Around the world in an MBA

Marketing Manager and MBA student Lorena Ramirez shares her journey on the MBA, across three continents and what she has learned along the way.

Picture of Lorena Ramirez

The first time I heard about the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA was while living in Peru. I’d been working in the fashion industry for the last ten years and was ready to expand into different creative areas. I was looking for a Masters degree that focused not only on fashion, but on creativity and innovation.

There are lots of really good MBAs in London, but the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA was different. There is nothing else in the market that mixes art, design, business and social innovation in that way.

I fell in love with the course immediately, but attending face-to-face sessions in London wasn’t an option for me, so I was forced to put my plans on hold.

Moving to London

It just so happened that, months after discovering the MBA, my husband was offered a job in the UK. We moved to London without any hesitation: I arrived, found a job, got pregnant and applied for the MBA! I had my interview with Dr Pamela Yeow, the Course Leader, about a week before I gave birth.

I had my reservations about starting a Masters with a newborn baby, but when I won a scholarship for the course I felt like it was a sign to just do it. I started the programme and absolutely loved it. On a course like this, it’s so important that your peers are with you on this journey. For a lot of MBAs, the average age is around 24 or 25. I’m 37, and while the youngest person in our cohort was 25, the oldest was 60. Through the MBA, I met people in media, television, different organisations and entrepreneurs. The diversity of ages and interests in my cohort was what I enjoyed most about the experience.

Then my maternity leave finished, the pandemic hit and I found myself working full-time with a baby under highly pressured circumstances. Sadly, I couldn’t continue the MBA with my cohort, but Birkbeck and Central Saint Martins were very understanding and supportive. It was not an easy decision, but looking back, I think it was the right one. I wouldn’t have had the time to properly enjoy the reading and the learning process if I had continued then.

Picture of Lorena with her son

Recognise this scenario? Lorena trying to work and study, featuring her son Noah.

A new challenge in Ceuta

Despite having to put my studies on hold, this has been a whirlwind year: I was promoted to Marketing Manager for Spain for my organisation and relocated to Ceuta, an autonomous Spanish city in Morocco. Ceuta is a small, quiet city, so it’s a big change from London!

In my new role, I am already applying the learning from the first module of the MBA, which is all about how to solve complex problems. Right now, in Spain, the gambling industry is facing new marketing regulations which drastically change the way it has worked for the past twelve years. This has a huge impact on our work, meaning we have to really think outside the box when it comes to promotion.

Changing the way an entire company works is very difficult, especially when you lead teams. For me, the MBA was the perfect preparation to face this challenge. On the course, we completed a project with the London Ambulance Service – what we are learning is not theoretical, it’s real life, day by day. In my work now, we essentially have to reinvent all the departments and how we’re working. For this to be a success, you have to change the way of thinking not of the directors but of the users and your team, and that is the most difficult thing. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to study to have a preparation to understand this better.

Where next?

From March 2021, I’ll be travelling to London once a month to re-join the MBA programme – I can’t wait to get started again!

In the long term, I would like to go back to sustainable fashion, for which my current experience in online marketing will be really valuable. I’d like to work with artisans, especially Peruvian artisans, linking them with brands across the globe. Most artisans around the world don’t speak Spanish or English, so it can be difficult to reach them, but I hope to do this through a foundation or social enterprise – I think the MBA will lead me to the right way to do this.

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Emotional rescue: how to stop your employees burning out

This article was contributed by Dr Andreas Liefooghe, Reader in Organizational Psychology, and Dan Vacassin, an alumnus of Birkbeck’s MSc Organizational Behaviour and Director of Indigo Gold.Businessman asleep at his desk on white background

Sometimes it seems as though it’s no longer enough for employees just to turn up for work and do their jobs as well as they can.  Today, many organisations demand varying amounts of what is known as emotional labour, a phenomenon that sits apart from actually doing the job. Emotional labour manifests itself in a number of ways, but here we are referring to a perceived need to ‘Live the brand’ – to strain every sinew in a bid to achieve the cultural utopia envisioned by the leadership team.

This is not healthy. At best, it can leave employees so exhausted by the energy they put into ‘getting their game face on’ that they have little left to do their jobs properly. At worst, we’ve seen it lead to cases of burnout, where the emotional demands placed on individuals have left them no longer able to function.

While many of society’s ills seem nowadays to be subjected to inflated terminology (for instance we no longer seem to have heavy colds, it is always flu) burnout is very real and its effects can be shocking to witness. In our experience, burnout tends to happen not because individuals work hard, but more because they become emotionally immersed in their work, to the detriment of everything else.

