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First class

The University of Gloucestershire embarked on a new programme in 2003 – the first ever MBA dedicated to family business. It's been a success, from both the students' points of view as well as the university's and the inaugural class has achieved the highest grade point average of any MBA group at the university thus far. Suzy Bibko had a chance to chat with the students and the course's director, John Tucker, about the programme.

For many people, the decision to return to the academic world is quite difficult. Why did you decide to do go on this course at this point in your life?
Student 1: I spent several years yearning to get back to learning and searching for an MBA. This coincided with attending a three-day course with John Tucker on family business. I have a family business background and I found I had great empathy for an area of business advice and support that I hadn't realised was there before. None of the other MBA courses clicked like this one.

Student 2: It was really through my association with John Tucker. Having been in a family business this helped me focus on what I really wanted to do – work with family businesses. I felt that I had something to bring to the relationship and this would be the ideal vehicle to gain qualifications in the field.

Student 3: I am the youngest in the family business that I run with my dad and brother. We got to the point where we were growing the business and had more employees. I was coming into the office more often and found that although I understood what was going on I was making heavy weather of it. I didn't have the confidence, being the youngest brother, to be able to dictate policy or whatever, which was desperately needed. Every time I tried to do something, it was like reinventing the wheel. I met John Tucker and thought that if I could dedicate my time to such a course and wasn't dragged away from my work commitments, I should be able to do it. However, I didn't know what I was getting myself into. I don't have any professional qualifications and no professional management skills (to a degree). But the course has been more than I would ever have expected. Absolutely first class. And it's helping me, helping me in my work, helping me to be a bit more restrained, a bit more thoughtful and a lot less frustrated.

Student 4: I think there are some real benefits to gain for my own family business and I hope to try and apply a professional management approach to my business. That's part of the reason. But also I worked in a corporate company for 15 years and family business consulting was an area I was very interested in down the line.

Student 5: For me, it was really a Business Link article about this new course. The focus of the article was more on families than on the MBA. John and his consulting group were mentioned in the article so I spoke to John and found out that this was the kind of course that would teach me a lot about family members having roles in business.

How is the course structured?
John Tucker: We can't do the traditional MBA group approach with this course. The students are geographically very diverse, and the time spent under one roof is two-three days every six weeks. It's 80% self study.

Student 4: But there is a sort of study group, where a group of us try to work together every Friday. It's worked very well. You get a lot out of it even though it is only once a week.

Student 5: I think in an ideal world that I'd like to have more study groups. I think it would help a lot. We just can't do it with this group on this type of course. The university is trying to attract certain people – those working in a business or who are highly instrumental in a business – and that means your time is dominated by a normal work week.

Student 2: Size-wise, too, it can't be too big. For one of the first modules, we were in with the 'normal' MBA group, and the whole dynamic of the group totally changed. It was an environment of "this is what we're going to tell you" rather than interacting with one another.

John Tucker: It was interesting to see. Because up until that point they had been into sharing ideas, and in this class with the other MBA students, it just stopped.

So, on this course, do you share stories on what you've learned?
Student 3: Yes. It's constant interruptions. Everyone has something to bring to the table. One of the lecturers remarked that it should be a very interesting course, since we all have ideas and opinions – lots of sharing of experiences.

Do you get to shape the courses at all? I'm sure there's a basic structure, but does the class take a certain theme because of what you're discussing as a group?
Student 1: Yes. For the next module, the lecturer will ask if there's something we'd like to concentrate on and what form of delivery it should take.

Has the course helped you become more professional in other aspects?
Student 3: For a lot of us, our assignments have gone to someone in the company as a report. They are to take it home, read it, digest it, discuss it.

Has it been well received by ­people at work? Or do they say, oh dear, things are changing?
Student 2: I think it's a combination. And sometimes it will mean that we're all learning (employees and employer). I'll ask for their opinions or help when putting an assignment together. It's a group thing, not just me imposing my will.
Student 3: But not all of them accept it outright. Before, I was always giving them information, but maybe not structured in this way.

Would you recommend the course to others, especially other family members in your business?
John Tucker: I think it has to be the right person; a gut feeling about somebody. They need to be able to cope, to be able get through with the right support, able to make a contribution and take something away from it. For many people I've met, that's not the case. If you can't give, you won't survive. Also, one thing the tutors have said about this group is that they turn up on time. That might sound very crass and simple, but it's important. I think that if you join a group like this, you have a responsibility to the other members of the group.

Student 3: The average score for this group is higher than for all the other students on MBA courses at the university. It gives you a sense of responsibility to gaining a respectable score. If I think I'm going to get a low score, then I know that it will lower the average score of the whole group – something I don't want to do. And that's an additional pressure, but it's real.

Have all your expectations been met so far?
Student 4: It's very difficult to stand back from what you do on a day-to-day basis, to see other ways of doing things, because you've always done it that way. But with the course, you learn different approaches to certain situations.

Student 3: And being in business for yourself, you don't really have people around you who are particularly good at 'consulting'. You don't always bring in people at a higher level who have the authority to tell you how you should run your own business. And when you become very attached to something, it's often very difficult to ask for help.

Student 5: Initially I thought the course was interesting, but it wasn't necessarily contributing to the way the business was running. But as time has gone on, I've changed my view. It's only now that I realise I've been bumbling through business rather than doing a good job. I guess I may have thought that I ought to have been doing things acertain way, but never formulating it properly – or actually applying it. Now, I formulate things.

Student 1: The course encourages you to change. Everything you do suddenly makes you stop and think, is there another way? Should I learn more about this before making a decision?

Student 5: My expectations have been exceeded. I didn't expect the course to be so useful. Having been away from academic life and in business, you tend to think, "What could they teach me?" The answer is, "Quite a bit". 

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