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Leadership PhD personal statement

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  • Published: 15th June 2021
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Background to my application

My motivation for undertaking this doctorate programme is underpinned by a deep and persistent longing to learn. I believe education is not about competition and getting to the top (contrary to the message I was given by the schools I attended in India) but about building knowledge and skills, developing mental and intellectual capability and connecting with other people. My past educational experiences have always been tied to professional ambitions – my MBA was essentially a race to get into the job market and climb the ladder – and I missed not having the opportunity to really enjoy and focus on the learning process itself.

Although studying with an experienced and diverse cohort during my MBA gave me a taste of this, it was short-lived, as it was a one year program and securing a job was my priority at the time. Having reached a relatively stable career path, pursuing a professional doctorate would offer me the chance to realise my full intellectual potential and discover new aspects of myself.

I see the Ashridge Doctorate as a long-term personal quest. As it helps me critically evaluate and enhance my professional knowledge, it will also contribute to my overall personal development. In particular, I would like to enhance my ability to construct and articulate an original concept, my writing and analytical skills and to become an expert in the area that I have chosen.

Objectives – professional and academic

My short-term career objective is to take full advantage of the doctorate programme from Ashridge to fine-tune my research skills, while continuing to develop professional experience in management consulting. The opportunity to engage in and develop inquiries in the first two years of the doctorate programme will be valuable in my current work which involves rigorous analysis of markets and business models and leading the team to generate a set of strategies that are effective for the business. This would give me an edge as an experienced practitioner and will create a network of clients and professionals across many business areas.

In the long term, I plan to combine what I have learnt on the doctorate programme with my skills and management experience and build an effective consulting expertise in organisational culture and innovation. My consulting experience will focus on facilitating companies to create a high performance culture and address fundamental strategy, including the key relationships between their actions and context.

The opportunity to benefit from a network of academic professionals and take advantage of interacting with an experienced cohort would be invaluable to my long-term career. The Ashridge Doctorate provides an opportunity to work with professionals from across the globe and gain insights into diverse working cultures and practices, which will strengthen both my Doctorate thesis and my consulting experience. I am used to working individually on projects, however the prospect of working alongside a highly qualified peer group and course supervisors is highly appealing.

I am keen to expand the knowledge and research methods that I acquired during my MBA and to build on my journey as a lifetime learner. I intend to make use of acquiring a higher level of research methods to publish influential papers in my area of research.

By the end of the Doctorate programme, I would like to attain a level of mastery that is highly appreciated by organisations and communities in my field. I aspire to develop original thinking in the subject area and to articulate findings in a professional and academic context. I believe the Ashridge Doctorate would enable me to achieve this as it will give me the skills and knowledge needed to critically evaluate and enhance my professional practice and further my intellectual capacity. The doctorate will provide a structure to my development process and will integrate rigorous action research with my day-to-day work.

Research Interests and Field

According to statistics, three quarters of America’s current top 500 companies won’t exist in 2027. Which means, 75% of the leading companies will be those that we haven’t yet heard of. In this fast-changing environment, flexibility and adaptation are virtues valued far greater than robustness. Yet, what we often hear from businesses globally are statements such as ‘this is the way we’ve always done it, and it’s the way we’ll keep doing it’. Most of the time this attitude obstructs innovation, learning and structural changes to business models that are needed to adapt to modern-day challenges and create value over time.

Using the skills and knowledge gained during the doctorate programme, I aim to develop a clear and concise understanding of the factors that influence a culture that promotes innovation, especially in a family business setting. My research would focus on analysing how one can manage creativity effectively in the process of generating high potential ideas and converting them into disruptive business models that are most relevant in today’s climate.

In my current role as an Internal Consultant and Business Development Director for DB Capital, I am leading the development and implementation of product and market strategy, for two ventures in India.

DB Capital is an India based family run SME and a core investment company incorporated to streamline investments into group companies. The founders are pursuing multiple projects simultaneously, including a one-of-its-kind wellness project in collaboration with the Isha Foundation, a UN recognised, international non-profit health and well-being organisation, and an innovative financial technology product focused at Indian professionals residing overseas.

Like many family-run businesses in India, DB Capital is transitioning from a traditional family run business to a perpetual enterprise. The founders have been successful in their previous businesses, leveraging on their family ties and political connections in the region. Their earlier businesses were in unorganised sectors, such as real estate and film production, and this is the first time they are venturing into high growth modern businesses aimed at international consumers.

