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Leading people and organizations to new visions is messy: MIT Sloan’s AMP provides the mental models leaders need

Vanessa Oakley

Vanessa Oakley is a senior executive who has spent the last 15 years in corporate life in listed companies and longer in the telco/tech sector itself. She is currently the General Manager of Strategy and Business Operations at Chorus New Zealand Limited, a provider of telecommunications infrastructure throughout New Zealand. The company is recognized globally for its fibre-to-the-home broadband roll out. Vanessa is based in Wellington and an alumna of the 2019 MIT Sloan Advanced Management Program (AMP).

Like many kiwis, Vanessa had previously lived in London/Europe for many years, loves to travel, and is thirsty for new “brain-food” experiences. She’s a tenacious learner and constantly investing in her passion for people leadership. MIT was a great opportunity for her to connect with global peers and satisfy all of these drivers.

We had the pleasure of speaking with her recently about her AMP experience.

“Last year I was asked if I wanted to traverse sideways out of my general counsel executive role into the executive role established to drive renewed strategy, transformation, and customer experience enterprise wide. I said yes. This was an easy decision. One of the images that has stuck with me from AMP is of a foggy road. I’m often the first person to leave the comfortable confines of a building and walk down that road not knowing where it will lead. I’ve become used to feeling uncomfortable. I trust that I’ll work it out and that I can get the right people together to come with me.”

The transition Vanessa was making, and the fast paced transitions her industry continually face, motivated an application for the Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s business scholarship in 2018. With the privilege of receiving a scholarship—one which was awarded to four women and four men—Vanessa chose the 2019 MIT Sloan AMP.

“Being away from family and work for five weeks to learn is humbling, and it feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So I did my homework choosing MIT. I wanted to be among an intimate global cohort of like-minded learners and in an ecosystem that embraces the changes in the world responsibly. I sought a program where I could gain models to apply from a strong business, tech, and innovation focus—instead of having to draw from my studies in science years ago. I also wanted to be inspired by the people I’d meet. MIT offered all of this in a timeframe that my company and family kindly supported. AMP also included individual coaching and personal reflection that further disclosed my entrepreneurial leadership preferences.”

Three months after AMP, applying the mental models

Energy radiates from Vanessa. So, it’s not surprising that in the 90 days after AMP she’s built on the strategic context she acquired, accelerated transformation, and is promoting new leadership focuses and new ways of working at her company.

Straight off the plane, in her first week back, she presented to several hundred leaders. This was followed up with “Chorus conversations” around the country.

“One of my first shares was the equation for principled innovative leaders. The ingredients are intellect, empathy, adaptability, and energy. Personally they all resonate loudly given I’ve been told that my spirit animal is a cheetah, the fastest land animal in the world. They’re agile, adaptable, and elegant under pressure. They’re also the only big cat that can turn mid-air while sprinting. That’s something I can identify with daily!

“By the end of the second month, we’d framed and announced the acceleration of the transformation program to lift productivity and customer experience by increasing confidence in an experience led, data-driven, and digitally enabled approach.

“Over the last month, focus has been on engaging with all our senior leaders about leadership shifts and new ways of thinking, working, and behaving. Much of this conversation, and the learning and development we’ll invest in our people, is grounded in MIT learnings. I’m leveraging many of the models, tools, and human psychology to focus on people and the system in which they work so that we can do things better. The world doesn’t need more of the same. Leaders have the important and hard job of harnessing all our differences, encouraging courage, and creating environments so people can get stuff done and so leaders can be grown everywhere.”

Vanessa has also been speaking frequently outside the company on topics like the future of work and agility.

Reflections ahead

Vanessa is grateful for time spent with classmates who are top CEOs, executives, and global leaders. “Most importantly, the people I met are fantastic human beings. We’ve left MIT strongly connected and trusted friends.”

Vanessa also shared with us some of her thoughts on the road ahead.

“On the business front, the largest part of New Zealand’s ultra-fast fibre to the home build will complete on time and budget in 2020 with more customer uptake than was ever conceived possible. It’s quite a showcase of the power of collaboration and vision. On the ground, there’s also plenty of hard-earned learnings on the need to persevere through obstacles and evolve along the way that are being taken into visions ahead.”

“On the personal front, my son starts high school next year. My life to come beyond 2020, in all respects, now includes the richness of a close global network and mental models I can apply in everything I do – including the “mens et manus” or “minds and hands” motto of MIT. There’s a lot of ‘talk’ in the world … but it’s the hard work of ‘walking the talk,’ role modelling, and being human centric that is going to promote and deliver transformative mind-sets and outcomes for people and organizations wherever you are in the world.”

Learn more about the upcoming session of the Advanced Management Program.

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