Best of
Both Worlds

Philip O’Neill on MBAs, his journey to Japan, and love of fishing

Hailing from Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario, passionate drummer, fisherman and director of the McGill MBA Japan Program Philip O’Neill, has carved out a place for himself in Japan.

He arrived in the nineties, with his life in his backpack. With a bachelor’s degree in Economic Geography from McGill, and one in education from Concordia University in Montreal in hand, he headed to Kyoto in search of adventure.

What are some of your best memories of living in Canada?

I grew up in a beautiful small town. Every year I go back and go fishing for Walley. I grew up on the Great Lakes near Lake Superior and Lake Huron, so I got to be very close to nature and the water.

How did you end up in Japan?

I’ve been interested in Japan since I was a child; I did judo when I was younger and my father was a fan of Japan. When I came to Kyoto to teach English I was still very young and had never travelled.

I tried to go back to Canada, but my girlfriend at the time — now my wife — came to Canada and asked me to come back to Japan, and I did.

That was when I did my MBA. I was in my mid-thirties and wanted to change my career. I studied in Japan, on the Tokyo program and went to Canada for my second year, taking my family with me.

The day I graduated, McGill hired me to come to Japan.

What is the value of having an MBA?

Having an MBA is relatively rare for Japanese individuals, but less so for many executives in international companies.

An MBA is a signal to the market that you are very serious about building up your career or business, and yourself.

The alumni network is another very powerful aspect, and there are about 600 McGill alumni just in Tokyo.

How do the students in Canada and Japan differ?

Our students are a little bit older, with more experience. the average age of students on our program is about 35. The youngest student may be 26 or 27, but that is rare. Some are in their 40s, and occasionally even more experienced.

We often have a large number of women on the program — about 40 percent of students — including lots of working mums. I have great admiration for someone who can juggle the commitments of being a mother and succeed in the program.

A lot of students come from and stay in the pharmaceutical industry. Many have worked in research and need to develop a business background to change careers. Some of them wish to start their own companies, but many want to become more mobile, so that they can change jobs and move into international roles.

How do you think the public and corporate view of an MBA has changed?

It is becoming more positive. There was a time when an MBA was not looked upon so highly in Japan. I think there was a perception in the past that the people studying for an MBA were too young, not committed to their work, and wanting to move around. Now there are a number of Japanese companies where you must have an MBA to move up.

Many companies used to provide employment for life, this has also changed; people want to be more mobile.

What changes are you making to the program?

We are trying to integrate the program more with Canada. Right now our format is all in-class but, from next year, we are going to start introducing a hybrid class with mixed delivery. This means using the Internet and other technologies to interact with professors and share materials.

I hope this hybrid program will help more professionals do an MBA while they
work. An MBA can change your career completely, just as it has done for me and it is a great chance for professionals to develop themselves and their career.

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