‘The techniques you learn are extremely useful’

An MBA produces skills crucial for a diplomatic career. By Helena Pozniak

An MBA isn’t obvious training for leading a rescue mission to Japan, but senior diplomat Michael Shearer says it helped. He’s recently back from a week spent trying to evacuate Britons from around Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor, damaged after the quake last month.

“We were just outside the exclusion zone; there was risk of nuclear exposure. I had to keep our team going. We managed to find 80 Britons and get them away on six coaches. We faced logistical challenges: aftershocks, severe snow and flooding, and an upgrade in the nuclear risk. The team did an outstanding job. I fell back on my skills then: crisis management, negotiating, strategic thinking. The tools and techniques you learn on an MBA are extremely useful.”

Unlike many career diplomats, Shearer, who in his day job is deputy high commissioner in Sierra Leone, has experience of the wider world outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Before joining at a relatively senior level in 2007, he had worked for 12 years in frontline banking – employed by HSBC and posted to China and America.

A degree in Japanese and Chinese, solid commercial experience, combined with an MBA from Durham set him up well for entry into the prestigious and competitive career of diplomacy. “It gave me credibility and currency. The clear focus in the modern-day FCO is on commercial awareness and managerial effectiveness – core components of the MBA,” he says.

It wasn’t just the content but the format of the course that developed him; tackling several subjects in a short space of time has trained Shearer to master a brief swiftly. He is unfazed by absorbing large tracts of information, or fire-fighting as situations arise. “I might have just minutes to under stand our nuclear position fully before meeting a foreign minister. Or a body washes up on a beach at night. I have to act. An MBA is fantastic training for that – managing multiple priorities in a pressured environment; it uncannily mirrors my job.”

On any typical day, Shearer will juggle a boggling array of demands from the immediate to the longer term; helping distressed British nationals, considering the scope of the foreign office, lobbying the Sierra Leone government, meeting UK business representatives, rounded off with a session of disaster contingency planning. “An MBA gives you confidence to combine real time problems with strategic thinking.”

In fact, the FCO considers MBAs to provide such good grounding for its staff that it has been sponsoring employees from junior up to senior levels to undertake the course on a part-time basis with the Open University since 2005 and currently has some 50 managers enrolled. “These people are extremely bright and have really engaged with the new material,” says Rob Paton, professor in social enterprise at the Open University. “Diplomacy is no longer something done in private; officials need to know how to promote ideas to wider society.”

Sponsorship has been available within the FCO at many levels from the junior to the very senior. Diplomats who hold an MBA include Paul Madden, high commissioner in Australia, and husband- and-wife team Carolyn Davidson and Tom Carter, who shared the job of British high commissioner to Zambia while simultaneously studying for an MBA with the Open University. International politics is peppered with MBAs; in the UK foreign secretary William Hague studied at Insead and cabinet minister Oliver Letwin at London Business School.

“The way ideas are handled on an MBA helps you remain one step ahead,” says Paton. “It becomes easier to engage with strategic debates within the organisation; ride the wave rather than being swept along.”

Current UK diplomacy is focusing on promoting British business interests, reducing national debt and keeping the UK out of recession – hence the need for a fundamental knowledge of business operations, says Shearer. “Any diplomat worth his or her salt will need to know their way around a balance sheet.”

Business knowledge of diplomats was appreciated by business executive Sharon Bamford, who made a point of contacting the embassy or high commission whenever visiting an international market. Now as Chief Executive of the Association of MBAs (AMBA) she believes MBAs have much to offer FCO officials; and they, with their international experience, have much to bring: “It’s important that our diplomats not only understand business, but have the ability to understand the impact of regulatory and trade issues on all sectors of the business community, especially small and medium-sized enterprises.”

In larger economies, the UKTI (UK trade and investment) will operate its own office; in smaller nations, such as Sierra Leone, responsibility for promoting British trade interests falls upon its diplomatic staff. They are expected to know the territory inside out and liaise with all companies. “They are marketing UK plc there,” says Bamford.

As well as a grounding in the nuts and bolts of marketing and finance combined with development of analytical and critical thinking, an MBA hones the “softer” skills more traditionally compatible with a diplomatic career.

Given the highly international nature of a typical MBA cohort – all AMBA accredited schools must have no more than 10 per cent from any one country – students gain global awareness by default. Sophisticated networking skills at highest level require cultural understanding, says Dr Colin Ashurst, who teaches at Durham Business School. Typically in group work – boardroom exercises for example – cross cultural differences can enhance students’ international perspective. And the combined business experience – on average, full-time students have some around eight years under their belts and part-timers considerably more – all contributes to the pot.

“There’s a huge amount of experience that someone from the FCO would bring to an MBA programme,” says Bamford. “Each student’s experience is critical to the learning. International networks and influence, the opportunities and challenges of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) economies and the importance of the political environment in international trade are critical to today’s businesses.”

While diplomacy enjoys a less cut-throat reputation than the world of commercial banking, says Shearer, don’t be fooled. “There are more similarities than differences between the commercial and diplomatic world. Professionalism and ambition are just as high. In banking, shareholder value was the bottom line; it’s harder to measure how you promote UK interests, but the drive is just as high.”

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