“So many options, so little time.”
MBA candidates say that a lot after completing the core. Problem is, many classes sound so fascinating — and useful — in the catalog. Like anything, they are investments. Some can boost students’ career prospects by exposing them to the right experiences and peers. Others, of course, yield diminishing returns after the second week.
At Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, Jared Scharen, a member of Poets&Quants’ Best & Brightest MBAs from the Class of 2017, earned his biggest return from Linda Darragh’s New Venture Launch course. Here, he learned the lesson of a lifetime during a consulting project sponsored by McKinsey. After making recommendations to the client’s COO, Scharen’s team was floored by a question they hadn’t anticipated: Did you test the solutions yourself? All they could do was awkwardly shake their heads no, which led to epiphany for Scharen.
“No matter if it’s a startup or a big company, it’s necessary that we are talking to our customers, testing, and iterating,” he stresses. “Otherwise, we’re just guessing. This class makes you get to know your customers and test with them on a very regular basis, to the point it feels uncomfortable, but in a good way.” It is a lesson that has proven foundational to Scharen’s startup as well. “The fundamentals from this class are something we talk about as a team every single week.”
LEARNING HOW TO TACKLE UNCERTAINTY…FROM A FOUR STAR GENERAL
Of course, some courses are certain to pique student based on their title alone. That’s the case at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, which offers Core Leadership Skills For A VUCA World. VUCA is an acronym for “volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous” — a term, says Ziad Jarjouhi, that was coined by the U.S. Army War College to describe the world after the demise of the Soviet Union. The real story, however, is that the course is taught by George W. Casey, a retired four-star general who was previously Chief of Staff for the U.S. Army and the Commanding General in Iraq from 2004-2007.
So what does the military have to teach future investment bankers, consultants, and entrepreneurs? Plenty says Patrick Grumley, a Bain-bound Navy veteran who lauded the course. “General Casey taught us how to clearly articulate a vision and strategy despite incredibly VUCA environments,” Grumley shares. “Taking that a step further, he showed us how to focus on and prioritize key initiatives and set ambitious, clear targets to add structure to what would otherwise be calamity.”
Most times, a gathering with a marquee title and a star leading man is certain to disappoint. In this case, General Casey delivers the goods with an eye-opening primer at how to confidently manage the vagueries inherent to a constantly-evolving business landscape. Jarjouhi himself was astonished to even be seated in a class with a man whose resume includes being in charge of “the world’s largest and most complex organization — 1.1 million people with a $200+ billion annual budget — while also leading a coalition of more than 30 countries in Operation Iraqi Freedom through three transitions of sovereign Iraqi governments.” Over seven weeks, Jarjouhi came away with an unshakable belief in the importance of clarity in communication. At the same time, he gained a greater appreciation for the needs of the people who’ll someday report to him. “One takeaway was the importance for leaders to establish a regimen of sufficient rest, exercise, and intellectual stimulation in order to provide their subordinates with direction needed to achieve goals.”
BUSINESS WISDOM FROM U.S. PRESIDENTS AND GREEK PHILOSOPHERS
Grumley and Jarjouhi weren’t the only members of P&Q’s Best & Brightest to gain business insight from unexpected sources. At the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, Buzz Becker cited Leadership Lessons from the Post-Watergate Presidency, taught by former dean Robert Bruner, as his favorite class. Taught to a dozen students hand-picked by the school, the course relies on Presidential memoirs and guest attendees to examine leadership at the highest levels. “My biggest business insight has been understanding the profound difference that key personnel and organizational culture play in resilience during critical events,” Becker explains.
His classmate, Molly Duncan, lists Character Traits and Success as the class where she gained the most. Here, five Darden MBAs joined five UVA undergrads on the lawn to discuss the works of Plato and Emerson. Sound like fluff? Far from it, says Duncan. “Taking time to reflect, stretch your way of thinking, and challenge your own values and how they align with your behaviors is so important for development as a person and as a business leader. The closer I get to my post-MBA job—where time to reflect may not be as plentiful—the more I appreciate what I learned about myself in the class.”
In fact, gaining self-awareness was often the big takeaway for many Best & Brightest MBAs. At Stanford GSB, Federico Mossa gained that in spades during Essentials of Strategic Communication, which was taught by Matt Abrahams and Lauren Weinstein. Let’s just say it wasn’t a course for the complacent or thin-skinned. “Every other week, we were asked to deliver a presentation in varying settings, and we received feedback from both our peers and professors,” Mossa shares. “We were also video-recorded, which allowed for self-evaluation and to set an action plan for the next presentation.” Through this humbling back-and-forth, he learned that certain skills require constant attention and refinement. “Throughout my career,” he adds, “I realized that what you say is important, but how you say it is an order of magnitude more important. The course further emphasized this. Becoming an effective communicator is a skill that requires practice, and more practice. This was a great stepping stone.”
OFFICE POLITICS: ARE YOU MACHIAVELLI OR MANDELA?
MBAs don’t just take a deep look inside during business school. They also climb to the 30,000 view to survey the bigger picture that many had previously taken for granted. Just ask IE Business School’s Andrea Fouché, who took Benjamin Barber’s Business, Government and Society course. Like most students, Fouché had previously measured organizations in terms of customer satisfaction and shareholder return. However, this course forced her to confront non-market forces that shape how organizations function. “Evaluation of the political, social, environmental, and regulatory factors that impact the business world allowed us to examine how — as future managers — we should respond to and integrate these elements.”
Such courses have a way of changing how students view their world. John Moore came to the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business from the United State Marine Corps, where he was an Aviation Officer. Although he had held a leadership role in the service, his Leading Change and Leveraging Culture course with Jenny Chatman refined how he perceived the role. “One of my earlier career leadership principles was to never ask Marines to do something I couldn’t do. Professor Chatman’s class helped me realize that leaders must see the overall picture and motivate employees. Leadership by example is important, but a leader must prioritize where they spend their time.”
Moore’s classmate, Hady Barry, experienced a similar bombshell during her Power and Politics course taught by Sameer Srivastava. Before business school, Barry had avoided workplace politics, considering it a dirty practice. After completing the course, she came away with a more nuanced view of how to play the game. “The reality is that no one is immune to the power plays within an organization,” she admits. “This class taught me to approach politics in the workplace with less negativity. I now know which sources I can derive power from and how to use it to advance my career.”