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Taking strategy classes in a judo uniform

Oksana Chikina, who hails from Uzbekistan, is an international development professional on a leave of absence from Population Services International (PSI), a U.S.-based non-governmental organization. Having spent the past 12 years living and working in 10 countries on four continents, she is spending a year as an international student attending the executive MBA program at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. This is her seventh post in a series.

Exactly midway through my Rotman EMBA program, my classmates and I moved into a hotel in downtown Toronto for our second residential week. We were back to the 11-hour-a-day, non-stop class immersion, which marked the end of the second term.

This term was supposed to be much easier, with a focus on leadership and "soft skills." Well, during the last class, I was on the floor of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto. My mind and body were rapidly working through the best ways to create space, find the right leverage and change angles. All in order not to be overthrown by my sparring partner, an executive of a Canadian airline.

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Yes, it was an actual judo practice. Surprisingly, our education became three-dimensional: Thousands of pages of reading, exams and lectures were substantiated by a series of hands-on exercises. Having changed into a gi (a white uniform) over Rotman T-shirts, we went through a full judo workout routine – the warm-up, practice and even final relaxation. Every step emphasized connections with the business and strategic concepts we had learned. I can now officially attest that physical experiences do make theories stick.

Somehow the second term felt much harder despite its promise of easier times. Perhaps after a certain point in your career it becomes equally difficult to learn a new accounting ratio as it does to apply a proven theoretical framework of effective leadership to your own experiences.

We discussed successes and failures of major companies, ambitious individuals and corporations. We then had to write self-reflection papers analyzing what we did well and we could have done better in our own experiences. I know it sounds like a piece of cake, but it was far from it in reality – a few papers were borderline agonizing.

The typical "I wish I knew then what I know now" got closely merged with "I was bound to fail and did not even see it." Now I know, though.

We also practised our negotiation skills. I know it may sound strange that a bunch of executives with decades of experience would learn how to negotiate. Believe me though, there are tremendous tangible takeaways from a few days of discussing the "text book" techniques and then applying them to mock negotiations that were scored and compared. The difficulty level of the exercises progressed from familiar employment negotiation to complex situations with multiple issues and multiple groups. And yes, we were asked to reflect on the process in the end.

Finally, there was the business law and ethics course. Designed to help us develop appreciation for complexity and implications of business decisions in the modern world, it shook the world for many. Typical discussions were of the legal and ethical implications of, for example, websites promoting extramarital affairs and arguments over the roles of large corporations in improving conditions in impoverished African countries – almost every class was a test for personal convictions and ethical stands. In the end, we participated in a court session deciding on the legitimacy and ethics of Canadian oil pipeline construction.

So, the second semester made it very clear that there are no ready-made solutions and easy business issues. This realization contradicts the expectations I had before entering the program. I learned that truly effective leadership lies in the ability to find a synergy between doing good and succeeding while sleeping well at night and taking responsibility for the outcome of your actions.

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We have officially embarked on the third term now. It brings back finance, accounting and marketing. The classes and assignments will build on what we have learned before and are a lot more strategic and analytical. We are evaluating performances on major market players in real time. I am a bit nervous at this point.

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