Dame Mary Marsh: 'People thought I was mad'

The new chairman of London Business School's international alumni council tells Peter Brown what her MBA has meant to her.
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The Independent Online

"In the early Eighties, I was the deputy head of a school in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, with four young sons at home. My husband and I decided to exchange roles in the family – he'd formerly been in the export business. I became the main breadwinner.

So while he was learning to cook, I was learning to be a manager with the long-term earnings potential to support the family. I completed a diploma in educational management at a local polytechnic and got bitten by the management and leadership bug.

The Executive MBA at London Business School was part-time, taught on alternate Fridays, with three block weeks. Andrew Likierman, now the dean, had created the programme and also ran the business ethics elective.

I started in 1987 and was hooked. The train journey to London allowed me to read case studies and prepare. Time management became critical. Every-body thought I was mad. People said: 'You're a teacher, why are you doing an MBA?' The answer was that schools, like everything else, need to be managed and run properly – I think people have woken up to that now. And I wanted to have other career options. A lot of the course – economics, strategy, finance and marketing – was new to me, and tough, but I was keen to understand. I Iearnt so much and met people I wouldn't have otherwise, and it gave me the confidence to take the big steps.

Having an MBA got me on to the shortlist for my next job, as head teacher of a comprehensive school. It was unusual then for a woman to be a head of a large mixed school, but I was able to bring business and other connections to it. After this came five years as head of Holland Park School, in west London. From that, I became chief executive of the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). Again, the MBA gave me credibility – they knew the sort of experience I would bring to the post. I went from a school with a turnover of £5m to a national charity with a turnover of more than £50m. By the time I left, the turnover was £150m.

What I learnt on the MBA about managing complex communications functions and other issues was very useful. It enabled me to understand the language and priorities of a major donor. I left the NSPCC after eight years for a start-up project. I'm founding director of the Clore Social Leadership Programme, which trains leaders in the third sector.

I've benefited from keeping in touch with LBS and meeting the alumni. The network is of mutual benefit to everyone."

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