Thursday, 6 March 2014

International Management Masters student: Faye Ekong

Faye Ekong at Royal Holloway

My name is Faye Ekong and I work for an international humanitarian aid agency called Action Against Hunger. We provide live saving assistance for people affected by natural or man-made disasters in over 40 countries worldwide. One of the key elements in ensuring that we provide quality services to populations in need is through having a workforce that has the necessary capacity, knowledge, skills and attitude to carry out this important work. This is where I come in. As the Director of our Training Centre which is based in Nairobi, Kenya my job is to make sure we offer our staff training, capacity building and professional development solutions that are tailored to their needs and country context. 

As part of my work I get to travel…a lot. It’s not the glamorous kind of travel to Dubai and Hong Kong nor do I get to stay in swanky hotels. Over the past few years, I have visited so many countries that I have almost lost count.  Some of the favorites include:  South Sudan, Tchad, Somalia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Liberia, Ivory Coast and DRC. This year my list of countries include Ethiopia, Yemen, Haiti, Indonesia and Burkina Faso. Sometimes my accommodation in the field consists of a tent or mud hut, other times it does have some basic amenities such as running water and generator powered electricity.

Faye pictured with an antelope crown

With that having been said, I am perhaps not your typical profile for an International Management program. Working on some assignments and during exchanges with other students I certainly did at times find myself pondering to which extent ROCE, 6 Sigma or Porter’s 5 Forces may be applicable in my context. Nonetheless, I choose this program for several reasons and have found it to be the right fit for me.

Firstly, I believe the non-profit sector can learn quite a lot from the private sector in terms of approaches and strategies aimed at rendering services more effective and this was an opportunity for me to gain an insight into business workings.  Secondly, I wanted to ground some of my practical experience in management with the theories behind it.  Lastly, given the context I work in, the flexibility of the program really fits my needs.

Networking during summer plenary on campus

The best part of the course for me were certainly the plenary sessions in London as they gave me the chance to interact with fellow students and tutors which helped to boost my motivation, since much of a distance program involves working away alone behind a computer.

Consultancy presentation

During the plenary week 2 I don’t remember how many hours we poured over the final version of our group assignment checking for grammar, fonts, phraseology and cutting words. Similarly in preparation for our group presentation we must have done at least 50 dry runs to get it just right. A lot of my work involves giving presentations and conducting trainings.  So I would say I am quite accustomed to getting up in front of a group of strangers and talking.  However, this presentation was certainly a new experience for me, most notably because I was getting up to talk about a subject which a few weeks ago I knew absolutely nothing about. I really enjoyed the challenge though of working with the group, researching a new area and seeing the final product at the end.

Now I am working on my dissertation and grappling with the questions of how we can measure the impact of capacity building initiatives in the humanitarian world where “standard” business indicators such as increased sales, profit, turnover, market share or number of clients do not apply. I am sure I will be able to apply my learning form the course to date to this final step in my Master’s program.

Detailed Q&A with Faye

1. What was your career path to your current role? Can you tell us a bit about your career and education background please?

This is always a complicated question because the response is not such a straight forward one. But I will give it a shot. I am half British half Nigerian but grew up mainly in Germany and in Ghana. I have an undergraduate degree from the University of Bath in European Studies and Modern Languages. As part of my bachelor’s degree I did a one year work placement working for NGOs in Brussels and Rome. Once I finished my studies I moved to Kenya and worked for a Dutch training and consultancy firm focused on strengthening the management capacity of organizations, their projects and staff. One of my clients was, my current employer who hired me to work on a range of projects for them. When a permanent position opened up there in 2011 I applied, got the job and in February 2013 was promoted to director.

2. How did you hear about the International Management programme?

Once I decided I wanted to further my education with a Master’s degree, I did a lot of research to find a program that would sustain my interest for long enough, be beneficial and equip me with a range of practical skills for whatever future career path I choose but as well offer the necessary degree of flexibility during studies. I came across the RHUL MSc in International Management via the UoL website. RHUL is a prestigious university, the program is accredited by AMBA but more over I like the flexible study approach it offered, the fact that it had face to face plenary sessions and lastly I found the fees reasonable. So I decided to go for it. I know I made the right choice.

3. How did you overcome the challenge of working while studying?

To be honest I am still trying to overcome that challenge to date. Having a full time job with non-regular hours and a lot of travel to places where there is no access to electricity let alone the internet really makes it difficult to plan and schedule for study time. At the beginning I would take my books with me on the plane hoping I would find motivation to study during the long flights but surprisingly in most cases there was always something else more pressing to do such as watching a movie, having a glass of wine or sleeping.
In the end I found that there is no point in forcing things. Sometimes I will go weeks or even months without opening a course book and then all of a sudden the inspiration and motivation just hits me and I start typing away at my TMAs, reading and studying till late at night or during the early morning hours; books, highlighters, papers and colored cards all scattered out across the room. It may not be the traditional approach but this strategy has really worked for me.

4. Were there any particular course modules that you found particularly inspiring and interesting?

I have to say I found all course modules useful. However my top two would be 1) Finance and Accounting and 2) International Business Analysis. The Finance and Accounting module was a mandatory one and it was the last mandatory unit I took. I was quite worried about taking it since I have no background in finance and accounting at all and had always had a bit of a phobia towards numbers. When I started working on it, I really enjoyed it and found it to be quite straight forward. That inspired me then to venture a bit further and take the business analysis unit. Looking at companies’ shareholder reports, being able to interpret them, learning how to calculate different financial ratios and having a better understanding of how the stock market works was something I never expected to be able to do as it is so far removed from my line of
work. But my fear of numbers has since been cured and maybe in another life I will come back as an investment banker.

5. What are your ambitions for the future career wise?

The answer to that question really depends on the day. Sometimes I just want a job which has regular working hours, no tight deadlines, negligible stress where you finish your shift and that is it for the day. Though I am not sure to what extent that kind of a set up actually exists. For the immediate future I think I will remain in the field of Capacity Building, Organizational Development and Institutional Strengthening as it is quite a broad area. I am still learning new things and it has many different interesting angles to it.
However, at some point I do see myself venturing into the field social business as it would allow me to combine the use of business strategies and approaches to achieve sustainable social outcomes. Or to borrow a bit from the sub-title of Prof. Muhammad Yunu’s book, contribute in my own way to a “kind of capitalism that serves humanity’s most pressing needs”.

6. Looking forward – what do you particularly want to contribute to the humanitarian industry?

Looking at the humanitarian sector, I have to say we are quite a committed and passionate bunch. We work long hours in difficult conditions and often with great personal sacrifices. And lets me be clear there is no bonus pay out at the end of the year. However sometimes we get a bit stuck in our ways and lack some of the expedited decision making processes and innovation found in the private sector. Do I think I can change the sector single handedly, of course not. But I would like to walk way eventually knowing that I have contributed in a small way to us thinking outside of the box and approaching things in a slightly different manner at least in the field of capacity building.