2017 Best EMBAs: Philip Thomas, Duke University (Fuqua)

Philip Thomas

Duke University, Fuqua School of Business

“Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” – that’s what I aspire to.”

Age: 33

Hometown: Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, UK

Fun fact about yourself: I never lost the travel bug from my undergraduate days and have a bucket list goal to reach 100 countries by the age of 40. Currently 84 and counting!

Undergraduate School and Degree:  BA (Honors) Modern European Languages, Durham University, UK,

Where are you currently working? Head of Product Management, Lloyds Banking Group (Consumer Finance Division)

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: Back home, I volunteer with Prince’s Trust, UK’s largest youth charity, supporting young people from troubled backgrounds (educational underachievement, long term unemployed, offenders and care leavers). This involves either business mentoring to assist them setting up their own businesses and gain seed funding or career coaching to help them gain skills and confidence to enter the workplace or training. I’ve been doing this since 2009 and it remains an exceptional way to keep me grounded and develop a leadership approach completely different from my day job or school commitments.  At Lloyds, I also mentor and coach a number of current and ex-colleagues to assist them within their progression, including running a Leadership Development Academy for talented colleagues.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Academically, representing Fuqua on a multinational consultancy initiative in conjunction with IDC (Israel) students has been exceptionally rewarding.  Balancing this commitment to – and associated demands from! – an international client with work and home life has not always been easy but definitely worthwhile.

At Lloyds, managing a team that has successfully delivered a range of business-to-business products to move us from a position of comparative weakness to being market leaders in several areas is a source of enormous professional pride.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? It was working with the team at my previous employee CashFlows to commercialize Europe’s first biometric system for identity and payment authentication. Several years before biometrics had become commonplace, we were winning domestic and European awards for security and innovation.

What was your favorite MBA Course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? Global Markets and Institutions (detailed above) and Management for the Global Executive, taught by Prof Rick Larrick.  his was the first course we studied at Fuqua and Rick was masterful in balancing theory and models with applications that had direct relevance to a class of senior executives. The applicability of learning was instantly apparent when I returned to work and I found my abilities to manage conflict and negotiate more effectively were hugely enhanced.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? I wanted a transformational global experience with a diverse and experienced class, a school with exceptional academics and a strong university identity that would transform the way I would think about business. I also wanted an international experience without any compromise on quality of teaching or the school’s brand. The fact that Duke has some of the best BBQ and beer in the world on its doorstep was a nice bonus!

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? My first team at Fuqua had a sixteen hour time difference and I remember the first working day in my new job at Lloyds having a minor crisis on a team assignment. This involved working through a plan with a colleague in Taiwan on my commute to London, dashing into the only pub at the station with internet that’s open at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning to send an updated copy, running to the office to actually start the new job with the morning punctuated by Whatsapp messages that by lunchtime included Brazil and the East Coast. Seven hours – and a snatched post-work drink with my new team – later, I was back on the train home alternating emails to my boss with Whatsapp messages with half a dozen Fuqua classmates, discussing everything from this assignment to where to go in Buenos Aires before the South American leg of our next residency. Nothing’s taught me to multitask like an Executive MBA

What is your best piece of advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s executive MBA program? The team dynamic begins on day one and is the foundation of your learning – be ready for this and how you’ll adapt to get the best out of yourself and others.

More generally, the best piece of advice I was given regarding an Executive MBA was to accept that there will never be a ‘good’ time to apply so it’s about predicting the ‘least bad’ time and taking a chance on it! That said, if you’re considering Fuqua – trust me when I say it will be the best decision you will ever make.   

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? That it’s all work and no play. I had come to business school expecting to build a network but in all honesty, it’s the friendships forged here that what makes the crazy periods of work/study bearable. everyone has these challenges and supporting each other through them strengthens your collaboration beyond measure.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Not applying when you could get $2 to the pound!

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Janet Burpee – her professional success in building a successful medical technology company is matched by her unparalleled ability to juggle multiple commitments and her generosity of time and dedication to supporting others’ learning.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I emerged from the GMAT having achieved a score beyond I thought myself capable of. Whilst not a requirement for many EMBA programmes, without a quantitative background, I set myself a benchmark score to achieve before considering applying to a top tier school.

Walking to the Underground station that day after five years of indecision, I knew this was the path I was going to follow and I was going to make damn sure I’d do it right.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…working out why I’d hit my ceiling without another several years’ experience.”

What is your favorite company and what are they doing that makes them so special? I have a huge admiration for M-Pesa. In less than 5 years, they created an ecosystem for mobile money across southern Africa and now Asia and they’ve achieved it using the existing mobile handset network. The model of financial inclusion they’ve created has been incredibly successful commercially and had an unquestionable benefit on the lives of millions of people – I can think of very few organizations that can truthfully claim both of these.

If you were a dean for a day, what one thing would you change about the executive MBA experience? Continue to strive for a programme that is transformational and not just an extension of a day job.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? To continue to develop as a leader of consequence with an ability to succeed and achieve results across geographies and who leaves a positive mark on those around them . I’m highly ambitious but do not shoehorn that ambition into a specific job title or position.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? My family and employer for their support throughout the programe should be first and foremost. Equally, my good friends Ed Warrick from London who inspired me to commit to an MBA after years of indecision and Bryan Kondub from North Carolina who first introduced me to Duke (and taught me how to pronounce it properly…Fuqua came a bit later!)

Within Fuqua, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Michael Bulzan and Dan McCLeary and the entire academic and programme staff whose commitment and dedication to our class’ learning has been exemplary. Most importantly, it’s impossible not to call out all 47 of my Fuqua GEMBA classmates for making the experience as incredible as it has been. The learning environment of an Executive MBA is nothing without your peers and I’ve been fortunate to have spent this time with 47 of the most knowledgeable, generous and inspirational individuals you could ever hope to meet.

Within the class, I would mention four individuals – Scott Cattran, Greg Claffey, Suzanne Giroux and Mike Palumbo – all world-class professionals in their respective fields who have made me think smarter and laugh harder than I ever thought possible. It’s an honor and a privilege to share a classroom – and a drink – with all of them and I have no doubt each will be continue to be an exemplar of success in their respective organizations.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? The guy that went out of his way for others and occasionally said some smart things, irrespective of the British accent.

Favorite book: Wild Swans – Jung Chang

Favorite movie or television show: Game of Thrones

Favorite musical performer: Red Hot Chili Peppers – although now being an honorary North Carolinian, I can do an enthusiastic if tuneless karaoke rendition of Wagon Wheel  

Favorite vacation spot: Croatia, Italy, South Africa

Hobbies? Travel, middle distance running and photography. I’ve also committed that post-MBA I’m going back to improving my languages and learning a new one – Arabic and Russian are high on the list!

What made Phil such an invaluable addition to the class of 2017?

“With his witty sense of humor and overall good nature, Phil Thomas is a fun and dynamic class leader.  He provides significant contributions both in and outside of the classroom and is constantly adding value to his classmates’ global experience. Whether organizing a class trip to the Taj Mahal, hosting an alumni dinner in Dubai, or facilitating a class discussion with a guest speaker in Lima, Phil works to make the best of each residency for his classmates. He has easily been one of our most engaged class members in recent years. In addition to his full time job and being a student in a global MBA program, Phil also opted to be part of the Fuqua Client Consulting Practicum working on a consulting project with an Israeli university. We are in awe of how he juggles between all of these commitments so flawlessly!”

Karen Courtney

Assistant Dean

Executive MBA Programs


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