“We board a plane for 20 hours and wake up in a world that is completely different from what we are used to. The language, the way business is conducted is different (and frankly so is the food), and you have no choice but to produce a result. Talk about learning; Talk about being uncomfortable.
That is how Josh Mitchell, a Kelley Direct online MBA student, describes his feelings after completing two global immersion trips through our AGILE program. AGILE, which stands for Accelerating Global Immersion Leadership Education, sends Kelley Direct MBA students to emerging markets around the globe once every quarter to develop leadership skills and cultural intelligence.Josh’s last trip was in spring of 2014, when he joined a group of other online MBA students in Myanmar (formerly Burma) to sharpen his business analysis, marketing, finance and management consulting skills while working with small businesses there.
The students who went on this Myanmar trip were divided into four groups; each group consulted one of four local businesses who had partnered with our program. There was a logistics and supply chain company, an accounting and financial services firm, a chemical and flavorings company, and a mapping and environmental assessment company.
Our MBA Students Were Pleasantly Surprised By What They Experienced in Myanmar
From 1962 until 2011, Burma was tightly ruled by a military dictatorship. It was a closed economy—meaning they had almost no interaction with the outside world—particularly the democratic West. Given the country’s history, students expected to see a struggling economy. Quazi Fawad, one of the other students on the same trip thought he would encounter runaway poverty and crime, a bureaucratic system and a lack of infrastructure and optimism before he arrived in Myanmar. What he found instead was a polite and helpful people who were optimistic about business in their country. There were no obvious signs of crime, but the signs of wealth were plentiful.
Spending time with the business owners further dispelled some of the students’ preconceived notions about Myanmar and often surprised them. Quazi had this to say about the business owners he worked with:
“The amazing degree of sophistication and their willingness to follow along academic models and ask detailed questions surprised me. One of the biggest challenges was that our client was already using many of the tools that we wanted to propose. So we had to find a real gap in their capabilities to provide real value.
Their willingness to share information and help each other was also surprising. Our client and others were very close to their employees. The hierarchy was present, but it was not visible.”
Tips for Conducting Business in Myanmar
The week-long immersion in Myanmar enabled the students who went with them to internalize what they read and heard about the country in the weeks preceding the trip. Here are some of Quazi and Josh’s takeaways from this AGILE trip about doing business in Myanmar:
1. A strong relationship matters more than formal agreements. Taking an interest in their culture is the best place to start. Exchange gifts.
2. Banking and international transfer of money is still antiquated. Many local businesses operate a branch in Singapore to avoid the problems.
3. The workforce is loyal and respectful; they should be treated as a family rather than as a commodity.
4. Partner with a local – relationships and local knowledge win here.
5. Be wary: Contracts and agreements are based on personal word of honor and are hard to enforce in courts.
6. Many ‘standard’ items in the West will be new to the Burmese – gaining acceptance of ‘foreign practices’ is a challenge and an opportunity. A perfect example is that there are four types of financial statements per company there.
7. Be patient. Myanmar is a ‘soft sell’ culture (i.e. slower to act) and westerners who are used to getting to quick results can be frustrated.
AGILE Rewards MBA Students With Global Connections and Professional Growth
Although the majority of the trip was focused on the consulting and presentations the students gave to the business owners at the end of the week, they came away with much more. Josh was able to make real connections with the people he met in Myanmar and had this to say about his experience:
“The most rewarding part of the experience is when I was able to let go of everything I was taught about ‘bucketing people’. As Americans, we take cultural sensitivity courses on how we should act. Scrapping all this training on what I ‘ought to do’ with people freed me to just listen; that’s how you connect to another human whether American, Asian, African, or European. Let go of the need of listening to respond but rather listened to learn.
When I was able to sit in front of the client and see her as a human being who desperately wants to see her business succeed, I quickly realized this common goal was enough for a connection. This commonality allowed for a flight to authenticity which is where leadership lives. Leadership is meeting people where they are and focusing on a goal bigger than any of us as individuals. This is rewarding for me because my connection to the client and the project became something that was deeply emotional and less transactional.”Not only do our students gain cultural awareness and international connections, but they have consistently shown that they are able to apply what they learn in their AGILE trips to the workplace. Quazi has already received tangible benefits in his career:
“This experience has taught me to be comfortable with ambiguity, welcome the unexpected and improve my communication skills – especially in business settings. What I learned during my Myanmar trip was instrumental to my recent promotion from an engineering role to a Technology Strategy Leadership role at Cummins.”We’ll conclude this post with final thoughts from Josh and some pictures from Quazi:
“The AGILE experiences have changed me; I was uncomfortable and vulnerable. Watching the human spirit unleash unlimited creativity and potential through economic systems that literally raise millions out of poverty every year is what AGILE is about. AGILE puts you on fertile soil to see the seeds being planted with your own eyes. Your MBA training provides the tools needed to plant the seeds but it is your spirit that allows you to dig the first hole. The first step is believing in yourself and boarding that plane.”
About Josh Mitchell
Josh Mitchell was recently promoted to an Associate Director role of Culture and Communications at a biotech company in New York City. Over the last 11 years of his professional experience, he has worked in Banking in Learning and Development, sales, M&A, and strategy. His roles have been global and he has lived internationally multiple times. He lives and loves working in New York City, and is an avid fan of the beach, cars, and investing in real estate.
About Quazi Fawad
Quazi Fawad is a Tech Strategy and Innovation Project Leader at Cummins Inc. who has 12 year experience in a variety of customer facing and problem solving roles. His basic training (Bachelors and Masters) is in Mechanical engineering. Engineering – according to Quazi – is a social sport, so making the transition into a business facing role and earning an MBA was the logical next step for him.