MBA success stories: Mat Barrow, Alliance Manchester Business School

Mat Barrow is CEO of healthcare technology company X-Lab. He’s set to graduate with an MBA from Alliance Manchester Business School later this year, and shares the story of his own MBA journey and how it’s had an impact on his career and leadership style

Can you  explain a little about current role?

I’m the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of X-Lab, a UK healthcare technology company of focussed on improving integration and patient care, primarily around diagnostic testing where we are working to replace manual paper-based interactions between clinicians and laboratories with digital workflows.

Our main product is known as the National Pathology Exchange (NPEx) in the UK, and has close to 100% adoption. In early 2020, we were selected by the UK government to build the integration service for UK Covid testing, which required the rapid scaling of the platform capacity from around 100 tests per hour to over 2 million tests per hour.

Where and when did you achieve your MBA?

I completed and submitted the last assignments at the end of 2020 to Alliance Manchester Business School and I’m hoping to hear confirmation soon that I will graduate summer 2021.

Why did you want to study for an MBA in the first instance? And why did you choose to do an MBA at this particular School?

While I was experienced in running companies and leading teams, I felt that I would need an MBA as the formal education to qualify me for similar roles with bigger and more prestigious organisations. I expected it to be something of a tedious formality, I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be a fascinating and fulfilling experience. I couldn’t have been any more wrong with my expectations!

I chose Alliance Manchester Business School as it has a great reputation and I have a longstanding fondness with Manchester – I studied at UMIST/UoM as an undergraduate, Manchester was the first place I lived when I moved away from home and more recently, I had established and built a company there.

When I spoke to the admissions team, it was clear that the Global Accelerated MBA was perfect for me, the opportunity to study abroad and with a diverse, high-calibre group of multinational candidates was very exciting, and reflected the global nature of business (this was pre-Covid). I really liked the split of group work and individual assignments, and the small, closed cohort of around 25 people would allow me to build some long-term relationships.

In hindsight, I’m really pleased that I did choose Alliance Manchester Business School as the way they handled the transition to online lectures during Covid, and especially the continuous improvement processes that they followed gave me a far better experience than friends I had at other institutions.

What is the most interesting thing you learnt from your MBA?

It feels unfair to pin just one thing when the whole course was so interesting, but I especially enjoyed the module on Venture Capital and Private Equity (VCPE). I had exited my last company as part of a PE investment round, so I’d experienced it as an executive/shareholder in the target company and it was fascinating to understand the process from the investor side. This will also help me to take the right actions to maximise enterprise valuation and minimise due diligence risk in future investment rounds. 

What were some of the challenges you faced when studying for an MBA?

The two biggest challenges were finding time to focus and the impact of Covid, and perhaps also the combination of these.

When I started the MBA, I was working 3-4 days a week and had kept a weekday free for the MBA leaving me weekends with the family. With the onset of the Covid pandemic and the huge demand for our services, I was working 100+ hour week for most of 2020. I was able to multi-task by listening to audiobooks whilst commuting rather than reading the text books, but I recognised that context switching between the MBA and work in real time was ineffective, so I ended up booking blocks of time when I’d work on the MBA, and then plan for that as I might plan for a holiday, with a deputy, handover plan and out of office email response. That wasn’t ideal, but it was the only way I could balance the demands on my time.

Covid changed the ways of working from face to face to online learning, and this made the collaborative group work especially challenging, but an MBA is perhaps nothing if not the best preparation for leading a business, and so learning how to work collaboratively in the high-pressure scenario of group work for a deadline was great preparation for what was going on in my professional life.

How has the MBA made a difference to your career path and leadership journey?

It’s too early to know from a career perspective, but it’s certainly opened my eyes to new paths. Historically, I’ve built or rescued high-growth technology businesses, and I anticipated that my career trajectory would see me doing similar, but for larger organisations in future. The MBA has opened my eyes to areas that I hadn’t previously considered, and the idea of working with a PE house across many businesses really appeals to me.

From a leadership perspective, there’s no doubt that a greater appreciation for the different aspects of the business – rather than just those that I have direct experience of – has allowed me to better lead and support those divisions. The nature of the team working and the calibre of candidates in my Global Accelerated cohort also forced me to up my game with regard to leading peers and groups of very capable people who are accustomed to being leaders themselves. The requirement for a greater degree of humility, listening and reflection has evolved my general leadership style.

In what interesting ways have you taken what you have learnt in your MBA into the organisation for which you work?

It’s been nothing short of transformational. I joined my current organisation at about the same time as starting the MBA. At that time, the company had a great product and fantastic people, but significant problems with the commercial, operational, governance and general management of the company. I was brought in because the owners had recognised that without intervention the business would be bankrupt within 18 months.

I saw it as an opportunity to run a live business project, applying what I was learning in real time to the organisation, and without taking anything away from the hard work and dedication of all of the staff, I attribute a large part of the fact that 20 months in and thriving to what I was able to apply from the MBA. Not only were we able to survive the impending bankruptcy and the risks of Covid, we had developed the mindset and agility to see and capitalise on the opportunity that Covid presented.

We are now a profitable, growing organisation with long-term orders and a full prospect pipeline. This has allowed us to invest in the business and staff and we’re expanding the service into a number of new countries as we build out our global diagnostic exchange, Labgnostic.  

As a bonus, I hired three of my cohort at Alliance Manchester Business School and one of my lecturers as COO, CFO, Consultant Sales Director, and Chairman respectively.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about studying for an MBA?

Don’t hesitate any longer, I considered it many times but put it off for over 10 years, waiting for the right time. The reality is that with kids and work, life only ever gets busier until retirement, by which time you’ve missed the opportunity to reap the benefits. I think 30-35 would have been the ideal age for me, but even a few years later, the experience was still amazing.

There’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a lot of work, and it will feel hard at times, but it’s incredibly rewarding and hugely enjoyable. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have met and built long-lasting friendships with some wonderful, truly world-class people across the teaching and student community, and I wholeheartedly recommend Alliance Manchester Business School and the Global Accelerated MBA.

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