Leader: First disrupt thyself!

Katie Nohr, EMBA Graduate asked, “How can I really disrupt myself?”

Katie Nohr recounts an inspirational journey of personal growth and challenge as she tackled her life long-dream of completing an MBA.

In 2017 she was awarded the QUT Business School Women in Leadership Excellence Scholarship to fund part of her studies and she graduated with an Executive MBA in December 2018. Katie also received a Director’s Award for achieving a GPA of 6.5 or above.

QUT’s Women in Leadership Excellence Scholarship is part of the QUT Business School’s commitment to supporting the development of aspiring female leaders who demonstrated academic, personal and business acumen would be enhanced by postgraduate study. From 2019 this scholarship now fully funds the tuition fees to study a QUT EMBA.

The scholarship is supported by the UN Women National Committee Australia to encourage diversity, and promote gender equality and women in leadership roles.

I recently caught up with Katie and asked…

What inspired you to apply to study the EMBA?
It all started with a dare. I had been talking about applying for years, my husband dared me to stop talking and do something about it! I was looking for a challenge to kick start my focus post two periods of parental leave.

A close friend said, “This is not about whether you can do this, I know you can do this – don’t bore me with that conversation – all I’m going to say is that you need to do this when your kids are young – before all of the extracurricular activities start to derail your life.”

So, I went to the information night and met with Tim (Burton) who was helpful and honest about what it would take and encouraged me to apply.

I applied thinking there was no chance I would be accepted.  For me, the MBA had always been a holy grail. People who had an MBA were on a pedestal, it felt unattainable by me. I had family and life commitments: I wanted an MBA, and I wanted that challenge, but I didn’t think that I would actually be able to achieve it myself.

With hindsight, after months of reflection, I now know that I applied because I needed more. The real challenge was rethinking and relearning what I thought I was capable of achieving.  That tension that we all feel as leaders, and particularly as a woman, led me to conclude that I had to own my own career and decisions.

When I was accepted, I thought, “I can’t pull out now – I’m going to have to deliver!”.  My initial goal was to not fail any subject.

After the first 6 months, I was getting pretty good marks and I thought, “Have I been underestimating myself all this time?”

Then, I hit the leadership subjects! I found them to be deceptively difficult, but equally valuable. I  wanted to get real value out of these subjects. I wanted to truly take something away from the EMBA and the way these subjects made me think about myself and my impact made them valuable beyond the day you complete them.

These subjects were a catalyst. They helped me realise that I needed to really look at the second half of my career and ask, “How can I really disrupt myself?”. I could not ask others to let me disrupt and change their businesses if I could not do that with myself.

If we’d had this conversation straight after I finished, it would have been a very different conversation. Eight months on, I’ve had time for it to settle with me, to make sense of it. The EMBA is its own complex system and I think anyone who walks out of it thinking that it has a simple impact or is a singular achievement- maybe didn’t immerse themselves in the experience.

It is only now that I feel like the real learning and changes are taking place. Using the EMBA, living the EMBA is maybe the core challenge, not just graduating.

What is your personal growth story?
Yes, there has been personal growth, but I am a work in progress. When you have worked in an organization for a long time, you can easily settle into being part of “the machine”.

Studying the EMBA made me realise that you can make a choice. What value are you presenting? Are you going to continue to be the mouse on the wheel or are you going to play a greater role? Every week is a challenge, personally and professionally.

Sometimes the change manager in me doesn’t like change. The last two years have taught me that I have to adapt. The organisation I work in is constantly changing, and I can resist that or decide that this is something I can part of, even influence. I have, and as leaders, we have choices. If I continue doing what I was doing before, then there was no point in completing the EMBA.

I realised that I can’t ask an organisation to trust me
with a project, initiative or strategy that will disrupt it or bring innovation
if I can’t challenge and disrupt myself.

It is front and centre of my mind that when you finish the E/MBA, and you get that recognition, it is not “done”. The achievement is about making that E/MBA have some value, making it mean something. You embark on this journey thinking that you will be fixed, or ready for a greater good when you are finished.  But you will never be ‘fixed’.  When you come out, you emerge as a committed learner, who can reflect on a problem and evaluate, “Well, it is me, the process, the system?”. Unpack the complexity so to speak. I couldn’t do that two years ago. Undertaking the EMBA triggers a shift that happens within you, for some that happened straight away, but for me, it was a slow burn.

