Steven McIntosh




Cayman Islands


Recruitment & HR Consulting


Jan 2019 - Sept 2020

By Steven McIntosh

The five things I learned in my first year in Oxford

Following on from the success of my long running, two-part “five things I learned in…” blog series, I thought a year into my Oxford EMBA would be a good time to pause, reflect, and, if I may be so bold, impart some more timeless wisdom to new EMBAs peering into the mist to the path far ahead.

Here’s a taste of what’s in store for year two.  You’re welcome.

1. Dress code shmess code

While prim, proper and polished may be de rigueur in the first week, you’ll be amazed how far standards have fallen by the start of the second year.  You and your classmates will be so at home in the Thatcher Wing of the Business School you’ll be schlepping around in flannel shirts, old sweatpants and comfy slippers, eating KFC at your desks and breaking wind with alacrity.  Any day now, I expect to see someone clipping their toenails in class.

This is not what I thought they meant when they said we’d become like a family.

2. Pareto’s law of friendships

Whether romantic, corporate or familial in nature, the evolution of human relationships always follows the same arc: first you try to impress them, then you start to be yourself, then you stop giving a sh*t what they think.

Rigorous anecdotal research suggests that pretension among new EMBAs has a half-life of around six months on average.  By the start of year two, only the most highly motivated sociopaths are still hiding their true selves from the rest of the class.

What this means is that you’ve figured most people out, as they have you.  You’ll be spending 80% of your free time with the same 20% of your classmates and the other 20% of your free time looking for a bathroom that’s less busy than the RoadChef at Watford Gap services or trying to print a document in the “Executive Suite” – basically a form of corporate escape room that – once located – requires a series of codes, lucky breaks, and a team of three or more classmates, to negotiate.

Here’s a fun game for new EMBAs – look around the room of 70 strangers and write down your best guess as to who in the class will become your lifelong friends, who will write a ground-breaking book about HR and career advancement, who will lead a coup d’etat with a rag-tag group of exiled revolutionaries, who will spend most of their time in class playing competitive online chess (World of Warcraft seems to be blocked), and who will end up living alone with seven cats in a fetid Headingley bed-sit, crossing people off the class graduation photo with a big red sharpie.

Compare notes in the pub at the end of the first year to have a good laugh about the ones you got wrong!  Assuming you’re not too busy feeding your cats.

3. Peak EMBA

In marathons they call it “the wall” – when your body is completely depleted of glycogen and simply begins to shut down.  I don’t know how this can happen to someone that eats so many Percy Pig Phizzy Pigtails, but I’m not a nutritionist and the struggle is real my friends.

Be warned: the wall comes during the six weeks in between the accounting and finance exams also known as “peak EMBA”, a psychological roller-coaster during which you will run the gamut of emotions all the way from total complacency (that past paper was a dawdle), through despair (is having “half an MBA” a thing?), to acute buyer’s remorse (I paid HOW MUCH for THIS?!).

Negative self-talk like this will get you nowhere.  Neither will negative talk to other people, such as my wife, who continually reminded me of everything we’d invested so far to achieve this zen-like level of exhaustion.  Instead, try manning/womanning up, buckling down, and learning the 50 things you need to know to pass the exam, one at a time.  Remind yourself that nothing worth having comes easy.  You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.

You will emerge from this period exhausted but elated, having stretched yourself far beyond the level you thought possible – like a Bikram yoga class for your brain.

Just make sure you drink plenty of water the next day to flush out the free-floating radical finance thoughts and other toxins accumulated during the apres-exam debrief at the Oxford Retreat.  And if that doesn’t work, try asking Dr Cross for a lollipop, he normally has some on hand.

4. Travelology 101

You may not become an expert in accounting or finance, but if you are among the 80% of EMBA students travelling from overseas, you will definitely become an expert in international air travel.

Here are some top tips from a now-seasoned traveller:

– Check the price of your flights is roughly the same whether your trip originates at home or in London.  I only found out a year in that the exact same flights were $500 cheaper originating in London.  I booked a one way on air-miles and the rest of my round trips “starting” with the homebound leg.

