Oops, I became a lecturer: My career after Thunderbird

Brigitte Opel

Brigitte Opel

Thunderbird Alumna, Class of 1995

When I chose to study business administration, my objective was to become a consultant. My thought process was simple: ask your client so many questions that eventually they give you the answer they want to hear! It had the ring of an easy job with lots of traveling and meeting many interesting people. 

Strangely, none of the consulting firms felt that I was cut out for the job. Maybe it was because my facial expressions easily give away if I think that things don’t add up or are blown out of proportion. Besides being smart and diplomatic, you also need a poker face to be a consultant. 

My dreams of being a consultant dashed, I took a job with IBM. In my role, I had the opportunity to negotiate and direct a European project across a few countries and several layers of hierarchy to optimize their maintenance processes and cost. It was a cool job, with the travelling and the language exposure that I enjoy so much. 

After 17 years, however, I quit my job at IBM and became a consultant after all – but in a different field. I got to use my experience in multinational project work and negotiations to help others with their intercultural communication. It’s a fascinating job; every customer has a different question about a different country. The questions are never the same, so it keeps being fun and interesting to me. Lifelong learning is the motto!

A few weeks ago, my career path took another turn. I was asked to become a lecturer at the Netherlands university NHL Stenden in their academy of Industrial Engineering. I took the job because I like the interaction with students, and I hope that I can make their path easier than mine was. With a bit of luck, I can pass on a broader perspective and open minds, too. But I had no specific subject to teach and found that pretty vague. Also, my knowledge of cost elements, accounting, and decision models is clearly not up to par!

Three weeks into the job, I realize that I still have no specific field of expertise assigned to my name.  If you ask me what my specialty is, I couldn’t say. And maybe that’s the key: I learned a lot of business theories, models, and formulas during my university studies in Germany. At Thunderbird, I learned how that translates to common sense, strategic thinking, and communicating with your business partners around the world. So what is my expertise? What can I pass on to the students whose eyes stare at me with impatience (partially because they are eager to learn, with the rest waiting to be released into the sun)?

I have learned to see the bigger picture, the entire process, and the purpose of a business venture. I can tell you what is at the core of the value chain and what is the need that it fulfills. It’s a crucial skill when it comes to process re-engineering, negotiations with suppliers and customers, price calculations, and cost cutting exercises. 

I also have learned to be aware of the details in the process, the sequence of events, and the critical path forward. I can tell students to avoid trying to scale up or down or implement a change without this in mind. 

I have learned to identify key stakeholders and how to keep them informed and happy. I know what they are looking for in actions and in results, how they want to see them presented, and how to make others see the benefit of my work. I understand how I should phrase requests for extra time, support, or money.

Finally, I have learned to connect with people from various backgrounds and see them for their amazing personality, contributions, and talent. 

In my first couple weeks as a lecturer, I learned on the job that although I have no formal field of expertise, I have a lot of valuable insights in the field of business to pass on to students in the classroom. So far, they have listened to me patiently – and I have only just begun! 

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