Agata Tomczak, works as Head of Business Development for DREBERIS International Strategy Consultants. The Dresden-based company focuses on international market-entry strategies, analysis, and innovation management. The native Pole is CEO of a DREBERIS subsidiary in Switzerland, too. The 33-year old also gives lectures in business-related topics at business schools and universities and coaches companies and entrepreneurs in cross-cultural skills. In this interview, the graduate of HHL’s part-time MBA program of speaks about her alma mater and the benefits of an MBA.
Firstly, the international accreditation of the business school and thus the MBA program was very important for me. Looking at a world in which the markets and business models change so fast right now, it’s strategically important to get a diploma that opens as many doors as possible for you. This is something many candidates forget, putting the price or the fancy name of a program first. So, going down this path and knowing I wanted to study in Germany, the choice was limited back then to HHL and another business school.
Then I looked at the balanced curriculum of the program, the strong focus on General Management and Entrepreneurship with all of the consequences – you are supposed to learn how to run your business and take responsibility. Back then, I had already heard about many successful businesses that originated from HHL – those were the best testimonials.
The third factor I looked at was very pragmatic – Leipzig was just one hour away from the city where I live. But most of my fellow students commuted to Leipzig from Munich, Stuttgart, Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt and even Switzerland – without complaining. Leipzig as a city in the eastern part of Germany has a very creative and inspiring ‘vibe’ to it. And what is very important for networking – it is a city full of students and great infrastructure for socializing after work.
Why did you decide to study part-time?
For me, it was very important to learn as I work. I am a person that needs to see the results soon. It was not an option to leave work for the MBA. I very much appreciated applying the new skills and knowledge I gained at HHL right away.
Do you remember the decisive moment that got you started?
It was not as much a moment as a natural consequence of my development. Already in high-school, I was trained to be a management and organizational coach. Before I even started studying, I got a scholarship for young leaders, which allowed me to attend a leadership training program at several organizations including the European Parliament. Before I graduated with my first degree in social sciences in Poland, I had already worked as a manager and trainer and given lectures on soft skills, communications, management and organization. To me, those topics always created value. Privately or professionally: we all have to be managers. I figured out that this is something I really like and want. So I decided I want to be even better at it and chose HHL to help me get there.
I have been with my company for seven years now, starting as a department head. Now I coordinate the business development and run our Swiss Business as a CEO. I can say that the MBA was an accelerator for me as a person and as a manager. I was always quite self-confident, but since this program I know even better what my strengths are and how much more I know and can use to generate value for my clients as well as for my company. And it is always flattering to be contacted by interested headhunters or companies which want to work with you.
What would you like to let future students know about the school and the program?
First of all, I noticed that it does not matter if you have a strong economic background or not. What does matter is being interested in business, management and leadership and, of course, contributing with a lot of experience in this area. In our class, we had managers with a background in engineering, law and even linguists who were very passionate about their work and decided to take it to the next level.
It very much surprised me how well the program was designed by HHL for non-economists and still created value to those who had already graduated with a degree in economics before.
Secondly, the very broad and demanding scope of topics can be emphasized. This way you expand your knowledge horizon and absorb information from media and business literature much easier long after graduation as well. You reflect on your everyday actions and analyze complex situations with your peers or business partners much faster. You notice how sustainable it is, because you don’t stop learning. In my opinion, a manager who stops learning will soon stop being a good manager.
Thirdly, HHL stands out for its hands-on approach. Most of the courses were designed to make us think and discuss. With this method I learned and was able to use this knowledge immediately in real life. We learned how to invest on a stock-market, how to build marketing or global strategies, how to read annual statements – and control your CFO if you are the CEO –, how to do proper public relations during company crisis situations or even pitch your ideas to the CEO or investors. We had an epic class on negotiation theory and skills, which was really amazing – what I learned back then accompanies me almost every day. We discussed cases, contemporary articles, and, of course, business literature. We read it before the classes not to waste the time together with the professors and the group. This way we also had the opportunity to prepare questions and have a quality discussion.
Fourthly, HHL and the professors created a very respectful, friendly and authentic atmosphere. In this environment, it was a pleasure to attend classes and other events.
Fifthly, one of the highlights of the program was definitely the Immersion Seminar in Boston. We spent one week together attending seminars, lectures and meetings at Boston University, Harvard Business School, start-up centers etc.
Despite the demanding schedule, were you still able keep a satisfactory solid work-life balance?
Let me put it this way: I don’t believe anybody who says that the best MBA program can be completed without effort. Of course, there are many things you put on hold because this or that needs to be done, e.g. you have an evening group-call with other students in order to complete an assignment. Or you have some books and articles to look at for the next course. Or, you are away for the whole weekend studying at HHL.
But the key question is what do you get for it? In terms of work: you are much more productive, creative and inspired. You decide faster. Your horizon is so much broader and you understand many complex issues very easily. You learn fast because you have to. And you use the knowledge because you can.
And privately, for me personally it was a game changing experience. I got even better organized. I challenged myself and grew, so my self-esteem and confidence grew, too. That’s a basis for stronger and better relationships with your partner, friends, family and peers – you can’t give to others if you have nothing, right?
Who would you think are suitable candidates for a course like this?
As I said before: the combination of experience in management and team leadership with a minimum of five to seven years of work experience together with genuine interest for business. No matter what your educational background is, this program can help you be a great executive, structure your knowledge and develop your own management style, because you will be exposed to many discussions with other experienced students.
You are originally from Poland. Where were the other students from? And what was the male/female ratio?
Even though the majority in my class was from Germany, we had colleagues from Bulgaria, India, Hungary and Russia. I guess our male/female ratio was about 3 to 1.
Are you still in touch with your fellow students and the professors?
We had an outstanding atmosphere in our group, very respectful and creative. We worked together on many assignments and it was always fun and challenging to work each time with a different group. Now, two years after graduation, we still run our internal chat group, travel together in smaller groups and invite each other to private celebrations or just visit each other casually. We decided to organize a reunion for the whole class once a year, currently we are discussing the time and place for 2016. I travel a lot on business and I also use the opportunity to meet some friends from my group sometimes in the cities where they live. It is also great to discuss some business matters with others and get to know their point of view.
Additionally, I am a guest lecturer at HHL. Thanks to social media it is easy to stay in touch with professors from the US, UK or Germany where I live. I also plan to organize a new alumni chapter in my city of Dresden.
What would be your conclusion of the time at HHL?
For me personally, it was worth every penny and every minute, hour and day (or better, night) I invested! You invest in yourself and therefore your business or career can grow together with you. And what is successful business and management without investments that pay off?
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