My online MBA was an opportunity to futureproof my career |

My online MBA was an opportunity to futureproof my career

By Laura L

Updated March 28, 2022 Updated March 28, 2022

“You can’t study your own organisation for two semesters and not come up with some really good insights to throw into conversations with your leadership team, to show you’ve got concrete knowledge about the company and where it is headed.”

Iain Cooper had worked as a tax specialist for multinational corporations for over 20 years, but he wanted to go further than the standard tax and accounting qualifications had allowed him. 

The online MBA at UCL School of Management provided him with the opportunity to advance his skillset to a strategic level, giving him credibility at a senior leadership level within a leading technical and professional services company, Jacobs. Following his MBA, Iain landed the role as Senior Director of Finance and is now responsible for delivering key strategic initiatives as part of Jacobs’ ‘Focus 2023’ business transformation.  

As a leading global research and consulting firm, Jacobs manages projects from intelligence to infrastructure and cybersecurity to space exploration, with the aim of creating a more connected and sustainable world. As part of a future-focused organisation, it’s Iain’s role to understand how the business is operating financially, how return on investment is contributing to the growth of the organisation and advising on reinvestment into new tools and ways of working to enhance shareholder value.  

For Iain, the online MBA did exactly what he wanted it to achieve. Studying online allowed him to work from anywhere in the world – helpful when he could be given a week’s notice to travel across the globe for his job – but he also had the opportunity to take on a broader financial strategy role, running a joint venture in Saudi Arabia.  

“I was part of a team that included a sales lead, an operations lead and a CEO and I wanted to be able to use the same language they used in their own disciplines, to help illustrate how the role of finance can connect with, and be helpful for, company strategy,” he said.  

“The main goal for me was to develop better intelligence around strategy; setting strategy, operationalising strategy and executing strategy. It was about understanding how businesses make money, what levers to pull, how to focus on resources and capabilities in order to drive competitive advantage which goes beyond the normal accounting and finance knowledge.”  

Futureproofing for a digital world 

A future-focused and data-centric MBA programme with digitalisation at its heart, the UCL MBA stood out for Iain after Jacobs had announced a new business strategy in 2016 that was focused on the digitalisation and automation of its services and customer experience.  

“It was hugely important that the degree would bring me up to speed in a digital space, so I could move with Jacobs in transforming the business for today’s digitally driven world,” said Iain. “It felt like an excellent opportunity to futureproof my career. 

“On top of that, I was able to upskill in data and statistics and gain a clearer understanding of the way digital analytics tools work in the modern economy to drive better business decision-making. That allowed me to get to a position where I could ask valuable questions to the digital experts in my organisation, which was tremendously valuable.” 

Since his MBA, Iain has worked on a project with the team responsible for digitalising Jacobs’ business model and is now equipped with the skills to speak the language of innovation and agile start-up in a way that makes him more credible across the business.  

Strategy isn’t an instinct, it’s science 

Before studying for his MBA, Iain had always thought that business strategy was something you either understood, or you didn’t. “I thought it was an instinct that certain people had, and I didn’t,” Iain said, “but my MBA has taught me that it’s much more scientific than that.  

“It’s about learning the techniques and methods to understand how companies choose the markets in which they operate, how they focus on higher margin markets, portfolio diversification and how they are going to future-proof or even divest away from certain traditional markets.” 

“All of that is very scientific and the MBA really brought it to life for me that I could gain a much deeper understanding of Jacobs’ business strategy.” 

Applying theory to real world challenges 

One of the highlights of the MBA for Iain was the opportunity to focus on the company he works for, in a module that allows students to apply the theory they learn in class to a genuine business challenge. Iain spent two semesters researching Jacobs, using the skills and knowledge he’d gained in his degree to find viable solutions and outputs.  

“To have that opportunity was fantastic,” he said. “That’s the kind of flexibility I think people look for in the programme, the ability to take everything you have learned, to choose the modules that appeal most to you, and apply that knowledge to something real in your own way.  

“You can’t study your own organisation for two semesters and not come up with some really good insights to throw into conversations with your leadership team, to show you’ve got concrete knowledge about the company and where it is headed.” 

Iain says there’s a common challenge with being a finance expert in some more traditional professional services firms, where accountants are thought of as no more than bean counters, running the numbers each month and pulling reports. At Jacobs, finance leaders are valued as genuine business partners with impact.  

“So, to have gained so much insight and knowledge from my MBA and to have had the opportunity to apply it to Jacobs as part of my course, I can now raise challenges and say, ‘you could do it that way, but you might want to try this way instead’ and I’m more likely to be listened to because I’ve got the credibility now.”   

An invaluable experience 

“If you’re really interested in getting a deeper knowledge of management science and how to apply theory to drive future growth in your organisation, whether it’s a company you work for or an entrepreneurial venture, studying an MBA is a tremendously valuable experience,” said Iain. 

“You get out what you put in, so it’s been transformational for me in terms of the discussions I can now have with the leadership team at my company.  

“It has completely transformed the way I look at our business and where we are positioned today and for the future. I’m excited about the contribution I think I can make to Jacobs moving forward.”  

This article was originally published in March 2022 .

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