While the journey of every successful leader is unique, a relentless commitment to learning and self-development is a common thread that binds their stories and experience together.
Acknowledging the need to listen and learn from others goes hand-in-hand with a desire to share that knowledge with others and help develop the next generation of leaders.
As beneficiaries of knowledge-sharing during their studies, MBA graduates are often the first to want to share their experience with others. So, we spoke to four MBA graduates from The University of Queensland (UQ) to get their advice for building a successful and fulfilling career.
Lead With Empathy – Zoe Black (UQ MBA 2011)
Zoe Black is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Happy Paws Happy Hearts Foundation (HPHH), which connects vulnerable members of society with RSPCA animals for mutual therapy.
Zoe began her career working in communications in the construction industry before using her UQ MBA to pivot her focus towards her passion for social enterprise.
Before launching HPHH, Zoe worked at Rescue Queensland, where she managed corporate partnerships. She was also the Chair of the Hear For You Board – Australia’s only charity providing support to deaf teenagers.
Zoe’s MBA journey began when she was still working in the construction industry and started helping one of her managers with their MBA assessment.
“I was doing a Master of Communications but was working with my manager on a couple of their MBA subjects and thought, I can do this, so I switched over to the MBA,” Zoe said. “I had no experience in things like finance, economics and accounting and knew I needed to broaden my skills if I wanted to run my own business.”
Completing her MBA while overseeing the rapid expansion of HPHH over recent years has taught Zoe several important lessons, including the importance of being an empathetic leader.
“You have to have a real passion for being an empathetic leader who listens and gives other leaders credibility and authority to excel in their function,” she said.
Zoe believes empathetic leadership is valuable across the not-for-profit and for-profit sectors. It starts with recruiting people with shared values aligned to the organisation and empowering them to succeed.
“One of the things you learn in a CEO or founder position is that you don’t have all the answers and don’t need to have them all,” she said. “You need to be able to hire the right people, draw the answers out of them and have them collaborate with other team members to build shared success.”
Treat Management As A Science – Nina Quinn (UQ MBA 2017)
Nina Quinn began her career as an audiologist. Although she loved making a difference to the client in front of her, Nina decided she wanted to make a difference at a broader level, and therefore took on the challenge of a management position. In one of her first management roles, she was the inaugural Clinical Director of Neuromonics Pty Ltd (2004–2007), integral in taking the venture capital start-up to its international launch.
In 2008, Nina was appointed as Chief Executive Officer of the small but growing hearing services group Neurosensory. She has now been with the company for 14 years and led its growth to realise a national footprint, managed its transition to becoming a public (unlisted) company, and more recently its sale to a global industry leader.
Nina said the UQ MBA was crucial to helping her understand the role and function of a manager and how to do it better.
“I reached a certain point in my career where I realised I didn’t have the tools to go to the next level, and I had to decide to either step aside or skill up,” she said. “Ultimately, I decided an MBA was the ideal way to fill the knowledge gap I felt I had.”
Nina’s best advice for young managers is that leading an organisation or a team is much the same as any other profession in that the required skills and knowledge can be learned and refined by relying on the expertise of others.
“Managing is just another form of science; you just need to learn how to do it,” she said. “If my MBA taught me anything, it’s that there are a lot of resources, knowledge, models and tools that you can tap into to improve outcomes.”
“Almost any problem you face, someone has faced before and developed a theory or a model to unpack the issue and solve the problem. All you have to do is know what you’re looking for and where to look.”
Nina believes part of this approach is to open your mind to new ways of looking at problems or opportunities.
“Regardless of your experience, you always need to be conscious of the lens you’re looking through and move that lens to a new viewpoint,” she said. “Critical to that is developing self-awareness of areas for improvement and investing in yourself through education.”
Break Out On Your Own – David Smith (UQ MBA 2004)
David Smith is the CEO and Co-Founder of Ceres Tag, the world’s first satellite-enabled smart ear tag and open cloud platform for traceability and welfare data for livestock. Ceres Tag is now expanding to be the world’s most comprehensive animal monitoring platform incorporating livestock, wildlife and pets.
He decided to undertake an MBA after missing out on a job opportunity because he didn’t have the right qualifications for the management role.
“I’m an engineer by trade and was interviewed as a young person for a great General Manager job. I missed out on it because I didn’t have the right qualifications, and I vowed I’d never be in that position again,” he said.
Nearly two decades after completing his MBA at UQ, David has simple advice for anyone thinking of embarking on an MBA.
“Don’t do the MBA because you want the piece of paper. Do it for the knowledge and the network you create. As an MBA student, you’re immersed with other people who want to do better and are on the same journey as you,” he said.
After completing his MBA, David spent many years as a corporate executive before breaking out and starting his own company. This is when he really got to put what he learned during the MBA into practice.
“Managing your own business allows you to use your complete skillset and will challenge you every day,” he said. “But if you stay focused, you’ll be rewarded.”
Leap Into Learning, Christofer Catania (UQ MBA 2021)
At just 35-years-old, Christofer Catania has already cemented himself as a leader in the mining industry and is currently the CEO of MEC Mining, a Brisbane-based, global technical consulting firm specialising in mine technical service capabilities across the project life cycle.
After completing an undergraduate degree in engineering (mining), Christofer spent a decade working around the world, including as the Chief Engineer for a large open pit copper mine in Kazakstan.
It was these two years overseeing a major project in a foreign country that solidified his desire to complete an MBA.
After a global search that included MBA programs in Canada and the United States, he eventually returned home to Brisbane and The University of Queensland, where he had completed his undergraduate studies.
“As a young mining engineer, you are invariably put into leadership positions and you quickly realise that in addition to the technical skills you have, you need a whole new skill set,” he said.
“Those two years highlighted how much technical, leadership and communication acumen is required to be successful as a manager,” he said. “You can always get away with doing the job but not to the level your team or your employer deserve.”
After starting the UQ MBA in 2018, he finishes it in 2022, being handed the top job at MEC along this journey.
“The UQ MBA was a great experience, and I was surprised by how much everyone is on the same journey,” he said. “There is always a little bit of imposter syndrome when you are relatively young and overseeing a team of people on big budget projects, but you learn pretty quickly that everybody is in a similar position.”
Christofer believes his experience working overseas gave him a clear understanding of the need to continue to develop and learn new skills, even beyond the MBA.
“When you look through our own lens or cultural perspective you are often blind to what you don’t know,” he said. “Putting yourself in situations that are way outside your normal experience is a great way to identify your blind spots.”
“You need to be always looking to learn. Don’t close yourself off to new knowledge. Don’t sit back because you’ll be amazed by what you gain.”
“People think they need to wait to be in a management position before the skills you learn in an MBA are relevant. But it is really a tool to help you transition into the role you want.”