Freshly back from a second two-week learning stint in Berlin in Germany, Lauren Woolf, group marketing director for Ogilvy & Maher South Africa is one of two South Africans to sign up for the MBA at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership. The course focuses on research and leadership education for executives in creative industries such as advertising, entertainment, journalism, interactive, media and marketing.

“I was born curious. That’s probably why I believe in the value of continuous learning,” says Woolf. “I knew it was the right choice for me.”

She comments that the vision of Berlin School president Michael Conrad is to see a creatively minded CEO in every creative enterprise. “The school is designed to ensure that creative people can confidently take on positions of leadership.”

The programme is made up of five separate two-week modules, which take place in Berlin, Asia and the United States and can be completed in one or two years, depending on the individual’s preference. In addition to the class work, all participants need to participate in group project work and write and defend a thesis.

Woolf attended the first or ‘kickstart’ module in Berlin September 2012 where she was immersed in business-oriented subjects such as applied accounting; finance and valuation; business strategy; and applied economics.

She says the focus on numbers and strategy can be particularly tough for people in predominantly ‘creative’ roles. “Many creative leaders tend to steer clear of the business management side of things and are often at a disadvantage because of it. That’s what makes this part of the MBA so important and empowering.

“The school doesn’t want to teach you to be an accountant, but to help you master basic business skills and competencies – the things you need to know if you run your own business or work in a business. This is so that your creativity, which is really your strength, doesn’t come across as a disadvantage,” she says.

Woolf’s second two-week stint was in Shanghai and Tokyo where she gained insight into the history, culture and business environments of China and Japan. “I had packed my bags with plenty of speculation and preconception, but when I arrived at our hotel in Shanghai, I knew instantly that, like with most places, this was a city, a country, where I needed to keep an open mind if I wanted to begin unravelling its truth.

“In Asia, I felt I was able to gain valuable and sometimes profound insights about the countries and their people. The number, diversity and intensity of the encounters during the two weeks helped contribute to a more informed perspective. It still feels like a naive perspective – after all our exposure was limited – but I will never think of Asia in the same way as before – personally or professionally,” says Woolf.

Her third two-week trip took her back to Berlin in July 2013 where she was exposed to various areas of learning such as: leader as communicator; strategic talent management; the creative career; fundamentals of leadership; human resource management; ethics; and integrated marketing, among others.

This part of the programme was mostly internally focused – helping the class work though their authentic selves and how this translates to leadership and management styles. “I particularly loved the work we did on effective storytelling as well as the intense four-day process of creative innovation tools and techniques.”

Above all, Woolf has enjoyed working with an international, dynamic and interesting group of people. “There were 22 of us on the first module representing 17 different nationalities. Every day we were confronted by the similarities and differences between us – in group and individual work.”

Woolf says some of the most interesting conversations take place between lectures or over coffee. “The course leaders are there to teach, but also to facilitate peer to peer learning. I’ve learnt a lot about our market from the Brazilians, for example, who have a similar market dynamic to us. I am constantly learning different ways of doing things and finding new approaches to similar challenges.”

In November 2013, Woolf will return to Berlin for the fall module, which covers corporate planning, communication styles, decision making, change management, strategic thinking and corporate finance, among others. January 2014 will see her in America and closer to completing her MBA journey, she’ll defend her thesis in Berlin in June 2014.

As a career woman, wife and mother, Woolf says Ogilvy has been amazing in terms of time and flexibility and creating an environment that is conducive to active learning.
“My husband is supportive and I think it’s good for my kids (two boys) to see their mom working, getting support at home from their dad and learning more. I’m also highly organised.”

She says the experience thus far is enriching her life in many ways. “Each time I return from a two-week trip to Berlin or somewhere else, I come back to the office with a bank of knowledge, a deeper understanding of myself and the business and some practical skills that I can instantly engage.”