When Wayne Bishop, Jr. applied to Suffolk University’s Executive MBA Program in Boston, he hoped to attain greater career advancement with his present employer, Doble Engineering. At the time, Bishop held 14 years of professional experience and currently worked as a Product Manager, responsible for $30 million in business development in the power and utility industry with managerial responsibility for 6 direct reports. While in the program, his professional charge would expand to developing Doble’s entire product program and training 60 representatives worldwide annually.
During his admissions interview, Bishop indicated that he had enjoyed his volunteer experience as a teenager with the Boy Scouts, earning an Eagle Scout designation, which only 2 percent of all Boy Scouts reach at this level. This in turn, helped the EMBA Selection Committee assess his leadership potential, in addition to considering his professional work experience. Within a few weeks, Bishop was accepted to the Executive MBA Program and began his double-edged odyssey—meeting full-time job responsibilities at Doble while managing academic expectations and ever-present deadlines in a full-time graduate program every Saturday.
Most Executive MBA programs are very different from a regular full-time or part-time MBA program. On average, Executive MBA students hold a minimum of 10 years or more of professional experience and at least 5 or more years of managerial experience and are generally mid-to-senior level managers. However, that is where the homogeneity ends.
In Wayne’s case, he was about to meet a group of classmates called a “cohort”-- people who would become his greatest champions, toughest critics, and ongoing career advisors. In essence, the cohort would become his EMBA nuclear family while at Suffolk.
The Executive MBA cohort structure promotes the personal development of each student within a team-centric environment. Students take advantage of the variety of backgrounds and distinct experiences of their classmates while facilitating new networking opportunities. Typically, a cohort size can range from 15 to 50 students.
The cohort experience is unique in many Executive MBA programs. Metaphorically, the cohort is like a “school” of fish that starts and ends its EMBA experience together, taking a sequence of courses and course modules together, and from which the group does not diverge.
Wayne’s cohort consisted of a Russian physicist from a large defense company; a life insurance sales professional; two financial services managers; an Indian IT assistant vice president from an investment firm; a chief compliance officer in health care who planned to eventually pursue a political career; an IT trainer from a community bank; a financial analyst, formerly with a state pension fund who had recently completed his Master’s in Finance at Suffolk; a former law student planning to pursue the music recording industry; an HR director who previously served as a U.S. personnel officer in Operation Desert Storm where she had command of 500 soldiers; a former district manager of CVS Drug stores; a professionally qualified engineer from China working in the power utility industry; an operations manager for a top design firm; a director of corporate financial reporting for a speech recognition imaging services company; and a general manager of sales for an imaging company. All were carefully screened, reviewed, and interviewed before gaining acceptance to the Suffolk Executive MBA Program.
The EMBA Journey Begins: Orientation Serves to Breaks the Ice
The first day that Wayne walked into the Omni Parker House Hotel for orientation, he expected to hear where he should report for class and the program’s academic expectations, and to register for his various courses. While he knew he would meet new classmates, he thought that he would probably not have a lot in common with them. However, he was about to have an “Ah-Ha” moment.
Professor Michael Barretti, Academic Director of the Suffolk Executive MBA Program, kicked off the session by indicating that new students were about to experience an “academic crucible” where they would be responsible for meeting the challenges of time constraints, project deliverables, and team dynamics in a deadline-driven environment. He emphasized that their cohort would become an important support vehicle throughout this experience.
The cohort was then asked to participate in an ice breaker called the “apron exercise” with organizational behavior professor, Alberto Zanzi. Each person was given a blank kitchen apron and asked to write their name and draw 4 areas to describe their personalities which would include their professions, hobbies, and things important to them. They were then asked to write three questions covering their concerns, values, and what they hoped to achieve during their EMBA Program, put on their aprons once they finished their assignment, and approach other classmates to introduce themselves and discuss each other’s art work.
While creative and humorous, the exercise served to bring out several “white elephants” that previously had been masked: “Has anyone failed Statistics?” “Will I need to take a Math refresher course?” “How many team projects are involved?” “Will my boss/company/co-workers/family/friends be supportive of my pursuing an Executive MBA?” “Will the program help to advance my career?” The “Ah-Ha” moment had arrived for Wayne: He and his cohort had much more in common than he originally assumed.
At the end of the day, the cohort heard Patrick Kuhse, Ethics Fellow in Residence from Suffolk’s Sawyer Business School, speak on corporate ethics. Kuhse, a former stock broker who had compromised his own business ethics while working in the financial markets, discussed his views on an outline he called The 8 Critical Thinking Errors Common in All Unethical Behavior--Entitlement, Ultra Optimism, Rationalization, Seemingly Unimportant/Urgent Decisions (SUDS), Victimitis, Laziness, Affection Disconnection, and Situational Ethics (or “Doing what’s right in the Moment”). He then proceeded to tell his own heart-rending story of an ethical dilemma he had faced at the peak of his career. By the end of Kuhse’s talk, you could hear a pin drop in the room.
Without missing a beat, the cohort began discussing several issues on corporate ethics, with some admitting they had walked a fine line in considering the right thing to do as business managers. The experience was both sobering and powerful--Instead of discussing ethical problems from the safe distance of textbook learning, Kuhse’s own personal story served as a real life example of someone who had walked the ethical tightrope and survived.
Great Leaders Are Born on Saturdays
Wayne was about to embark on his first EMBA classroom experience, taking a series of courses through the cluster-based approach taken over an 18-month period on Saturdays. Rather than following traditional courses in a sequential order in a regular MBA program, the cluster-based curriculum offers a series of classes in “clusters” or modules to present a fully integrated approach to executive learning with an emphasis on global leadership, mirroring how business works across functional areas.
