The Power of Three
written by : Caroline Scotter Mainprize
Deb-B Seven Chew reflects on her experience of participating in three Oxford executive education programmes back-to-back.
Deb-B is an investor, advisor and mentor with a portfolio of around 60 companies, retail, direct and wholesale, big and small. She has a particular focus on supporting start-ups and mentoring and coaching entrepreneurs and young people.
Already highly qualified in finance, it was her mentoring activities that prompted her to look for an executive education programme at Oxford.
‘I realised that if I really wanted to help these people grow their businesses and restructure properly, I would have to “upgrade” myself. I found the Oxford–Chicago Valuation Programme and knew that it was something I wanted to do. But the thought of coming all the way to Oxford from Australia for one week was daunting.’
She decided that the answer was to make it a longer stay and so looked for another suitable programme to apply to. ‘The Private Equity Programme was a fairly obvious partner to Valuation, and in between the two was Negotiation,’ she said.
At first, it might not seem a natural fit, but if you think about it, everything about business is about negotiation. As a business advisor and investor, I negotiate with the Board; I negotiate with the shareholders – it’s all about bringing people together to an agreement. Valuation itself is a negotiation – there is no right or wrong or single fixed “value”.’
So in June 2018, Deb-B rented an AirB&B property in the middle of Oxford and walked to Oxford Saïd to start the Valuation Programme. Three weeks later, this is what she observed about the experience:
It’s a tough work-out for the brain
The first day of the first programme (Oxford–Chicago Valuation Programme) was the toughest. I went into the second day feeling really worried, convinced that my brain did not work at all! I won’t say that it gets easier, but you get used to the feeling of being stretched and made to think in lots of different ways.
You very quickly get better at learning. There is a lot of information in the programmes, and at first, you feel as if you have to absorb all of it.
But then you realise that effective learning comes from making connections and picking up on the ideas that strike you as different or that you are going to be able to use in the future.
Some of those ideas turn out to be really powerful and change the way you think and act.
You learn most from the other participants
On one level, I found the Private Equity Programme quite ‘easy’, as it’s what I do every day. But the value in the programme came less from what Tim Jenkinson was teaching than from the contributions he teased out of the rest of the class. The different approaches and experiences they talked about were absolutely fascinating.
It was the same with the other two programmes, although I was also learning on a formal basis. In the Valuation Programme, participants were all in the finance field but offered diverse viewpoints. There were people from banking and private equity as well as some lawyers, which was useful: a pension fund and an M&A lawyer have radically different perspectives.
The Programme on Negotiation was perhaps the most diverse of the three in terms of the different sectors that were represented – we had not only business people but people negotiating in the political sphere, in courtrooms, and in a variety of challenging contexts.
It was intriguing, of course, but also useful when it came down to transferable skills and techniques – and those that turned out to be precisely the same in whatever sector you were dealing with.
Forming networks comes naturally
The Valuation Programme had 51 participants from 37 countries. I was finding it hard to remember who everyone was and to keep track of the conversations we were having.
So about half way through the programme, I set up a group on Whatsapp. We had dinner together and were able to extend the conversations we were having in class.
When I went into the Negotiation Programme someone else had the same idea, although they were a bit quicker at it than I had been – the group formed on the second day.
I found these groups so useful, and such a good way of keeping in touch both during and after the programme that I set up a Private Equity group on the very first day.
You need to build in time for reflection
I had three very intensive weeks in Oxford and came away with some clear action points that I could implement immediately. But I also knew that I had to give myself time to reflect and think more deeply about what I had learnt. I was making subconscious connections all the time during the programmes: I needed to allow time for these to surface.
Everything comes down to value.
My Oxford experience has taught me that there is more to finance than numbers and that everything ultimately comes down to the concept of value.
This is hugely subjective: even when looking at a company, we don’t talk about ‘the’ valuation but about ‘my’ valuation. And the negotiation programme was all about identifying what concessions you could make over things that were perhaps of little value to you but highly valued by the person you were negotiating with. How could everyone feel that they had ‘won’?
So when we are looking at a financial model, we should think about how to structure things so that the entire business will add value for everyone. And it’s not about buying and selling or adding up the finances but thinking about value in the broader sense – the value of relationships or data, for example – which does eventually translate into financial value.
Three weeks is about the limit!
By the end of the third programme, I had almost lost my voice. I had a tonne of notes, and my head was full of ideas. I don’t think I could have taken in any more. But I had a long flight back and time to sort out my thinking – and, of course, three groups of new contacts whom I knew I could call on for advice, inspiration, and reminders of our time in Oxford. Studying at Oxford had always been on my ‘bucket list’; I’ve now checked it off three times over.