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The all-rounder

Photo: Cassim Motala
Cassim Motala reflects on the value and versatility of an MBA, how it shaped his career, and what the UCT Graduate School of Business is doing to shape South Africa’s business landscape.

“When my business failed for reasons beyond my control,” says Cassim Motala, “the credibility that I got from my MBA allowed me to secure a position at Rand Merchant Bank through The “Class Of” programme which was started by Paul Harris who wanted to recruit those who were not from the traditional accounting, CFA or law backgrounds.”

Motala says that the MBA was a bridge that allowed him to move from his experience as an early gaming industry startup entrepreneur to one of the most respected corporates in South Africa. “Harris was looking for creativity in his recruits. People that would be special in their own way and almost challenge the incumbents with their oddball thinking.”

When he applied for the job, Motala indicated on his covering letter that the reason he was applying for the job in the first place was that he had lost all his money on a business venture because his other two partners had irreconcilable differences with each other. “Which they told me was the funniest thing they had ever read on a job application,” he laughs.

It also helped that Motala obtained some of the highest grades for his MBA in the class. “This piece of paper that proved that I could get my head around the quants,” he smiles.

In the role of private equity, which was Motala’s chosen path at RMB, “the degree gave me insights into many parts of the business, from strategy to organisational design to operations and finance. You’re kind of doing company analysis on steroids. And looking at all of the data as a whole gave me something of an edge over some of my colleagues who were only focused on the numbers, or who are exceptional at what they did, but I felt that I had more frames that I could use to understand beyond this”

As a student in 2003, Motala was involved in the replacement of the part-time MBA programme with the GSB’s current offering, its Modular MBA, through his involvement in the School’s Transformation Committee. And today he is still passionate about the evolution of the UCT GSB’s programmes and the School’s role and relevance in today’s rapidly evolving business environment.

“I think many more businesspeople need to get involved,” he says. “Involved in accessibility, involved in teaching, involved in creating broader content and context. When I came out of the MBA I realised that many of the skills I had learned didn’t come from the theory. They came from the many, many micro-discissions that needed to be made in the chaos that is the real business environment.

“To understand all of the cogs in a corporate you have to be more of a Generalist. An MBA gives you the ability to see the bigger picture and to deal with volume of content that you have to distill into insight and choice, simulating business. This isn’t where it stops though, business also needs you to be able to hustle, and to bootstrap which business school cannot teach you.”

There are few people who are able to zoom into the detail and zoom out to broader strategic considerations – much like in physics, where a quantum equation can only ever give you either the position or the momentum of a subatomic particle, but not both. Making a UCT Graduate School of Business alumnus a particularly valuable Jack of All Trades.

“That’s why in my career I always hire people who are much, much smarter than I am – to drill into the detail of a particular aspect of a business, and deliver the insights that will answer the question: if you look at it from the level of all the disciplines, and our forecasts and models, and the various drivers, and even our competitors: does this make sense? And the closer you are to all of that detail while being able to look at it in the most holistic way, the better you are at responding.”

Everyone knows the expression ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’. But not many people know that it is just the first part of a longer adage, which changes its meaning and connotations significantly:

Jack of all trades.
Master of none
But oftentimes better
Than master of one


Useful resources:
University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business
UCT GSB is internationally renowned as one of a few business schools in Africa with the prestigious triple-crown accreditation with endorsements from EQUIS, AACSB and AMBA.
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