How did this study transform you or the organisation that you work for?
My background was in Human Resources, and most recently, enabling business improvement through people, including digital and mobility transformation. Currently, I work for a major transport organisation managing projects that include digital and mobility transformation and capital investments. The EMBA program helped me learn to unpack complexity and decipher what actually was the problem we are trying to solve. This understanding has changed the type of projects I’m now working on and my approach to them. I had several work-related challenges that have been used and directly influenced or benefited from my studies.

Design thinking and problem-solving methodologies really resonated with me. I can expand these in my work through human-centered design, innovation and transformation projects. I hope that I can continue to grow my involvement and achievements in this space.

What I learned in the core modules on finance and economics gave me knowledge and increased confidence. This means I can now have deeper and challenging conversations about capital investments that I wouldn’t have been able to 12-18 months ago. I am now able to inform and own an opinion around multiple millions of dollars’ worth of investments, not based on my gut instinct, but based on the facts that the numbers tell us.

But that is not what gives me joy. What gives me joy is a project where I can solve a problem. A problem that I can unpack with the stakeholders, whether an app that sits on a device or an improved process design, enabling our operations. That is what gets me out of bed in the morning. Knowing that I influence how our business serves our customers and supports our employees – that’s what gives me joy.

What was the highlight of your study experience?
Studying the EMBA for me, was like being in a vacuum, a hermetically sealed, totally self-indulgent learning experience. Previous to study, I had compromised focus on career to make my family and life work. I also felt like I needed something that was for just for me. My husband had said, “Now it‘s your time!”, and on this, he was right. For much of the program, I thought I was being incredibly selfish with how consuming the study was. In some ways seeing how my children have witnessed, understood and learned from my commitment is a highlight. They saw Mum commit, follow through and achieve. I underestimated what a gift this would be for us as a family to achieve.

The highlight of my study experience was the Cook Medical project. This project gave me a taste of how to take this new “library of tools” and use those tools to give, and to get value from, an organisation. This added to my purpose and value. Seeing how Cook Medical helps others to resolve health issues, was a genuine challenge that shifted my perspective of what work could be about.

I underestimated the impact that working with a company like Cook, in a country like China would have on my perspective and values. It is about having an impact and giving you satisfaction, and fulfillment all at the same time. I did not expect that out of doing an EMBA. It was an amazingly uplifting experience, much more valuable than earning more or getting a better job.

Learning that my work could contribute to a greater purpose, that you have a real connection to was enlightening and something that I am trying to materialise in life… It will be interesting to see where that goes.

What advice would you give yourself if you were looking at doing this again?
At a practical level, learn to pace yourself. For two years I just put my head down, and I don’t think I juggled all the balls particularly well.

I also needed to realise that I couldn’t do this on my own. You compromise on yourself first, and with the benefit of hindsight, you need to take care of yourself. My husband was hugely supportive, and I found that even though my children were young, they learned that I needed my study time, and adapted.

You need not just family and cohort support, but also need to allow some pressure release to ‘come up for air’, and to have that built into your study schedule. Allow some time for yourself.

For me, I would also challenge myself on the negative self-doubt and would pat myself on the back for knowing myself, and knowing that I had the discipline to succeed. It would have been beneficial to have asked for help earlier and confessed my fears, when I thought, “I can’t get out of this now!

I wish I had done the EMBA earlier in my life! I would tell myself,  that this is not selfish, this is my “oxygen mask”. Embrace and enjoy this incredible experience for what it is, a magnificent gift that not many people get to have. Respect it, love it, but question yourself always:

What do you need to learn from this?
How does this change what you thought you knew?
What do you need to trigger for your learning to be a springboard for change?
What is the next challenge?

What happens next?
Then, you’re done, you’re finished… and it’s like a gigantic balloon has popped and left a giant hole in your life. I’m trying to find what will fill that hole.  Everyone says, “Are you happy it is over?”.  I don’t miss the assessments and loss of sleep.  But I miss the cohort, the shared learning, and challenges.

My challenge now is around networking and going to events, like supporting a Fishburners startup, which has been fascinating and immensely enjoyable. It has been good to find networks and events like Women on Boards where there is potential to meet others with values that fit with what you have learned and want to achieve.

For people who think that they have reached their plateau
or that their life or career “is what it is”
… it doesn’t have to be!

For all of the juggling and intellectual challenges, I didn’t breeze through it. I haven’t come out without my scars, but it was not as difficult as you think. It’s hard, but anything this worthwhile and valuable should be hard, but luckily it was also fun!

I thank QUT for the scholarship and what it provided me, and encourage anyone thinking about applying to do so.

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