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James Smith

Degree:

EMBA

Location:

United States

Industry:

Real Estate

Year:

Jan 2020 – Sept 2022

By James Smith

Expectations…

January 20, 2020, 5:00 am, I wake up in a simple but nice room in a Marriott, not substantially unlike any other of the many I’ve woken up in around the world, in Oxford city centre.

I put on the kettle and take down two cups of instant coffee along with a bottle of water in the next thirty minutes as I stretch and generally gather myself after the long haul flight that landed yesterday morning and an uneventful afternoon of getting some water, snacks and the like. Time to take a jog and explore this place! I’d been here years ago, saw the covered market but mostly was just visiting a specialist in antique restoration just outside the city, so this was to be my first real exploration, albeit pre-dawn. The chill in the air was bracing, and the cold mist a welcome feeling on my face. I ended up slowly jogging around, weaving through this magical place for nearly two hours, never really knowing where I was going but never really feeling lost. It was a welcome change from my Brooklyn jogs, and I had plenty of anxious excitement to burn off.

The night before had been a whirlwind of introductions and ‘why are you here’ stories. The morning activity calmed my mind and equally, opened it to the wealth of opportunity ahead. Back at the hotel I showered and got dressed and met up with a few cohort members in an unexpected way in the lobby (acknowledged by our lanyards and badges) and we walked over to the business school. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the bright, crisp day and the feeling of anticipation I hadn’t felt in years. On entering the lecture hall, the immense sense of pride at simply seeing my name printed on the same piece of paper that also bore the University of Oxford logo. This much-anticipated experience was happening!

That first day and module were terrific. I met people of a character and calibre that one is lucky to meet just a few of in their lifetime; here I was sitting with, having coffee with, dining with over seventy. My mind was truly blown. That amount of talent, knowledge, experience and dare I say wisdom in one room is something that I simply cannot articulate in written word. As an American, I was aware of WhatsApp, but it was never really a ‘thing’ – now, for better or worse, it’s a fixture in my life. The communication started early and has only grown, and you know what? What a blessing!

The second module in February was much like the first, though this time it felt like old friends meeting up even though we had spent a total of seven days together. This feeling is probably a testament to WhatsApp and also our genuine appreciation of each other as travellers on a common road. Our wonderfully rigorous and articulate, but thankfully light-hearted Analytics course came to a close, and we received our first assessment prompt. It was challenging in the way one would expect of Oxford, and the course left me feeling well prepared for the challenge.

Then, things went horribly, horribly awry…

Our India module in March shifted to the following year, and then we went online. I was able to collaborate with a few other American cohort members, and we got together in Washington DC in May, Miami in June and Rhinebeck, NY, in July. We were staying positive, at least a few of us could get together, we could manage a few of these. Then the September module came. Hybrid became a ‘thing’ – I cleared the decks workwise to be able to do everything remotely, rearranged my parenting schedule, and spent a month in the UK to attend in person. It felt so good to be back; it was like a fresh start; The experience reinvigorated me. At the same time, the workload was piling up. Between work and the sheer volume of assessments and reading it was full-on. Nonetheless, seeing about half of the remaining cohort in person was therapeutic in an indescribable way.

In October, I could not manage the quarantine timeline from a schedule perspective so tuned in from New York. Unless we get some rapid testing protocols in place relatively quickly, I will gather that November will be the same. All the while, more cohort members are deferring, and our collective global struggle with this pandemic goes on.

So hopefully, that narrative bringing us to today wasn’t too dull, but perhaps you’re wondering, “why is this guy writing this?” Well, I simply wanted to share some things I’ve learned over a few years, and maybe they’re useful, perhaps they make you pause and reflect, or maybe you’ll at least find my ramblings amusing.

Back in the early 2000s, I was part of an acquisition and merger, as a senior manager of the acquiree. I was bullish on the endeavour and was rather heavy-handed with my employees in suggesting they get on board. I was pulled aside by our President and given some words of wisdom that have stuck with me. What was imparted to me was that in turbulent times, people react in different ways and you need to let them do that and work with what they want to bring to the table rather than try to control what they’re bringing. In other words, everyone deals with difficult situations differently; trying to control what anyone else does is futile. Controlling how you respond to what they come with is something you can and should do. I hope I’ve held up my promise to myself from that day forward and my cohort members, regardless of what they’ve decided to do given these strange times, have felt my support.

Another anecdote that comes to mind happened some four or five years after that event at a different company, as a director hired as part of a divisional change management initiative, I was facing seemingly unsolvable problems. Thankfully, we eventually solved them. However, it wasn’t through some incredible stroke of genius or some previously overlooked easy remedy. The truth is, it was just showing up every day, consistently working on one little piece at a time and not letting go of yesterday’s wins. Those wins could be strategic and related to the operating systems but just as likely they were tiny mental wins, like overcoming a mundane piece of bureaucracy. They all counted, and they became a mental war chest to refer to when things felt insurmountable. This mental accounting is what I do now, every assessment completed, every lecture seen, even if on-screen it gets added to the repository. These are all things I haven’t done before; they’re not necessarily delivered or executed how I expected, but steadily, consistently, they get done.

Which brings us to perhaps the point of this piece, the concept of ‘expectation.’ Wow, that’s a hard one, because you know what? The current paradigm is not even remotely; I mean not even in the furthest corner of the universe what I expected my Oxford experience to be. As a middle-aged person, finally achieving entrance to a programme such as this, looking to expand my mind and horizons, I can categorically tell you, this version of the experience was not remotely on my radar. So, defer, right? Well, for me, no. Maybe I’m delusional, but in some strange way, this falls in line with the final piece of thought I will share.

I’ve heard this over the years many times, and I think it came up again in one of our Leadership Fundamentals lectures. You know what you know, you know what you don’t know, you don’t know what you don’t know. And that’s just it, as we say in the States, this is the ‘wild west’. I do not even know what anything that is happening means, how this is going to work out, I mean I know nothing. This whole pandemic experience is firmly in the don’t know what I don’t know realm. The funny thing is, if you step back, as relates to our experience, I have no way to tell you whether it’s positive or negative, I can only honestly say, I don’t know. In that little twist, I find excitement, hope, and the will to press forward. In my experience, the most significant risk and the most fantastic opportunity lie in the unknown. The risk is obvious; you’re foregoing a known thing, but why opportunity? I think because when things are obscure, when you’re travelling in genuinely uncharted territory, you blaze the trail. The narrative, the result, all of it, it’s on you and your partners on the journey. I have great faith in my partners, and I am looking forward to figuring out what this all means with those who feel the same way. I think (or rather hope) we’re the only ones that will ever have to figure out how to navigate this particular set of obstacles. To my way of thinking, that’s what brings this full circle. Indeed, my Oxford experience will not just be a pinnacle event in my life, but perhaps a truly unique and singular experience in ways I never imagined, and to me, there is value in that.

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