The future of work fascinates Irfan Iltaf.
As Head of Commercial Digitalisation and Innovation at global mining group, Rio Tinto, he is more than accustomed to keeping his finger on the pulse when it comes to change and advancement.
“We’re really just at the start of how business is being transformed by technology. What’s shaping the playing field today simply wasn’t part of our reality a decade ago. AI, machine learning, blockchain, big data, robotics, the internet of things and virtual/augmented reality – these things are already transforming our experience beyond anything we could have imagined. I look at my nieces and nephews playing with iPads and engaging with technology at a very young age and I wonder what their future will be like when they enter the workforce.”
It’s this curiosity coupled with an appetite for change that brought Irfan to London Business School (LBS) and the Executive MBA Global programme (EMBA-Global) which is jointly delivered by New York’s Columbia Business School.
A computer scientist by academic training, Irfan’s career has spanned technology leadership roles in some of the world’s most innovative players in the electronics, pharmaceuticals, commodity training and energy spaces.
In 2009, managing technology strategy and delivery at oil and energy behemoth, BP, he felt it was time for a new challenge.
“I’d reached a point in my career where the conversations were evolving from bits and bytes to how technology was contributing to business strategy. My background had always been in technology. Now I wanted to really understand what makes businesses tick in the broader context and take on a broader level of leadership. Mastering finance, marketing, strategy and operations, and building my leadership capabilities were a key part of that. I was ready for a real step change in my leadership and in my career.”
He chose the EMBA-Global because of the global dimension of the programme and the flexibility it afforded him to balance full-time study during on-campus block weeks with the opportunity to apply the learning in a work context.
“It was pretty immersive and I loved spending the time with faculty and classmates during the campus weeks in London and New York. You are right in the heart of the mix, in two of the world’s foremost commercial and innovation hubs, while the Asian component of the programme in Hong Kong helps you build a really global perspective.”
Irfan’s decision paid off in terms of broadening his thinking. The different challenges embedded within the programme together with the enriching diversity of his cohort had the combined effect of knocking entrenched approaches off course and challenging him to try new concepts, methods and techniques. He also became sharper in terms of time-management, he says.
“There are never enough hours in the day. But over the course of my 18 months I learned to become adept at giving myself over to the learning, studying and preparing for my classes, while working and absorbing lessons from applying the frameworks from the programme. You get very good at regulating time.”
Irfan’s decision – and his dedication – also paid off in terms of his career. In 2011, straight after graduating from the programme, he was appointed CIO at BP’s oil and gas trading arm, covering the Eastern Hemisphere. A move that took him from London to Singapore. It was also a move that delivered a much greater commercial focus and that brought him into the company’s regional executive leadership team.
“For me this was the definitive transition I’d been looking to make: a commercially focussed technology leadership role in a trading business, where technology and data were critical enablers in driving and delivering strategy.”
Today Irfan leads the formulation and execution of digitalisation and innovation strategy for Rio Tinto’s Commercial Group, and is a member of the company’s global commercial senior leadership team. He still finds time to nurture his connection with LBS and Columbia Business School, mentoring MBA students – the leaders, he says, of tomorrow.
“I had excellent mentors and support during my time at LBS and throughout my career. Being a mentor myself, I’ve learned that mentorship is not just about giving, because there is so much to learn from the people you are supporting. You get new perspectives in return. I believe that part of leadership is understanding that you have a duty to pay it forward to future generations, and to keep on learning in the process.”
And for anyone thinking of taking up the EMBA-Global to accelerate their own leadership, he has these words of advice: “It’s a tough experience because you are working and studying full-time, so you want to be absolutely clear about what your goals are and what it is that you need to get out of the programme. But it’s also a lot of fun and there is so much enjoyment waiting for you.”
“If I had the option, I’d absolutely do it all over again.”