July 2016 | Senior Leadership
“When I came to Wharton’s Executive Development Program [EDP] three years ago, I was just about to start a new role at Cisco,” says Tunji Akintokun. “I was responsible for a sales team covering the Middle East, Africa, Russia, and CIS. Now I have a larger role, leading the commercial and partner organizations for Africa. As my career grows, the program has continued to be an invaluable investment.”
Managing teams across such diverse cultures is a challenge that Akintokun says EDP prepared him for. He gained insights from faculty about communicating and leading across boundaries, and also from fellow participants, who came from over 30 countries. He says the executive coaching used in the program, not only for the individual participants but also for the teams they work in over the two weeks, was essential. Coaches observe them working on a highly realistic simulation that serves as a practical application for each day’s classroom content. Individual and team feedback helps them course-correct, learning from mistakes and taking note of what is working well.
“I have a curious nature and want to understand people’s cultures and what makes them tick; but working across cultures requires a good balance between EQ and IQ. Coaching is crucial for me in terms of continuing to develop emotional intelligence and being even more authentic,” says Akintokun. “I have maintained work with an executive coach since EDP; I consider it an investment in myself and my career.”
Akintokun also says he continues to leverage EDP through the people he met in the program. He maintains friendships with a group of them who are located throughout the world. “I continue to learn from every interaction — there is value both ways. We bounce ideas off each other, and share specific knowledge about countries and regions. I’ve been asked about dealings in Russia, Africa, and the Middle East, and have gotten great insights about working in Asia Pacific.” He says one of his fellow participants now works at Cisco, and another helped find a job in Saudi Arabia when a friend relocated.
But coaching and building what he calls a superior network were just two of the benefits of the program. He also cites the simulation, in which teams run a company and negotiate with each other. “The simulation is even more important to me now,” he says, “because I have to look at macroeconomic data, and deal with social and political factors in my position — it’s everything we needed to do when running our company.”
A broader financial lens is another key takeaway. Akintokun says being able to understand balance sheets, how companies are run, how they are valued, and what interests investors has improved work outcomes. “I use that knowledge in my day-to-day business when I look at the partners I deal with. I look at them differently now; I can assess their financial health and value.”
But EDP has not only made a difference in his work at Cisco. Lessons learned have helped him to grow a social enterprise he started in 2012. Your Future Your Ambition helps students from minority and diverse backgrounds get engaged and excited about careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. Younger children attend an annual event at which sponsoring companies offer activities and demonstrations; for older students, there are opportunities for training, mentoring, coaching, and skill-building. In its first year, it attracted 350 students; this year, that number almost tripled.
“When I look at what I need to do to drive this program, I see the elements of EDP coming together. I am dealing with different stakeholders, 250 volunteers, and 30 sponsors and their corporate responsibility teams. I am using the full array of what I learned in a philanthropic way.”
Cisco agrees. The company has not only gotten involved in Your Future Your Ambition, but it has presented Akintokun with the Spirit of Cisco award and Cisco Global Education Champion award.
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