Manchester City Council

Cheshire East Council

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My MBA – what has it done for me?

Maria Memoli sets out why she chose to complete an MBA and how it has made a real difference to her career in local government.

First of all, an MBA is tough so it is not for the fainthearted. Before you embark on this qualification, you must really ask yourself why you need an MBA, how you propose to use it and above all, you must choose the one that is right for you.

For me, it was a natural progression. Management development programmes are a great first step into the management arena. Management is not for everyone – you either like it or you don’t.

My first management job entailed managing a team of around 20 people of differing professional backgrounds – all specialists in their field. I had participated in the Top Managers’ Programme run by the LGMB (Local Government Management Board), which was subsequently taken over by the IDeA as the Leadership programme.

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This gave me a fantastic insight into management thinking in local government, and a good opportunity to meet several top gurus. Some of my colleagues on the programme went on to be chief executives.

My local authority at the time had an excellent in-house management programme. All managers were trained in the same way. A new era was emerging – a new Labour government – with reforms to local government. Managers had to think more strategically and acquire new skill sets.

To me this was manna from heaven. The good thing about this programme was that it meant managers were galvanised into helping each other reach their departmental targets. Team working was the buzzword. Silos were out.

Choosing the right course

My boredom threshold is fairly low, so once I have done it, been there and got the t-shirt, I want more – but more of what? That was the dilemma. I researched the various MBAs on offer at the time. I was tempted by a Local Government MBA, but did I want to remain in this sector? I wasn’t sure at that time.

So I concentrated on searching for a generic MBA, one that ranked highly in that field,and was within travelling distance from home. My nearest university at the time was Bath. On researching their MBA programmes, I found the Bath MBA ranked 10th in the world. I was impressed – even more so when I found out it was based on the Harvard Business School, with lecturers and speakers often from America, attending the management school to speak. I was hooked.

Next I had to decide whether to do an executive part-time study course or an elective basis over a longer period. Being both impatient and keen to attend as quickly as possible, I decided on the executive part-time two-year course.

This consisted of coursework and exams. I vowed after completing my Law Society finals, I would not undergo any further exams that required the study of accounts. However, so keen was I to do this Bath MBA that I thought I would give it a go.

Diverse backgrounds

My executive cohort consisted of 50 senior managers and directors from some of the most well-known companies around the world. A number flew in from abroad for the lessons and then flew back.

Out of the 50 senior managers and directors, about six of us were women and only two of us from the public sector – me from local government and another woman from the NHS. The dynamics of the cohort were fascinating. Most were from manufacturing backgrounds with a couple from government departments that dealt with ships and aircraft.

The reading material for this type of MBA is phenomenal. We divided ourselves into reading groups, sharing the reading and doing a synopsis for the rest of the group.

Assignments were always done in groups. I made sure I worked with different groups of people from different backgrounds. When I came to do my first accounts assignment I made sure I joined a couple of accountants and we used Tesco’s accounts. The guys made me write up the assignment in my own words, to ensure I understood the concepts.

Finance skills

In the class, I moaned about the amount of accounts we had to do and the lecturer’s response was “you need to know when you are being bamboozled”, which was fair enough. However, I did not enjoy the second year accounts exam examining Rolls Royce’s accounts.

Also in the second year we had to do ‘foreign trade’ and we learned about gearing ratios, hedge funds, foreign exchange and Libor and so on. So when all the trouble with the banks was spread across the broadsheets, I found I understood what the fuss was about.

In another team, one of the students designed the new Avon tyre and he had a problem with his production line. He was using the just-in-time and lean principles used by Honda. We were invited to inspect the production line. I was fascinated at the automation; we also managed to solve the problem.

Interestingly, we also studied the emergence of the Asia-Pacific economies, and how they were positioning themselves in terms of political and competitive markets and the need/opportunity for joint ventures with the western world. That was in 2002/3.

I led on a project team looking at risk and I used my own local authority as an example. We did all the right things (in management speak) but did not go the extra mile and therefore were risk averse. This was down to officers but also our political masters.

The manufacturing industry had trouble understanding the political influence. They had even more trouble understanding local government supply chain management.

Tangled web

We had to draw relationship maps on the board. Most were fairly easy to follow with seamless destination tables. Both myself, and the NHS person were asked to come up to the boards and draw our relationship maps. Everyone was aghast and the question on their minds was: “How do you manage all those relationships?” This is very relevant today. With the Localism Act and the way local government will be providing public services, the question is pertinent.

Another topic I found absorbing was change management, particularly culture change. My final project was on change management; using the new CPA (comprehensive performance assessment) model and whether this could change attitudes and behaviours and eventually the culture of an organisation. I also discussed the subject of national versus local targets and whether one size fits all.

I advocated ‘local’ as best; achieving more locally far outweighed national targets. Having studied this topic in some considerable depth, I find psychometric testing, and such like, merely skim the surface.

The current buzzword is ‘transformation’, with corporate organisations specialising in local government transformations. We have transformation business managers, transformation programmes. What does it mean?

The short answer is “change” but it is more than that. To survive, local government must change and act like commercial businesses. Managers of today must not only have political acumen but business sense in an entrepreneurial way. They need to be equipped with a range of business skills to provide holistic solutions.

Investment in change initiatives requires commitment from people who connect with those initiatives and embrace them – not because they have to, but because they want to.

Agenda for change

One of the biggest assets of local government is human capital – the workforce with a fountain of knowledge and shared values. What other organisation has such wealth? How many other organisations are able to constantly transform themselves, reframe corporate direction, restructure and renew people?

Local government has become more complex; it requires modern business responses to turbulent environments at this time. There is a demand for agile workforces with highly-developed skills.

We also need to seriously consider what activities our local authorities want to retain and those they really need to drop. We need to think about how services can be delivered in a different way, utilising different types of resources, tapping into our relationship with the numerous stakeholders.

Would I recommend an MBA? Yes, of course. This qualification has made me think in a different way and opened up my mind to many facets of business. I am hungry to explore new dimensions, compare and contrast new initiatives.

It helped me develop my consultancy business, Local Governance. I am fortunate to have recently been appointed the Head of Legal and Estates at Aylesbury Vale District Council, a robust and progressive council hungry to try out new ideas. That is what I like. Fire in the belly, a new challenge.

Maria Memoli is Head of Legal and Estates and Monitoring Officer at Aylesbury Vale District Council. She is also a Law Society Council member for local government.

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