Adam Grant: Apprentice-Styled Challenges

The Wharton Distinction

Having taught at multiple schools, there are several qualities about Wharton students that stand out to me. First, they are extremely analytical. Given the Wharton brand and reputation, that’s what you’d expect. What impresses me is that our students are highly motivated to apply their analytical skills to a wide range of business problems. One of the things I really love about teaching management here is that the students actually approach leadership, teamwork, and negotiations with the same level of analytical rigor and discipline that they bring to finance and accounting.

Second, they love to be challenged. Our students often express that they have the greatest respect for professors who set very high standards and are willing to challenge them to question their assumptions, improve upon their weaknesses, and develop and hone their strengths.

Third, they are highly engaged. They come to class prepared, and they are deeply involved in the academic community. The prototypical Wharton student is often juggling nine or ten important responsibilities on a given day. The students also come together as a community, investing considerable time in building relationships and working diligently to contribute to each other’s development. They endorse a strong norm for peer feedback, which enables their learning to extend well beyond what I’m able to do in the classroom as a professor.

Four adjectives I would use to describe the school are innovative, intellectually curious, analytical, and passionate. My classes often include a social impact component, giving students the opportunity to use their knowledge and skills to contribute to meaningful causes. For example, I have designed several activities based on Donald Trump’s TV show “The Apprentice.” This semester, I was struck by the passion and creativity that our MBA students exhibited in negotiating corporate sponsorships to grant wishes for children with life-threatening medical conditions.

In my MBA negotiations class, we do role-plays every week. For this experiential exercise, I decided to raise the stakes. In partnership with the Philadelphia and Susquehanna Valley chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, I divided the students into teams of six or seven members. We held a draft in which each team identified and selected local companies as potential sponsors. The students then had three weeks to make contact with their potential sponsors, develop a pitch, and negotiate proposals.

It was an honor to see my students leverage their negotiation skills to secure corporate sponsorships totaling over $23,000 in only a few weeks. Using negotiation concepts and frameworks that we discussed in class, they were able to convince several companies in the area—including Teva, Neiman Marcus, to give over $5,000 each. I was absolutely amazed by the results, the range of creative ideas that the students generated, and the dedication that they demonstrated in putting their skills into action. Seeing education, application, and impact come together has been one of the highlights of my career.

Memorable Professor Moments

Organizing and supporting these Apprentice-style challenges has certainly been memorable. On an individual basis, my favorite moments are those of lasting impact. In some cases, this involves students rethinking their careers to pursue a path that aligns more closely with their values, goals, and personality traits. In other situations, it occurs when students fundamentally change the way they lead, manage, and negotiate based on a course activity, framework, or experience. I also take great joy in connecting current students with former students for career advice, and watching the emergence of mentoring relationships that the mentees pay forward to other students when they graduate.

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