This is not to suggest that presenting a strong brand to the customer is a bad thing. Equally, customer-facing employees have a certain responsibility to embody that brand. We are talking instead about a deeper emotional contract demanded of employees, playing to a need to ‘fit in’ which may be a unique human condition.

Alleviating the burden of emotional labour, as with other culture-related issues, must start at the top. Very often, investigating a case of burnout uncovers insecurities among the leadership team, with senior managers finding it hard to judge when an organisation is working at or close to its optimal level and so continue to push relentlessly towards their version of utopia.

As well as the emotional fatigue it causes, the emotional labour around being constantly ‘on message’ can also stifle fresh ideas and creativity, while negating attempts to promote the diversity of the workplace in terms of personality types and behaviours. The whole point of creativity and diversity is that they involve breaking away from perceived notions of the norm; if people feel they must always behave in a certain way in order to get on, then the norm becomes all-pervasive.

We all have a responsibility to learn, to improve and to better ourselves in whatever career we have chosen. So why not let people get on with doing precisely that, instead of focusing on whether they’re sufficiently on message? You might just keep them burning brightly, instead of burning out.

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The tricky task of achieving life/work balance

On Monday 25 February Birkbeck held an Athena SWAN mentoring event, primarily aimed at women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith, Professorial Research Fellow in the Department of Psychological Sciences, shares her advice, gained over her 36-year career as an academic in Switzerland, Holland and the UK .

 

My experience with mentoring young scientists has been that most females focus on how to balance career with having children, and less often on how to advance their careers, yet of course they should do both. By contrast, males tend to focus mainly on career advancement, rarely raising the problem of balance with family life, yet they too should do both.

The two-body problem

Academics often have academic partners, although the problems are just as difficult when one partner’s career is outside academia.  One lesson I have learnt is that one must discuss everything beforehand.  Don’t wait until the problems arise and resentment creeps in.  Be objective, realising in advance that one of you may get a superb offer in a place where the other cannot find something suitable.  What will happen if that arises?  Whose career will have precedence (certainly not automatically the man’s!)?  How will you find compromises that meet both your needs to some extent, even if not to perfection?  Whose career is more transportable?  All these issues must be faced in advance, without which debates end up in resentment for one party and guilt for the other…. often resulting in a doomed relationship.  You have to ask yourself, which is more important: career or relationship, even if both are important.  The solution isn’t to pretend the issue won’t arise!

Integrating family and career

Many young academics desire a child.  It is often assumed that a busy career means a single child.  In a newspaper article many years ago, Katherine Whitehorn raised the question “one child or many?” and concluded that, if you are a busy professional, it may be better – albeit counterintuitive – to have several children!  She reasoned that a singleton waits desperately for mum (or dad) to come home, whereas several children just muck in together and barely notice their parent is away.  What about maternity leave?  Fortunately, since I was a mother, maternity (and paternity) leave has vastly improved, so you could devote yourself entirely to the new arrival. This is clearly your right, but is it such a good idea?  My advice is that, if you intend to pursue your career, then don’t cut off completely during the maternity leave.  Save a special time each day to check email, read the latest article, jot down notes for your next article or research project.  You are going to have to juggle both once you return to work, so start practising gently now.  Remember that the smaller the baby the more s/he sleeps, so take your baby to special lectures or a conference.  Feed the baby just before it starts and hopefully s/he’ll sleep right through.  Do sit on an aisle seat, though, in case s/he starts screaming!!   And, once you’re back fulltime at work, agree with your partner in advance on how you will both decide who will come home anytime the baby is sick – not automatically the mother!

Focus your research

When you had no home responsibilities, it may have been fine to dabble in numerous research projects, but once there are family responsibilities, it is essential to focus your research. Try to arrange to teach on courses that are related to your research so that your reading serves both.

Avoiding guilt

Remind yourself frequently that you cannot be superwoman!  Keep an eye on your health and remember that sleep isn’t only a time of rest, but that parts of the brain are more active during sleep than wakefulness and that sleep is critical for the consolidation of memory.  Avoid guilt, and learn to say “No” to requests to take on extra tasks.  Protect yourself at this time of your career; you can be an avid volunteer in the future.  Tell yourself that it’s OK to use day-care and, when you drop off your child, leave with a confident stride.  Babies pick up on their parents’ doubts.  Do ask for help when you need it.  You don’t have to prove you can do it all alone.

You never stop being a mum…

A personal ending:  I thought that when my daughters left the nest, had their own careers and families, I could simply get on with my career without a second thought… Alas no!  Now the potential guilt raises its head again:  how do I juggle expected grandmother duties (I have seven) with the pressures of my academic career?  Rest assured, I have no regrets… having children, grandchildren and a busy career have fulfilled my life.

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