Katherine Kucherenko


Diploma in Financial Strategy







By Katherine Kucherenko

22 Years Later

Armed with the Dutch prophecy “To stand still is to backslide” I decided to expand my horizons both literally and figuratively, and apply for a programme that would challenge my capabilities, spark ideas in my daily thoughts, expand my hard-­‐core Dutch network and, last but not the least, enhance my career opportunities. Oxford University was -­‐ as marketers would put it -­‐ in my ‘evoked set’, that means: one of the top of mind choices that instantly pops-­‐up in your head when considering different options.

After revealing my aspirations to my friends, a couple of them casted critical eyes; also because they where forced to suffer a period of detachment while I was sweating for three years during my Master’s at one of the (if not the) most respected business school(s) in the Netherlands – Nyenrode Business University. Was an additional study of a similar nature, but only abroad at a different university really that necessary? But I couldn’t have been more determined and I bravely proceeded with my application for a Diploma in Financial Strategy.

When it came down to it, this was a solid selection procedure, not only something to ponder for the admissions committee, but also for the applicant: the motivation letter you need to write and the questions you need to ask yourself really force you to think about your choice and take it very seriously. How do I feel this programme will benefit me personally? Am I capable of successfully fulfilling this demanding programme in combination with my full-­‐time job and many other responsibilities?

Of course I had many different concerns, but I have to admit that they all disappeared like frost in the morning sun when the red double-decker called “Oxford tube” passed the road sign “Welcome to Oxford” with me sitting in the best tourist seat – front row on the upper deck and observing this famous and yet abstruse city which despite years of modernization has managed to keep its spirit and authenticity like no other. “Well”, I thought, “here I am.”

Suddenly I had to think of an interview with founding partner of the KKR, notorious businessman and LBO legend Henry Kravis, I stumbled upon while surfing on the Internet a couple of years ago who answered the question “what are your selection criteria for a CEO” with: I’m not looking for a CEO who cares about the next quarter. I don’t care about the next quarter. I’m looking for a CEO who has a vision: where do you want to be in five years? Second, he/she should have a plan. And third, he/she should know how to execute that plan”.

Well, that’s exactly what we’ve been covering during the first module “Business strategy”. How to formulate the right business strategy given the environment your company has to deal with? How to formulate a strategy under uncertainty? How to formulate a competitive advantage for your company, given the strategy of your competitors?

And it’s not only the ‘Porterian’ frameworks that force you to think differently, but also various insights and eye-­‐openers that disrupt your routine decision-­‐process and (usually) unconscious way of thinking. A couple of memorable take-aways:
– When it comes to someone’s decisions and actions, it’s not about whether they’re rational and or not. The question is: what is the rational behind them?

– We work at biased organisations and we’re biased ourselves. The biases are going to survive us. The only thing we can do is to become aware of them while making important decision.

– There is very little strategy in our planning, and very little planning in our strategy, which may be why we have made some terrible strategic decisions.
– Success is becoming a part of the problem you were worried about.

Food for thought and humorous remarks from our brilliant teacher Prof. Richard Whittington who continually filled the classroom with energy from the first till the last minute, and I’ll cherish his wise lessons for the rest of my life. But we also learned from each other. A couple of times a day we split up in groups to plug the frameworks to organizations we were representing and afterwards the results where presented to the whole group. And so we ended up discussing the consulting industry in Russia, the wine industry in Australia, sun-­‐care products in South-­‐America, credit-­‐card industry in the United States, banking industry in Europe, and even the toilet paper industry in South Africa.

Oxford does not sell an education, it sells an experience. And what an experience it was! On the last day of the programme one of my classmates and I signed up for a Burns Supper at the college where we all became associate members – St Hugh College. A Burns Supper celebrates the birthday of the well-­‐known poet and is held at each college annually. Since the poet was Scottish, I experienced this celebration like a shot from the movie ‘Braveheart’ with guests wearing Scottish attire and all of us completely loosing ourselves in Scottish dances after a dinner where Sancerre, Châteauneuf-­‐du-­‐Pape, and, of course, Scottish whisky, were flowing freely.

And today, a couple of weeks after returning to the Netherlands, while sitting at the office in Amsterdam South-­‐East and staring at the rain outside the window, I had to think of another rainy day when I was ten years old and my mother just brought me home from school in the city where I was born, Odessa, in Ukraine. My mother gave me strict advice to start my homework, but since I could think of many other things I would rather do, I tried different strategies to avoid my obligation. Unfortunately, my attempts didn’t stand a chance against my mother’s zealous diligence, which culminated in my struggle’s ‘coup de grâce’: “If you’ll do your best, one day you might go to Oxford”.

22 years later, in November last year at the office I’m sitting in right now, during a meeting – which in the Netherlands usually starts with an extensive introduction that mostly consists of complaints about the bad weather – my thoughts dwelled and my hand went automatically, if not intuitively, to my smartphone to update my incoming emails. I had a couple of unread items and one of them was the email from the programme management of Diploma in Financial strategy. The members of admission committee had studied my motivation letter, answers, and recommendations very carefully and had made their decision. I clicked and scrolled down, hurriedly looking for the keywords that would give me the answer without having to read the whole text; I simply had no patience for that. Completely distracted, I stood up and left the meeting without saying anything. On my way out I dialled my mother to say: “Mum, I’m going to Oxford”.

But of course Oxford was the only option in my evoked set. It didn’t change for 22 years.

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