I have enjoyed working with the founders who are highly entrepreneurial and passionate about the products. However there has been a significant delay in rolling out the projects and the implementation of plans. An initial challenge proved to be the founders’ overly ambitious vision; for example proposing a 300-room luxury wellness retreat, versus the recommended size of 150 rooms. In addition, the management team has a tendency to underestimate the necessary resources and formal capabilities required to execute the projects.

The business environment in India and globally has evolved drastically in the past decade and the strengths of business families that were key a decade ago, such as political connections, are becoming less relevant today. Young and innovative companies such as Flipkart and Snapdeal, which have joined the billion dollar valuation club, are rewriting the rules of business in India and posing a serious challenge to traditional family run businesses. In the current dynamic market conditions, it is of the utmost importance that companies build a business model focused at delivering high customer value proposition and align their resources accordingly.

Establishing such coherent, resilient capabilities and behaviours is essential and I have been working with the executive team to embed key practices to achieve this. However, this has been a frustrating and challenging process and I am interested in exploring this issue as part of the Doctorate program.

I have had a range of personal and professional experience of bringing together people from different cultures and backgrounds in various settings, which I can draw on to inform my research. In business, I have been able to work closely with senior/executive management team including the CEO, presidents and CFO and to have experience of leading teams of multinational staff, many of whom are working in non-native countries and are trying to introduce a ‘home-grown’ product or service.

On a personal level, having been married to a white British woman, I also have experience dealing with cultural dynamics in more individual and social contexts. Living and working in the UK and other countries for the past 8 years has given me insight into the way cultural influences inform the behaviour, values, beliefs and actions of an individual, as well as highlighting the challenges and benefits of cultural integration.

Coming from a small town in southern India, the transition to working in these new environments was quite challenging and initiated my interest in this area. By adopting the method of inquiry to my research, I would like to analyse and propose a well-defined process of creating a distinct performance culture, while implementing some of the findings at my current organisation. The opportunity to pursue my research while I test the theories in my day-to-day work would iron out real time issues, and bring a very practical dimension to my thesis.

Key Questions & Curiosities

I have been working for DB Capital for three years, during which time I have witnessed first-hand a family business that is aiming to transition into a formal enterprise and break out of its traditional business mindset. The founders (the new generation of a business family) have set out to create a modern business, inspired by the gold rush of silicon valley startups in the last decade. However, it has been a challenging process to develop solutions and implement viable business models. The long-term – and somewhat grand – vision of the founders, has been hindering their ability to deliver and execute the projects to match today’s shortened technology and product cycles. In addition, the authoritarian style of leadership and the lack of a formal structure to ensure performance and clear accountability, have been major challenges.

Family businesses are unique in that their strong beliefs and core values are real and alive in day-to-day operations. The role of the founder is crucial to establishing a company’s identity, core beliefs, and purpose. The founder’s influence often endures beyond their lifetime and into succeeding generations. However, in the quest for long-term success and viability, even the most inspired culture must remain responsive to the external environment and the requirements of the industry. Constant reconsideration of a company’s value proposition is essential to its ongoing vitality.

I have been trying to create team cohesion and analyse the factors that I believe are preventing the progress of the projects, such as capability (i.e. functional expertise, prior experience), cultural issues (i.e. the Indian way of doing business), leadership (i.e. personality and style of the individual founders), and external factors (i.e. regulatory and current economic context). Research indicates that a strong and deeply‐rooted organisational culture is a primary factor in allowing for sustained innovation, and I would like to address this in the context of DB Capital.

Having worked with a large and successful family controlled business, EF Education First (the world’s largest private education organisation), I have an idea of what a successful transition could look like. EF has a distinct culture and value system, which was evident right from the start when I attended a week-long management induction. My experience of working with the senior management in implementing key strategic decisions gave me a deep insight into the characteristics of EF and how it combined its core family values with innovation, market readiness and entrepreneurial culture.

I have always been fascinated by the way that the leadership can influence the development of performance culture and I would like to explore this in depth as part of my doctorate. I have developed a number of preliminary research questions as a starting point, from which I can narrow my focus as my research journey progresses:

  • What enables some family businesses to transition successfully into large corporate organisations/ businesses?
  • What role does the founder’s personality play in the transition process?
  • How does company culture affect the transition process?
  • What are the most effective ways of identifying the dysfunctional elements of company culture which might be hindering this transition?
  • What are the most effective interventions to facilitate the process in companies that are struggling with transition?
  • Can family run businesses thrive in the current competitive world without losing the essence of their ethos?

