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Claire Smith

Degree:

Masters in Major Programme Management

Year:

2015-17

By Claire Smith

A Life in the Day

As published in Kellogg College News Michaelmas 2016

I work from home in south-west London. Commuting on crowded Tube trains every day was sapping. Everything in my office has a purpose or means something to me, from the photographs of my parents and my children, to the books, journals and pictures.

On the wall is my degree certificate from London, so I do not lose it. I was the first member of my family to go to university. I refused to apply to Oxford when I was 18. A teacher at my girls’ grammar school told me I would be a second-class citizen from the outset. So I went to the refuge of nonestablishment troublemakers, the University of London.

A butterfly print from China came from an art shop in Beijing; an embroidered picture of a peacock and a hand carved wooden clock from Pakistan. My Diplomatic Service commission from the Queen describes me as “trusty and well-beloved, of proven industry and fidelity”. I did my best. When Credit Suisse asked me for a reference, I gave them a photocopy of my commission.

A whole shelf is now devoted to course notes and text books for my Masters in Major Programme Management. Around 60 of us come from around the world to Oxford for a four-day module. Describing a major programme is easy: you can name one – the Channel Tunnel, the Sydney Opera House, Crossrail – or you can describe its characteristics – costly, complex, with long schedules, transformational, often delivered late and over budget. Major programmes also involve intangibles, the benefits which different people expect from any given undertaking. Where those expectations of benefit clash, disagreements can arise. So while the usual focus is on cost overrun or the length of time it takes to complete a major programme, navigating through the entire process from conception to completion requires deep knowledge of human behaviour, risk, uncertainty and the shifting sands of what success might be.

You cannot come to Oxford without a college. Kellogg suits me very well. Initial indignation at the absence of courtyards and chapels has been replaced by a far more satisfactory arrangement. Said Business School arranges a dinner each module in a college with courtyards; I am working my way around college chapels with Sung Evensong; but I stay in a warm and comfortable room with an en suite bathroom and have the best coffee in Oxford for my breakfast at Brew. Rooms smelling slightly of old gym shoes never appealed, however atmospheric. Conversations at Kellogg over lunch or dinner are everything you could wish. Last year, arriving by myself for lunch, I was not alone for long. I blog for my programme, a first for me, and I wrote about kindness and conversation last year based on my experiences at Kellogg: mmpm.sbsblogs.co.uk.

The whiteboard in my office lists work in progress, bids sent out. A greater transformation from a UK government career to winning your own work I cannot imagine. When I was a non-executive director on the board of an engineering consultancy, the ratio was said to be 1:10 – you win one out of ten bids you submit. That is about right. The work I have enjoyed most has included some complex role-plays to improve communication skills for international mid-level managers; and a project in the Middle East working with young people starting their working lives. Role-playing draws on the acting I did at school, but there are other sources. Saki wrote a lovely short story about the downtrodden relation getting her own back by being the official quarreller in a shared house.

Speaking engagements feature more and more, talking about negotiation, about the roles and responsibilities of trustees and non-executive
directors, about effective communication, about China. I have spoken about Chinese artefacts in Scotland for an Edinburgh auction
house; about an international life, including featuring on a North Korean postage stamp and talking to the Taliban, for a national
conference of facilities managers.

A shelf of foreign policy and international security journals links my old life with my occasional lecturing as a former practitioner on postgraduate programmes. Working mostly with international students, I have already applied some of the frameworks from the MMPM to my teaching. Last term’s students appreciated the fact I was studying, too. Most of them combine work and study, a tough
option.

Constructing your own Oxford is easier when you have a certain amount of experience. Before becoming a student here, I slipped in
and out of Nuffield for meetings of the Oxford Intelligence Group. As a trustee and adviser at Ampleforth, a Benedictine monastery in
Yorkshire, I attend one meeting a year at St Benet’s, the Permanent Private Hall on St Giles. How a female non-Catholic came to be advising a monastery is something you can ask me when you sit next to me at lunch. I spoke at St Benet’s after dinner one evening about social justice in Pakistan. At a smaller PPH, sitting around one table with the Master means everyone is included in the conversation. It
resembles Kellogg in its hospitality, friendliness and quality of conversation.

Someone recently published a guide to being a best-selling author: plot, title, characters. An Oxford setting surprisingly did not feature. I have wondered if Barbara Pym’s characters, Miss Morell and Miss Doggett, lived near where Kellogg is now. Guillermo Martinez’s The Oxford Murders is one of the most poignant novels I have read; Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay a curiosity. Learning about a place through fiction has advantages.

What has Oxford given me so far? A mentor, my first-ever, much-needed and greatly appreciated. A connection to Oxford Strategic Consulting through William Scott-Jackson, also of Kellogg. Dialling-in to a video conference in a Hollywood movie studio to talk about my career and experience of major programmes, thanks to one of my classmates. A gateway to the next phase of my working life.

Claire Smith

Claire Smith

Claire Smith is a postgraduate student at Said Business School, undertaking a two-year Executive (part-time) MSc programme in Major Programme Management. After graduating in German and French from London University, she joined what was then called HM Diplomatic Service. She studied Mandarin full-time before her first posting to Beijing. During her unconventional career as a diplomat, she worked for a Swiss bank, was seconded to the German Foreign Ministry and the UK Cabinet Office, was evacuated from Pakistan after 9/11 and ran a large department in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She now runs her own small company providing specialised training programmes, lectures as a former practitioner on postgraduate programmes, and speaks regularly on a range of topics, including negotiation.

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