– Leave a roll-aboard bag containing your sub-fusc, tuxedo and a proper pillow in Oxford.  Oxford is one of the few places in the world you need an emergency tuxedo.  Trust me on the pillow.

– Text books for… ahem… certain classes… may, it turns out, be left in your locker to save both several pounds from your luggage allowance, hours of intense boredom and spirit-crushing feelings of inadequacy.  (Don’t worry, the profs will drop subtle hints such as “I don’t know why we give you this book”).

– Avoid chronic scoliosis, sleep deprivation, malnutrition and near-certain infamy as coronavirus patient zero in your place of residence, by simply finding a highly paid job in the London area and taking the train to EMBA modules instead.

5. Entrepreneurial-schism

While game theory is covered in depth during the Firms and Markets module, the practical comes later while forming your groups for the EP (Entrepreneurial Project), when alliances form and fragment like week one in the Big Brother house, only with less canoodling in the hot tub.  Honestly, I’m not even sure SBS has a hot tub.  It’s probably in the Executive Suite, once you’ve beaten it on expert level.

Anyway, here are some tips to ensure EP success and avoid being the kid picked last in gym class.

First, decide whether or not you have a winning idea for an app.   If so, you may want to build your own EP team.  I don’t mean from spare robot parts in the OSI lab, I mean out of project-less classmates. Don’t worry about the quality – by the time you’ve decided what you’re doing, all the good ones will have been snapped up.

Don’t worry if your coding is rusty or turning on your standard-issue Casio calculator tested your technical capability to its limit.  Many successful tech entrepreneurs just like you had no idea what they were doing when they first started out and were saved only by their hard work, their ingenuity, their Ivy League contact network and their parents’ extraordinary wealth.  I guess what I’m saying is you just need to believe in yourself.

If you don’t have a good idea for an app, you have two choices.  Use one of your bad ideas OR join the team of someone else with a bad idea, because by the time you’ve decided what you’re doing, all the groups with good ideas will already be full.

I’m exaggerating for satirical effect of course.  In reality I couldn’t be happier with my EP group, and the app we’re working on will make us very rich and make the world a better place… or doggone it, we’ll bankrupt investors trying.

So that’s the view from around a year in.  Just the run to go.  With any luck I’ll be rounding out this series with five more insightful lessons from EMBA life before we know it.

And you never know, I may have learned a thing or two about business along the way.

Christ Church, Oxford University

Oxford’s University Church, surrounded by some of the sharpest cobblestones known to man. The Deacons believed they would protect the church from stiletto-heeled wedding guests. You certainly don’t see much confetti in the streets, so it seems to be working.

Inside Brasenose College Chapel.

Inside Brasenose College Chapel. What Oxford students wore in winter before the invention of college-emblazoned puffer jackets (models’ own), God alone knows.

Balliol and Brasenose puffer jackets

I must say in my opinion Balliol’s relatively simple emblem design (left) has the better of Brasenose’s (right) which has enough symbology to fill several pages of intriguing plot in a Dan Brown page-turner.

The Ashmolean Museum, Randolph Hotel and The Martyr's Memorial in Oxford

Three landmarks for the price of one. The Ashmolean Museum, where it all began, on the right. The Randolph Hotel, renowned as England’s worst five-star hotel, on the left. The Martyr’s Memorial in between, which commemorates the many brave people that lost their lives crossing Oxford’s busiest junction to see it. In the foreground (bottom right) you can just make out the top of one of Oxford’s ubiquitous “Caution: Men at Work” road signs.

Steve McIntosh and Conan O'Brien at the Oxford Union

Pictured here at the Oxford Union with late night star Conan O’Brien on the same day Mick Mulvaney, then White House Chief of Staff, made headlines in the US with his free-wheeling remarks at the Union.  Two hugely memorable talks by a pair of real jokers.

While my wife pointed out that my outfit appears to have been inspired by the old man in the Pixar movie Up (top right), Mick Mulvaney’s seems to have been inspired by the bad guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark.


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