I am also interested to explore whether a tangible and measurable problem-solving methodology can and should be applied to the so-called “soft” nature of organisational culture.

Relevant theories and literature:

Most organisational scholars and executives now recognise that organisational culture has a powerful effect on the performance and long-term effectiveness of organisations. Comprehensive research has produced an impressive array of findings demonstrating the importance of culture to enhancing organisational performance. One such recent research indicates that 70 percent of change programs fail, and further analysis reveals that cultural factors are the cause of more than two-thirds of these failures. In fact, change efforts typically stumble on precisely the thing they are trying to transform: employee attitudes and management behaviour. (Breaking the Code of Change, HBR, 2000; Kim S. Cameron and Robert E. Quinn)

Lou Gerstner, retired CEO of IBM, sums up the problem: “Fixing culture is the most critical – and the most difficult – part of a corporate transformation.” (Louis V. Gerstner, Jr, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? HarperCollins, 2002)

Referring to the most financially successful companies in the last 2 decades, Robert E. Quinn makes an important argument in his book, ‘Diagnosing and Changing Organisational Culture’, that “the sustained success of these companies has had less to do with market forces than with company values, less to do with competitive positioning than with personal beliefs, and less to do with resource advantages than with vision”.

I have been influenced by the work of leading scholars such as John P. Kotter (author of ‘Leading Change’ and ‘Accelerate – Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World’) and Joanne Martin (author of ‘Organisational Culture: Mapping the Terrain’) whose work has informed some of my ideas.

Martin analyses various ways to study cultures in organisations, including different theories, political ideologies (managerial and critical), qualitative, quantitative, and hybrid methods, and styles of writing about culture (traditional to postmodern and experimental).

I have also studied and used the frameworks recommended by Eric Ries and Alexander Osterwalder, authors of ‘The Lean StartUp’ and ‘Business Model Generation’ respectively. I would like to reflect on the relevance of such frameworks, which are focused at the ‘Silicon Valley’ model of entrepreneurship and product innovation, into a small family business setting.

Finally, I would like to focus on the theories around leadership and the main levers that leaders can use to influence culture. Contemporary leaders such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon and Musk have distinct styles and I would invest time in studying various leadership styles and its application in the context of family business, corporate and startup settings.

In addition to this I will need to further review literature focussed on strategy, innovation, culture and change management. I plan to use a broad range of sources including case studies, journal articles, books, and online resources such as lexus nexus and the Harvard Business Review.

Research methods and approach

My initial focus would be on fine-tuning my inquiry questions as I realise they are currently broad, and working towards a more focused research proposal. I anticipate that some of my questions might already have been addressed, so I would begin with doing a thorough literature review of relevant research papers, books and journal articles. I would hope to be guided by discussions with supervisors and by seeking feedback from peers/ mentors through the process. Whilst conducting the literature review, I would also work to enhance my knowledge of research methodology and techniques, in order to prepare for the next phase of the project.

I would then develop a framework that will structure and underpin my inquiry. In order to carry out my research I envision using a range of quantitative and qualitative methods to capture and analyse the required data and information. At this stage I am considering a three-staged process for addressing the issue identified; diagnosing the problem, designing interventions and managing the delivery of the solution. Some of the theories and frameworks that I studied during my MBA would be relevant in my research, for example ‘root-cause analysis’ and ‘functional analysis’ in the diagnosis stage. However, I recognise that this may change as my research progresses and I believe my patience and willingness to adapt, would enable me to respond effectively to feedback and recommendations.

To enhance and strengthen my inquiry process, I would attend periodic seminars, conferences on the topic of interest and continue reading leading journals in the field. I would also make use of my alumni network and peers who are in influential roles, while making new contacts within business and academia.

Fine-tuning my writing skills will be an ongoing focus throughout the programme. Presenting my work whenever possible to professors, supervisors, fellow students and peers from the industry would help enormously in articulating my ideas, both orally and in writing.

I have always worked to make a difference wherever I can, and have a track record of seeing tasks and projects that I undertake through to their successful conclusion. Completing the Doctorate programme from Ashridge is the utmost priority for me, both personally and professionally, and the support from supervisors and peer group would help me achieve my career goals while giving me an opportunity to contribute to the university and its research credentials. I look forward to making a positive contribution to the ADOC cohort and building a practice which is based on delivering sustainable value to organisations.

In conclusion, I believe that pursuing my academic and career potential through the doctorate and focusing my efforts in an area I am passionate about, will enable me to realise my full potential and be of benefit across all areas of my life.

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