This month, we caught up with Conrad Kheng Hwa Chua, Executive Director of the Cambridge MBA at Cambridge Judge Business School to find out, among other things, how to create a rich intellectual environment whilst equipping students with the skills they need to be a successful entrepreneur.
Over the last three years, the Cambridge MBA has grown by a third; during this time Conrad has observed how students have become increasingly interested in working for technology companies, especially those in emerging markets where the upside is huge.
To keep both students and professionals up-to-date with the changing face of the MBA, Conrad runs a podcast series called Changing Careers, with insights from MBA alums on how they have changed their career path, and how careers are changing for MBAs more generally.
Before taking up his current position at CJBS Conrad worked in the Singapore public sector in a variety of roles, including marketing Singapore as a great place to work, study and stay. He also oversaw maritime and aviation policy in the period just after 9/11 when major changes had to be made.
What does a 'typical' working day look like for you - is there such a thing?
I'm an early morning person, part of the 5am club. It’s quiet and I can spend time working through emails, doing work, planning for the week, and it also gives me time to fix up a cup of coffee. I can spend 10 minutes preparing a cup of coffee and that helps me slow down before the day itself.
The day takes off when my seven year old wakes up. It's then a matter of getting her to school and cycling to work. That’s how I get my exercise everyday. I would not recommend this, but I also listen to podcasts when cycling as that helps me make use of my commute time.
Once I get into the office, it's a combination of emails and meetings. But I always make it a point to get out of my office when students are having their break times to mingle and talk to students - to find out what’s going on and to get a feel of the pulse.
Most of my work involves helping my team and students balance the various demands on students’ time, from academic work to careers and the other various things that students can do in Cambridge.
Usually in the middle of the day, if I have time, I will go for a short walk or run just to recharge my batteries and to give myself some headspace outside the office to think.
At the end of the day, it's about picking up my daughter from school and going home. I usually check a few emails but I have been trying to cut down my screen time at night, so I set Do Not Disturb on my devices from 9pm onwards. It helps me wind down before sleeping and makes for a good night's sleep for the day ahead.
What are the most challenging and rewarding parts of your job?
Without a doubt, the students. I have been working with MBAs for almost 10 years and every year I am amazed at what our students achieve. The academic demands of the programme are huge but students also come to Cambridge to experience the rich, intellectual environment here. They also have to keep an eye on their career after the MBA and many also want to leave their mark here, whether through organising a student trek to another country or a conference.
This makes the year very interesting for me and my team but we also have to play multiple roles with students. Sometimes we have to be firm, for example with academic deadlines and processes, but we also have to be understanding at times when we can see that the pressure is getting to a student, or when a student feels lost with so many opportunities before them.
The Cambridge MBA has a reputation for academic eminence and is ranked as one of the world’s best. How do you go about maintaining such excellence?
One thing about being part of the University is that the academic programme has to be top notch. All our processes are geared towards ensuring academic excellence and rigour and there is also a very detailed feedback process. I am amazed that every term, the academic student reps sit in a committee with faculty and go through the feedback scores from the previous term. And credit has to go to our faculty who take onboard this feedback and make improvements for the next year’s class.
"This year, we are introducing a data analytics workshop for the first time in response to employers using big data so much more now."
So far, we have eschewed the approach of making large scale changes through a programme review that might take place only once every five years or so. Instead we have adopted an approach of listening to alums and employers on what the key skills that MBA graduates need are and to introduce them to the programme as soon as we can. For instance, this year, we are introducing a data analytics workshop for the first time in response to employers using big data so much more now.
How do you ensure students are equipped with the non-academic skills needed to be successful entrepreneur or employee?
When I speak to alums, they all say that the biggest takeaways from their MBA are the personal skills. This comes from academic courses such as Management Praxis where they learn about different kinds of team roles and how to negotiate with others.
It also comes from the projects that they do. We have two mandatory group consulting projects, the Cambridge Venture Project and the Global Consulting Project. Both projects push students to go beyond their previous experience and work in a completely new area.
I don’t see a strict divide between academic and non-academic skills, because I have also heard from many students how they gained huge self-confidence after getting through a class that, at the beginning, they felt almost insurmountable.
"I always tell my team that we are not here to collect passports. For us diversity is about different backgrounds, different viewpoints."
Ultimately, it is that entire experience that gives students a renewed sense of confidence that they can continue to learn and excel in whatever field they choose after they leave Cambridge.
How diverse is the Cambridge MBA’s student body? For instance, do you facilitate parents’ needs by providing flexibility?
We have just over 200 students from about 50 different countries. But I always tell my team that we are not here to collect passports. For us diversity is about different backgrounds, different viewpoints. So we have people from the usual MBA areas of consulting, finance and industry, but also entrepreneurs, professional sportspeople, people from the military or the public sector. Our spread of students from different countries is such that - not by design - no one nationality is usually above 15%.
The average work experience of our students is just over five years. And about a third of our students bring their families, including children, to live in Cambridge during their one year here.
At the end of their MBA, students participate in the Global Consulting Project. Tell us a little bit more about what this entails and how it benefits students.
The Global Consulting Project (GCP) is a four-week mandatory project. It has to be done in groups of four or five, and is with a company or organisation that has a complicated issue that they want our students to look into. About half of our projects involve some time outside the UK. And the clients range from multinationals to large regional companies and late stage startups.
The content of the projects is also wide-ranging. Some of them involve corporate strategy, others are more functional like marketing or HR. But ultimately students have to pitch their recommendations to very senior management, and so the benchmark that the students have to meet is high. And we know from the client feedback that our students do extremely well and their recommendations get adopted.
Students consistently rate the GCP as one of the highlights of their one year MBA. It gives them the opportunity to go in-depth in an area that is outside their comfort zone. And it builds the key skills that drive success after their MBA :- their communication skills, leading change in an organisation and working within teams.
In your opinion, what are the biggest trends that we can expect to see in higher education in the coming years in terms of student expectations and the way learning is delivered?
We are already seeing that students are consuming information through video or audio podcasts. They are also becoming comfortable with online collaboration tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. But the challenge for students is that they could get information this way but not gain knowledge, insights or truly master their leadership styles.
That comes from a face-to-face, residential environment where they have to work with the same group of classmates for a length of time. Where they can earn the trust of their fellow classmates and get valuable feedback that they can use in their careers.
What is your vision for the Cambridge MBA in 2019 and beyond?
To provide an ever improving educational experience for our students. In our end of year surveys, our students keep saying that their active participation in the MBA has created an experience that has transformed them. And I hope that our students will leave Cambridge with the right mix of skills, insights and personal skills that they can go out and make a huge positive impact on the world.
Changing Careers with Conrad Chua is available on iTunes - start listening today.
My Job in Higher Ed is a monthly series. Take a look at our other interviews.