Offsite seminars that emphasize leadership, global business, diversity and ethics, and policy and management were also integral components of leadership development. In addition, case studies, lectures, experiential learning, and management simulations would be emphasized in a team-centered environment. Along the way, the students would take up an individual field research project tailored to their career goals. This effort would be presented at the end of their program of studies.
Wayne started his first day of class with Cluster 1: Understanding the Marketplace, beginning with two classes--Marketing Analytics (Statistical Methods) and Microeconomics. However, by the end of the day, one woman had dropped out of the program, due to her fear of Math. But the cohort pushed onward. In the proceeding weeks, they faced a statistical regression nightmare. But their classmate, Weijun Li, led them to safe waters after seeing them through the quantitative storm, due to his technical knowledge and calm, helpful demeanor. For some reason, it is always the engineers who take the up the leadership challenge, helping their cohorts to master Statistics.
As the cohort finished its first two classes, other classes were introduced in the cluster: The Challenge of Managing Value, a core marketing course where students learned the teachings of Sun Tzu and the Art of War to present, analyze and discuss the challenge of relentless market competition; Global Product Innovation & Development, where they worked in virtual teams to create new products and services; and Consumer Behavior and Research, where they completed projects on demographic and psychographic studies. In addition, they completed a Management Seminar and Global EMBA Seminar during their first semester.
The experience was life-changing. Classes all day on Saturdays. Reading and preparation almost every night. Ever-looming deadlines on papers, projects, and presentations. Three-hour conference calls with various teammates. Personality clashes with some classmates who were considered obstinate or tenacious. Work and family pressures that, at times, collided with the demanding schedule of the curriculum and outside prep time. Professors who expected their best efforts and contributions. But other surprises took hold. A greater sense of self-confidence. Recognizing hidden opportunities in themselves and in their careers. Validation from their peers. And most importantly, the pursuit of excellence through the high expectations set for themselves and others.
Learning the Art of Leadership by Doing
According to the oft-quoted management consultant, Tom Peters, “We have a strategic plan—it’s called doing things.” This is the philosophy of the Suffolk Executive MBA Program. While teaching the case method of refining problem-solving abilities is important, students are also able to apply their learning by “doing” in a variety of ways— especially through their four residential seminars. Two are of special note.
One highlight of the overall leadership experience was a 5-day Leadership and Teambuilding Seminar, where Wayne and his cohort learned the art of leadership through lecture-based learning and a physical challenge. While exploring the leadership and emotional intelligence theories of Warren Bennis, Max Dupree, and Daniel Goleman, the cohort also participated in an outward bound experience of sailing each day. Both exhilarating and enriching, students came away with a greater understanding of themselves, their teammates, and areas that motivate them most effectively.
Another highlight was the EMBA International Seminar, which took place in Shanghai, China. Wayne and his classmates not only met with state department officials, academics, and companies such as Black & Decker, Volkswagen, Coca-Cola China, Roche Pharmaceuticals, and the Shanghai Stock Exchange to discuss the role of China in the global marketplace. They became eyewitnesses to the incredible growth taking place in Shanghai and neighboring city, Shouzou, a tax-free trade zone where burgeoning factories rise from once barren land tracts every 4 to 5 weeks.
One telling account of China’s urban and economic growth was the opportunity for students to board the Shanghai Maglev Train and travel at the warp speed of 431 kilometers or 268 miles per hour from the airport to downtown Shanghai in 7 minutes flat. This experience enabled students to see first-hand the level of urban growth and development taking place in mainland China.
What happened at the end of the cohort’s EMBA experience? While some received significant promotion within their companies, others took the road less traveled. Two students have decided to pursue second Masters degrees in Finance and Public Policy. Another plans to work for the U.N. Several have started their own companies. Others have leveraged their functional experience and hard-won business acumen to pursue careers in new industries such as biotechnology and health care. And one has decided not to pursue his political career at this time. Each chose a path where they are responsible for their own professional and personal development—not their companies or their bosses. Essentially, they are all a work in progress--combining impressive accomplishment with ultimate promise.
And how did Wayne feel? “I cannot thank you and Mike enough for such a great EMBA experience. Now that graduation has passed, and I am able to catch my breath, I wanted to express my sincere gratitude to you for all your assistance throughout the last 18 months. The program surpassed all of my expectations in three ways: The faculty, my fellow cohort members, and the global focus of the program. My fellow cohort members have become friends and a valuable resource to me for life.”
David DeWitt, Vice President of Monotype Imaging, who was promoted while in the program added “One of my biggest concerns before I began this program was if I could handle the academic aspects. I have worked really hard during the past 18 months to stay on top of all the courses mostly from my fear of not being able to catch up if I ever got behind. This program has given me confidence in my ability to learn and also confidence in myself professionally. You have designed a very good program that deals with very real business issues and prepares students to make good sound business decisions.”
Notes Jeff MacKay, Manager of Operations for Design Continuum, “I just wanted to say thank you for giving me the opportunity to participate in the EMBA program. I can honestly say that it is one of the best decisions that I have ever made. I recently accepted a position with Tyco Healthcare in Mansfield, Massachusetts in their Corporate Capital and Real Estate division. I will be working closely with the entire corporate real estate portfolio of Tyco--even international. It is a very exciting opportunity. I don't think that I could have done it with out the program.”
Sometimes, the best things in life face us head-on. And even when planned, the outcome can surprise us. But as Harvey S. Firestone, the founder of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, so brilliantly predicted, “The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.”