Having experienced the autonomy of running the Beijing office of his previous company, architect Bill Webb knew he was ready for a change when he returned back to London. He decided to study the Executive MBA – with brilliant, and transformative, results.
I’m a commercial architect and before coming to London Business School, I worked at a large British architecture firm called Make Architects. I’d been working there for 10 years, including four years in the Beijing office where we were building sustainable mega buildings.
At the time I was a specialist and while I knew a lot about architecture, I had no training in management or commerce. I had a taste of leadership running our office in Beijing; I was 32 and I took over a team of 15 people, and had autonomy over recruitment of the team and the work that we took on. It was a really positive experience and it gave me confidence and belief in myself. Coming back from abroad is challenging. You have had fantastic experiences and have grown as a professional but your peers and seniors see you in the same way as you were before you left. I’d had a taste of some new parts of the business such as strategy, marketing and finance and was interested to explore them further, so I started thinking about doing an MBA, in some format.
A family friend gave me some great advice, which was ‘if you’re going to do it, go for one of the best schools in the world. You’ll network with the best, you’ll have rockstar professors and it will be a much more enjoyable experience.' So that’s what I did; I applied to London Business School. I was ready for a change, so I rolled the dice and came to the School with a very open mind about where it might lead me.
While doing the EMBA, you’ve got to engage with your employer and be honest about what that’s going to mean, because it’s not without impact. I took every Friday off, because I wanted to really get the most out of it.
I could immediately use my learnings from the EMBA in my day-to-day job. There is much reflecting on who you are, and what the constraints of your personal world view might be. There are some challenging processes when you conduct 360 appraisals to understand how you are seen from the outside which while bruising are ultimately liberating.
One of the amazing things about doing the EMBA at London Business School was that you can bring your team with you a little bit. There was a networking breakfast hosted where I could bring my sponsor, and I was encouraged to bring my manager along to see what was going on. Plus, your family are your ultimate stakeholder, so it was great for my wife to be able to come and have a drink with everyone.
For me, Professor Kathleen O’Connor’s Developing Effective Managers and Organisations module was one of the most memorable parts of the programme. Creating cultures where people feel psychologically safe, challenged yet competent and genuinely valued is complex. Kathleen brought it to life with vivid stories, and didn’t shy away from dealing with the complex trade-offs.
The week-long negotiating and bargaining elective was also a stand out for me, and I use the techniques I learned all the time. It was everything from strategy to the need to create a culture where people feel like they’re enjoying engaging in negotiation; people have to think their appraisals are worth coming back for next year, they want to feel listened to.
I was one of the people that came into the programme not knowing whether I was financially literate enough to survive it, or whether I’d sink. I’d dread conversations about future cash flows and principles around corporate finance, but Professor Ian Cooper’s module on corporate finance was brilliant. As well as being a very funny and engaging guy, he took us along with him. He knew people were starting from different points of view, and he made me fearless at things like putting together an investment memorandum. It gave me confidence and made me feel that it wasn’t just for other people. I felt if I could overcome this, there would be no other obstacles for me in the EMBA.
The EMBA wasn’t an academic exercise for me. I was looking for a real change in my career. I realised that I wanted to start a business about half way through the programme and I was able to dive into the electives about entrepreneurship and how to grow a business. I could look at every stage of a business from the seed of an idea to scaling growth, and I’m now in the early days of that, having co-founded my company, able partners.
I took advantage of the networking opportunities at the School, and my first client was a friend from the programme. He’s an amazing guy who has shown faith in our new venture for which I’m incredibly grateful. I think the networking at the School is fantastic, we all knew each other really well within a month or two of starting the programme.
I met so many people on the programme who had already launched a business, and that gave me a lot of confidence; I thought, ‘why not me?’ I took part in the Entrepreneurship Summer School, which was great, and it really made me feel like everything was possible. We looked at ideation, testing the idea of how to find a first customer, when to pivot and when to keep going. That really demystified launching a business for me, and it meant I felt able to start my own.
For the next step in my career, we are looking at decarbonising the built environment. We are building a proptech business called Building Material Exchange, which is an ebay for commercial building materials, where buildings at the end of their life can be dismantled and reused in new construction.
The EMBA has changed my life immeasurably. Every day, something comes up that I learned on the course; whether that’s approaching a decision in a better frame of mind, negotiating with my children, or helping my business partner with a challenge. I still read my notes occasionally and I finished the course almost two years ago! For example, I did a great course about change management and how we’re resistant to it, and I’ve reread my notes on that recently as it’s relevant to something I’ve been working on. It really resonated with me.
My advice for anyone considering the EMBA is that it’s a chance to see what’s going on in other big spaces that you’re not an expert in. Big industries are often disrupted by people from the outside, rather than from within, so the opportunity to see your industry from the outside means you can challenge it, disrupt it, and change it more effectively; or you could even do it to another industry. The School gave me the confidence, and toolkit to start my business.