was resolved.  This is often referred to as the “STAR” technique (Situation, Task, Action, Result).
  3. Anticipate all of the possible questions the panel might ask and prepare an answer to each one.  You will probably find that, even if the question you anticipate doesn’t come up, the answer you have prepared will come in useful .    Ask a friend or colleague to give you some potential questions (in my experience friends often think of much better questions than the interview panel!).
  4. Who is on the panel?  It’s OK to ask for this information if you are not told.  Do you know anything about them?  Can you find out?  It’s useful to know something about the people interviewing you – if you are familiar with their particular interests or areas of expertise it might help you to anticipate the questions.
  5. Rehearse!  If you have been asked to give a presentation to the panel make sure you have rehearsed in front of a mirror.  Time yourself so that you use all the time you are given but don’t run over.  If you want to use power point, check in advance that this is acceptable.  Print handouts of the slides – if technology fails on the day you can talk the panel through the handouts.
  6. If you prepare well in advance you will feel confident and positive about the interview – and that is very important.  So don’t stay up late fretting and practising the night before.  Get a good night’s sleep and, on the day of the interview, concentrate on staying relaxed, confident and positive.

Good luck!

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