UL MBA alumni feature

Marie Clifford

2017 MBA graduate

The single most important thing I learned during my time studying for the MBA was to step back and take a bird’s eye view; to work on improving the business, not just firefighting problems; this has proved valuable even at the peak of the COVID pandemic.

When I joined industrial engineering firm, Advanced Technical Concepts, in November 2008, it was during the height of the global financial crisis. I learnt a lot during that time, but I always felt I was firefighting, dealing with one problem after another and never really getting time out to focus on a future strategy. Consequently, when I took over as Managing Director in 2010, I knew I wanted to do things differently.

I was keen to see what could be achieved by taking a more structured approach, but I needed a broader understanding of the factors that could affect the growth and scale of small to medium sized companies. To improve my strategic thinking and decision-making, I opted to study for an MBA.

At that time, my daughters were of primary school age, and I was working full time, so it was imperative that my studies be flexible to allow for this. The course at UL, with its three-day blocks per month, was the most suited from that perspective and the caliber of the lecturers and the content was excellent. The MBA covered a variety of topics such as strategic thinking, scenario planning, leadership skills and implementing strategic direction. Overall, I really liked the format and found the interactive learning and group work incredibly stimulating.

Effective leadership skills

Improved strategic thinking was the biggest takeaway for me from the course. Probably the single most important thing I learned was to step back and take a more holistic view; to work on improving the business, not just firefighting problems – something which has served me well, even at peak of the COVID pandemic.

The MBA taught me to take the time to reflect on what has happened and how I might improve things. Since doing the MBA I always question, ‘how can we do better?’

Thanks to the critical-thinking and scenario planning skills developed, I am now actively forward planning and working out strategically where I want the company to be and how we are going to get there. Not only that, but the programme also gave me a big confidence boost.

Clear communication is essential. It’s also important to remain factual and analytical, but the MBA also made me realize the importance of asking better questions. With these core skills, and the right people on board, ATC has been able to significantly enhance and extend the engineering solutions we offer to industry.
Inspired by the MBA, I also put a lot of time and energy into hiring great people and investing in their training and development so they can help grow the business. ‘Having the right people on the bus’ as American researcher and author James C. (Jim) Collins puts it is key. As a leader, I value the fact that a great team provide a sounding board for ideas, as well as enabling me to focus on strategy to take advantage of opportunities and deal with threats facing the company.

Without the critical-thinking skills I learnt during the MBA, I’m not sure I would have been be so well equipped to modify my strategy and adapt to rapidly changing conditions.

Obviously, the biggest threat we have faced in recent times is COVID. Having a solid team around me has certainly been of benefit in tackling the situation and the economic uncertainty it has produced.

Drawing on my MBA learnings, I realized very quickly that keeping the team informed and engaged would be vital. In the first few weeks of the pandemic, I worked hard to touch base with every member of staff so they were aware of what was going on and could ask questions. This helped to keep everyone engaged and as a result we were able to make changes rapidly.

We had previously set out clear goals for 2020, but we had to adapt swiftly. Instead, we switched to working on projects that had been earmarked for 2021 as they were more process- oriented and therefore more suited to remote working. The decision-making tools I developed during the MBA were invaluable in helping me think on my feet and gave me the confidence to be agile and change according to the needs of our customers.

Once again, that big picture thinking I learnt at UL proved indispensable. Our work in China meant we could see the potential threat posed by COVID. We started contingency planning and thus were equipped when the first lockdown was imposed. Without the scenario planning skills, I had learnt during the MBA, I’m not sure I would have been be so well equipped to modify my strategy and adapt to rapidly changing conditions.

Tools for strategic growth

I regularly go back to the tools and concepts I learnt during my MBA; to revisit and refresh my understanding.

As we move forward into a post-COVID world, I’m still very focused on growing and scaling the business. Although there are still a lot of unknowns in relation to the pandemic and its effect, I’m confident business will rebound, and ATC will adapt to maximize our potential.

Thanks to the MBA, I’m able to take a broader business perspective. I’m very clear on what we need to achieve, and we have a structured vision for the next five years. Now more than ever, I’m focused on hiring the right talent and helping people to develop and grow. And of course, I continue to scan the horizon for the next risks and opportunities.

One of the most important facets of effective, strategic leadership is to identify and take control of the things we can influence – including my own learning and development. I regularly go back to the tools and concepts I learnt during my MBA; to revisit and refresh my understanding. For example, while revisiting our marketing strategy recently, my starting point was a book and material by John Fahy, Professor of Marketing at UL.

I’m very grateful that I could avail of the opportunity to do the MBA. It gave me the tools to take a more rounded approach to the business and instilled those core leadership skills I was lacking, but it also gave me a thirst for self-development. There's always more for me to learn and I’ve no doubt this will help me unlock further potential for ATC’s growth in the future.

  • Home Region: Limerick, Ireland
  • Undergrad Education: BA European Studies (Public Affairs)
  • Current Role: Managing Director, Advanced Technical Concepts

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