Former Canadian Army Colonel turned MBA shares his journey from warzone to the world of business education.
Enrolling at military college aged just 18, Andrew Zdunich had little idea where his career would take him. During the next 26 years, Zdunich served first as a tank officer, then equerry to the Governor General, armour school instructor, and commanding a reconnaissance regiment in the reserve. He was posted throughout Canada, Bosnia and the Central African Republic and completed two tours in Afghanistan. But it was around the time of his final deployment he decided it was time for a change:
“I led a multinational directorate in a front-line NATO mission during my last tour of Afghanistan. It was a career high, and the perfect time to retire”, he explains.
Within a month of returning to civilian life he found himself in Dubai and Libya, working for one of the world’s largest security companies. A year and a half later he made the move to Scotland to start a new life with his Edinburgh-born fiancé, and established his own security consultancy, Talos International Services. But at first he was unsure if entrepreneurship was for him:
“Running your own business is challenging and at times I have questioned whether or not I had the means and drive necessary to make it successful”.
A visit to Cambridge sparked the idea to return to study: “I looked to the MBA to tell me what I didn’t know about business in general. I also hoped it would reaffirm I was on the right track as an entrepreneur or, failing that, equip me with the tools to do something else.”
Initially attracted by the opportunity to continue working while completing the part-time Executive MBA at University of Edinburgh Business School, the opportunity to take time out and push hard to finish in a year ultimately swayed him to apply for the full-time programme. With the application deadline looming, he threw himself into the process: “I came out of the den a couple of hours later and said to my fiancé, I’ve just applied for my MBA. Surprise!”
His application emphasised his background in strategy and leadership built in challenging areas and circumstances. Without any formal business education in his past, he was surprised not only to be accepted, but to be awarded the highest leadership scholarship.
Now experiencing civilian university life for the first time as he approaches 50, Zdunich is finding fresh challenges and surprising benefits:
“The University is such a big part of Edinburgh and it’s been wonderful to be ‘inside’ the institution. My previous degrees were in a military setting, and I hadn’t gone through any type of mathematics or finance exams in decades.
“Some think MBAs need a business and numbers background which I don’t have. But the programme is all about giving the space to try new things and making mistakes in a safe environment. It also teaches you to look to others for help – being successful anywhere requires more than individual effort.
The first day of the course held another surprise – fellow student Kelsey Strub not only had a military background but was also serving in Afghanistan in 2012, as a Captain in the US Air Force.
“We were sharing some of our pictures from our time there and she suddenly said, ‘I remember seeing you when you at that camp!’ I suppose there weren’t many bald Canadian Colonels walking about.”
Despite the differences in their experiences, ranks, countries and length of military career, he found some commonalities: “Listening to her perspective, so fresh from service, is like hearing my own thoughts from years ago. I can see how different I’ve become. It’s also a reminder not to forget the basics, even though experience has grown.”
Looking to the future, Zdunich is continuing to keep his options open, happy to pivot himself or his business with changing circumstances:
“The MBA has reinforced that I enjoy the autonomy and having responsibility for my own business, and there is no black magic involved in being successful. It has been the accelerator I wanted, both personally and professionally. It has helped me shape plans going forward. It’s been an investment in myself, but also in my company.”
Andrew Zdunich is founder and Managing Director of Talos International Services, and full time MBA student at University of Edinburgh Business School. An original version of this blog appeared on QS TopMBA.