How an Executive MBA helped Renee Shepherd through COVID-19
When Renee Shepherd enrolled at Melbourne Business School, she didn't expect to deal with COVID-19 – as a student, or as part of the government's response team.
To enhance her career after taking maternity leave, Renee decided to enrol in our Executive MBA program, which was last month ranked the best of its kind in Australia in the QS Executive MBA Rankings 2021.
"I had been thinking for a long time about postgraduate study, and wanted to do something that gave me the most career options, rather than going down a specialist path," she says.
"A friend of mine did EMBA and in talking to her, I liked the sound of what it offered. I liked the breadth of it, I liked the applicability to my work, but also the fact it would stretch my skills beyond what I had been getting through work."
The program is designed for experienced managers who want to complete an MBA degree without putting their career on hold. Students stay on-site at Melbourne Business School for 17 long-weekend modules over 18 months, traditionally including one module in Asia, when travel restrictions allow.
Just a few weeks after the first module, COVID-19 established a foothold in Australia and turned Renee's work life – along with everything else – upside down.
"Prior to maternity leave, I was managing a branch that was reforming the state's disability policies to enable us to integrate with the National Disability Insurance Scheme. It was a reform-oriented role," she says.
"But when I returned to work a year later, the world had changed and the department that I worked in had changed considerably."
To help fight the pandemic, Renee began a secondment as Manager, COVID-19 Legislation Policy in the Victorian Department of Health, working on the government's plan for slowing the spread of the virus.
"I went into the COVID-response division, where I worked in a policy team focused on the COVID-19 restrictions for Victoria," she says.
"We worked closely with the clinicians in our public health team and the lawyers in our legal team to bring the health and legal expertise together to develop the Chief Health Officer directions that Victoria relies on to manage the pandemic. My role has recently evolved into managing the team that is developing new pandemic legislation for Victoria."
Studying an Executive MBA while working in such a critical role, as well as managing the demands of family life during lockdown, was almost overwhelming – but Renee says the challenge actually helped her pull through.
"That time was really difficult for everybody. I think the transition to working from home, the demands of work, the demands of home life in an ever-evolving situation, and right in the middle of a long Melbourne winter – it was really hard," she says.
"I liked having the EMBA there. In a really challenging year, with a lot of things feeling like they'd been put on hold, it was nice to have something that I was working towards, and I knew I'd come out of it with a huge achievement – so that was enough to keep me going."
Due to her work, Renee had a unique view of the unfolding COVID-19 situation, including the effect that decisions about restrictions had on her family, friends and other students in the program.
"It was a really strange experience working every day on policies that have an immediate and significant impact on all Victorians. It was humbling and terrifying and amazing, all at once," she says.
"Seeing the challenges of my own life and my family playing out in the EMBA cohort was hard. I knew how hard it was for myself, and I could see the rest of the cohort dealing with the same challenges. It was a reminder of the impact of my role on the community."
Despite the unexpected result of studying online for most of 2020, the students managed to form strong connections with each other throughout the 18 months.
"The most surprising thing about EMBA was the cohort," Renee says.
"MBS does a great job of selling the cohort experience you'll have and the network that you'll gain, but I think experiencing it for yourself is a completely different proposition.
"There was a real sense of camaraderie and genuine interest in each other, and I loved the diversity of experiences and opinions that everyone brings. I think I had anticipated feeling like an outsider, being from government, but that wasn't the case."
As for developing her career skills, Renee says she surprised herself by working with community organisation The Push to help them develop a new five-year strategy, using all the skills she had learned in business strategy, marketing and finance.
"I was really skeptical going into it," she says.
"Even though I was really excited, I felt a little bit under-deserving, or like I had imposter syndrome. What could a handful of MBA students possibly have to offer an organisation?
"But I'm really proud of the work that we did and I'm also really pleased with how easy it felt to draw on all of our previous modules and everything we had learned, and apply it to a real organisation and a real challenge.
"They were really appreciative of the work we'd done, and in particular enjoyed the different perspectives that we brought. We saw genuine gratitude and thanks from the CEO. I'm excited to see how their work evolves over the next few years. To know that we were a small part of that is just amazing."
It's that sort of experience which has already led Renee to recommend the Executive MBA program to her friends and colleagues as well.
"I would definitely encourage people to do an MBA – in fact, I already have. I've spoken to friends and everyone to say that it's an amazing challenge, that you get more out of it than what the brochures tell you," she says.
"There are tangible benefits of an MBA, like the incredible skills you learn that are applicable to all sorts of jobs and roles, but the intangible benefits can't be overstated.
"The enduring support of the cohort, the access to so many amazing people, the confidence that it gives you and how much it opens up your career choices – it just gives you so much."