Madeleine Spence had always fostered ambitions to study an MBA, and in 2019 she took the plunge and started the programme. Having had no formal experience of leading a team before her MBA, she jumped straight into a leadership project with one of the UK’s leading recipe box companies, which turned out to be an incredibly fruitful exercise.
I studied Modern Languages and Literature at UCL for my undergraduate degree. I focused on Spanish and Italian; I didn’t have a specific career in mind at that age – I just wanted to study what I loved and that was the advice that my parents had always given me.
I knew I was interested in business so I took my first job at Accenture, because I wanted to work at a multi-national that would give me broad experience to kick off my career. Consultancy is great because you get to work with lots of different clients from different industries. I met many brilliant people and worked on some really interesting projects. I also spent some time working in financial services, but soon realised that I was most interested in consumer products and retail from both a consumer psychology and more commercial angle.
I managed to move myself onto a project in that area at Accenture, and then I was approached for a job at Sainsbury’s. I worked in a number of roles there; I spent time in buying, led a large store transformation programme and also did some international sourcing work using my Italian which was a lot of fun. It was a good breadth of commercial experience. I then went on to work at Mars, in their confectionary division – one of the biggest private companies in the world – leading the revenue management strategy for sharing chocolate.
I’d always wanted to do an MBA to build my skillset and get more formal academic training around subjects like finance, accounting and strategy. In 2019 I decided to go for it. I wanted to study at London Business School because it’s one of the leading institutions globally. I didn’t want to do an MBA somewhere that wasn’t internationally recognised because, let’s face it, it’s all about the brand on your CV when it comes to an MBA. I also really liked the flexibility of the course; I finished slightly early at 18 months but exited officially at 21 months. It works really well that you can finish early and start work if you want to, but equally you can extend the length of time studying if you wish.
I’m a learner by nature, so my goal when I started the MBA was to learn, absorb and take on as many of the different courses and opportunities as I could. I took the maximum amount of credits and studied new subjects that I didn’t know much about, such as private equity. At the same time I wanted to add depth and breadth to my learning, so I took a number of courses in consumer insights and marketing strategy that fit in well with my career experience.
I was looking for a combination of academic and practical experience and I think that’s the great thing about business school; it’s not just about the textbooks. One of the practical things I did during the programme was LondonCAP, a project-based course where small groups are paired with a company. I volunteered to be the lead on the project, working with Mindful Chef, because at that point in my career I hadn’t formally led a team, and I wanted that experience.
I was the main liaison between our team and the CEO of Mindful Chef. I led a small consulting team to work on a growth strategy project for them over the course of 12 weeks. We had a number of meetings with the client and then presented our strategic plan. It was a significant amount of work, and we did a lot of research. Overall, it was a really fun experience, especially for getting to know some new colleagues across the MBA.
I was also a peer leader during my time at London Business School, working as a cross between a mentor and a coach for other students. Each student could sign up for a 20-30 minute slot with me and use that time for a number of things. I reviewed and critiqued CVs, and helped MBA and MiM students practise job interview questions by stress-testing their answers and suggesting improvements. Sometimes, the advice I gave would be more networking and planning focused, such as suggestions around how to start shortlisting their top companies, and speaking to the right people in the industry to broaden their network.
One of my highlights during the programme was the Organisational Behaviour course. The professor, Daniel Effron, was brilliant and taught us a lot about what motivates people and how to get the most out of your teams. He led some really memorable, practical lectures. For example, he wanted to teach us how much better it is to give a people a clear goal in order to achieve something, so we did an exercise where we had to hold a muscle ball in our hands and keep crunching it for as long as we possibly could. We realised that the people who didn’t go first, and had a three-and-a-half minute goal in mind, performed better than those with no goal to start off with. The idea was that if we didn’t have that target, we would have given up much earlier. So that was a really interesting message that he managed to get across to us in a memorable fashion.
I also loved the brand management module. The word ‘brand’ is quite nebulous but, having come from a consumer product background, it was useful for me to have a framework to understand what a brand really is. It was the first course we had to do remotely because of COVID-19 restrictions, but it was brilliant.
The programme was incredibly diverse; I think only around 8-10% of the 500-strong MBA cohort was British. I was constantly meeting people that were very different to me and came from other backgrounds and industries. There were lots of people with opposing viewpoints that made it a very interesting place to be. It was great in classes; with 80 people in the room there was always someone who had experience or an example of the topic at hand. For example, I remember doing a case study about a hotel’s operational management and then someone in my stream started talking about their previous work consulting for hotels, which validated the class and made the example case study all the more relevant and tangible to real life.
I currently work as the Senior Manager of Pricing Strategy for Asda. I started my role with them in May 2021. I exited the MBA slightly earlier than some of my peers because the role ticked a number of requirements I was looking for; it involves running a team, and it contributes to setting strategy for Asda - one of the largest UK supermarkets. For me, doing the MBA wasn’t about changing industry; I went into it knowing what I liked. But I wanted more of a leadership role in my current industry, so I was lucky to get that role with Asda relatively quickly.
I wouldn’t have got the role if it hadn’t been for my London Business School network. One of the school’s alums introduced me to the right people at Asda so I had an ‘in’. I’d found them on the London Business School hub; I fired off a few messages to people that looked interesting, and I had two or three really good conversations with alums from that database.
The Career Centre at London Business School was great and I used it a lot. I spoke to Alyona Segline, the career coach specialist for my industry. She was really helpful as she could give me ideas around the types of companies to look into and even contacts to approach, so that was great from a practical perspective.
I also worked with some of the other coaches at the Career Centre that coach you on behavioural skills. I used them for interview prep, and asked them to look at my CV and help me tailor it to different jobs. At times when I was feeling a bit lost in my job search, just having a chat to help me get back on track was always helpful. I think it’s great that there is such a strong support network to help you when you’re feeling like you don’t know what to do next. I also spoke to the Career Centre about the role at Asda and had some coaching from them for the interview. It all moved quite quickly but I was already in a good space, having done so much interview practise with them before.
I also made lots of new friends during the MBA that I’m still in touch with. It’s nice to know that if you’re looking for new opportunities, there’s a whole community of people out there that would be up for meeting for a coffee. You feel like your professional world has vastly expanded!
The MBA teaches you a lot of things about a lot of different subjects, and gives you a really broad understanding of what exists in each area. It gives you a new mental toolkit in terms of how to solve problems. You obviously don’t come out of the MBA an expert in every field of business, but it does open up new avenues.
The MBA gave me an innate confidence that I can solve whatever problem is thrown at me. Before the MBA, I might have been presented with a financial problem and thought: ‘I’ve never worked in finance and I’m not an accountant, so I don’t know how to solve this’. But now, I don’t have that tendency to say no. Instead, I have the confidence to say yes and know that I’ll find the answer. I’ll either remember something I learned during the MBA or I’ll know someone who can help me solve it. So it’s given me new tools and new contacts to help me with lots of different kinds of problems.
In my future career, I’d like to progress in my current industry. I’m not sure whether that will take me to leading a very small company or being a Director of a large one, but I definitely do know that I want to stay in the retail and consumer space, and take on more commercial responsibility, growing something exciting. It’s hard to make lots of future plans in the pandemic but I think as long as you keep reflecting and building your skills, and make sure that you’re learning, then you’re moving in the right direction. So watch this space.