Meet Barry van Zyl: Among world’s top rock ‘n rollers, he’s acing an MBA.

Barry van Zyl is one of the seemingly endless stream of low-profile, over-achieving South Africans who have risen to the global pinnacle in a highly competitive industry. A masterful musician, he has drummed in concert and recordings for superstars including Carlos Santana, Peter Gabriel, Annie Lennox, Brian May, Robert Plant, Joan Baez, Bono – and even Warren’s famous cousin Jimmy Buffett. For almost three decades, Van Zyl has also been the resident drummer in South Africa’s most successful musical export, the Johnny Clegg band. Over the weekend Van Zyl was the focal point of a lengthy piece in the Financial Times of London headlined “A music industry MBA is the new rock ‘n roll.“As Barry already has a hugely successful career, I asked him to share the reasons why he’s tackling an MBA at this stage of his life – a qualification he’s been acing, by the way, despite a punishing schedule supporting Clegg onstage during his recent US tour. Inspirational. – Alec Hogg

Barry van Zyl - from professional music on a punishing US tour to MBA distinctions
Barry van Zyl – the professional musician who cracked MBA distinctions despite a punishing US tour.

By Barry van Zyl*

I became aware of the Henley Executive MBA and Music and Creative Industries add-on option in 2013. I enrolled and started in May 2015 and have now completed two thirds of the 30 month program. The experience has been a game changer on a number of levels and the Henley Business School and culture have surpassed my expectations.

I started this journey being fairly comfortable within the Music & Creative Industries space, but daunted by the Executive MBA module workshops and material. After two years of massive adjustment and learning I am equally comfortable in either context, with my standout modules being Finance, Strategy and International Business.

Why I decided to sign up for the Henley MBA

I had been wanting to up-skill and make life changes on a personal development level for over five years. Inertia, fear of change and lack of clear mentorship were my biggest challenges. I had considered options such as furthering my music studies as well as lecture opportunities in the USA, however these didn’t resonate authentically for me.

I started developing an interactive presentation on Creativity in 2013 along with Josh Hawks of Freshly Ground.  Jon Foster-Pedley (Dean of Henley Africa) became aware of our work and invited us to incubate these workshops at Henley. This triggered my MBA journey, initially by interacting with program members and faculty, and heightening my awareness.

Some of the personal challenges I’ve encountered

I started the MBA program pretty much ‘under the radar’, with little communication to my immediate network. This was not a conscious strategy, but probably driven by initial success uncertainty and anxiety. As my confidence grew my network communication increased. Since then I’ve only had enthusiastic encouragement from my musical community.

Image courtesy of Twitter
Image courtesy of Twitter

My top three ‘fears’ on starting the MBA as follows:

  1. Not being at the same peak level academically as the other program members.
  2. Not having commercial/corporate experience and people management expertise.
  3. Not having the time.I had a few dark moments during year one, and considered leaving more than once. However the Henley culture and environment creates an accessible safety net for when the tightrope feels overly high and unmanageable. Jon Foster-Pedley has provided unwavering stability, and now that tightrope feels a lot closer to earth!

How I’ve managed to keep up to date while touring

An interesting story was starting year two of the MBA by missing the Strategy module workshop week because of a lengthy North American concert tour (50 concerts and cities in 3 months) with the Johnny Clegg Band.

I had to assimilate the reading materials and complete the Strategy project (a 5000 word real world case study) plus submit my Personal Development 2 project, from the road before the tour ended.

My strategy to manage Strategy was to improvise a study tour schedule whereby I utilised every available bit of downtime. For e.g.: the green room after the soundcheck and pre showtime, festival artist spaces, tour bus lounges, mobile home changing rooms etc etc (see attached photos)

This risky endeavour turned out successfully and I achieved distinctions for both projects.

Goals and Expectations

My overarching goals are gaining a tool-set to transfer a good idea into a sustainable value offer, new language skills and a broadened network.

I’m planning to achieve a successful transition from touring musician to creative entrepreneur, within the next five years.

I am pursuing a consultancy role in entertainment, executive education facilitation and definitely more formal (and informal) learning.


I’ve significantly increased my study, reading and retention capabilities. My ability to analyse, process and manage data and situations has grown. My network resources are growing rapidly and I’m having conversations with a confidence and style previously not available to me. (These reflections have all been independently endorsed by friends and colleagues)

Johnny Clegg
Johnny Clegg

In closing, I’ve developed two camps really: a music network and a new Henley sourced and affiliated network. My communication channels are different for each group. For example Facebook/Instagram for the entertainment world (long established) and LinkedIn for my ‘MBA world’ (newly established)

I’ve had excellent help and mentorship while establishing a new ‘brand’, which is an ongoing activity of transition. I’ve noticed that through personal development, raised self awareness and energy to engage that people are reacting to me differently.

Opinions are changing in what I perceive to be positive direction. An interesting thing is that I’m starting to emerge as a ‘thought leader’ in both camps, with more frequent requests for strategic help.

  • Barry van Zyl is a professional musician who graduated cum laude from music colleges in the USA, has recorded/played with some of the world’s greatest musicians and, since 1999, has been the drummer for the Johnny Clegg band, South Africa’s most successful musical export. Email him on [email protected].