One of Oxford’s most famous literary dons, J R R Tolkien, penned these words in The Hobbit: ‘There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.’
Anyone interested in an advanced degree is certainly looking for something, but especially so when it is a diploma from a world-class business school at one of the world’s oldest universities. During an open house for the diploma programs at Saïd Business School in fall 2022, I listened to a program representative poll the group of prospective students as to why they were interested in an executive diploma. The answers ranged from earning a valuable credential for career advancement, to acquiring new skills for a global marketplace in flux, to obtaining an innovative lens with which to approach one’s industry.
Since beginning the Executive Diploma in Strategy and Innovation in March 2023, I can now say that I’ve found all of these things. As a C-suite officer at a global not-for-profit with a presence in over 100 countries, I have learned tremendously from the program’s internationally recognized and experienced faculty. Module insights on structuring for innovation, forming non-market strategy, shaping nascent markets and executing global strategy have been particularly beneficial as I help to lead strategic planning and implementation at my organization. And as a recipient of the Executive Diploma Scholarship for Women, I have found the program not only to be financially accessible, but also deeply affirming of my leadership.
But as Tolkien surmised, I have also found things for which I didn’t even know I was looking. As a not-for-profit leader in the education sector, I was certain that I would have little in common with my diploma classmates. I assumed they would have comparably more business experience and as such, would be uninterested in my own experiences and lessons from my sector. This could not be further from the truth. What I was not expecting - but what I have found in droves - is friendship.
C S Lewis was another Oxford literary don who was a contemporary and close friend of Tolkien’s. Although best known for The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis wrote about friendship in his book The Four Loves: ‘Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest…The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, "What? You too? I thought I was the only one."'
Some sixty-plus years after he wrote those words, Lewis’s insights resonate with me today at Oxford. This is because it is a fundamental flaw of human nature to think of oneself as an island, as isolated, as different in some way. But the diversity of backgrounds, experiences and nationalities in the diploma program has provided a rich tableau upon which to build friendships. Through class dinners, networking and group discussions, we have had the experience time and time again of saying, ‘You too? You have a similar experience? You have the same interest and passions? You have this same question? This same frustration? The same aspiration? The same dream?’
Through their legendary friendship, Tolkien and Lewis shaped much of the fantasy genre as it exists today. While it remains to be seen what this diploma class will achieve in our careers, the friendships we have formed will surely persist. And when we combine the world-class learning we have experienced in the diploma program with our professional network at Oxford Saïd, diploma graduates have a rich base from which to shape our diverse industries for the future.