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The Best MBA Courses? The Class Of 2018 Share Favorites

Stanford GSB’s Ed Batista

THE RIGHT ANSWERS START WITH THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

Perhaps the best wisdom came to the Best & Brightest in the form of awareness. In Warwick Business School’s Organizational Behavior course, for example, Leen Issa witnessed how executives struggled to implement change. This inspired her to research the “right answers” that could be applied across the board. Turns out, she learned, the best leaders are more effective when they ask the right questions instead of providing boiler plate answers.

“Organizations are complex and unpredictable,” she observes. “They are made of many complex details such as individuals, teams, structure, culture, etc. Each detail plays a major role in making the organization a unique one. When these complex details act together, it becomes really complicated for leaders to understand what is happening and create a causal relationship for the problems they might face. It is difficult to tell what the cause is of a problem and what the solution is for that problem. What leaders can do is ask the right questions to manage these problems better.”

This awareness also comes in the form of self-knowledge, of understanding one’s flaws and tendencies – and how they impact one’s productivity and impact on others. That was a key theme in Ed Batista’s The Art of Self-Coaching at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. For Samanthe Tiver Belanger, the great insight was something everyone knows…but few internalize: You can’t manage others until you learn to manage yourself.

THE MOST UNDERRATED MANAGEMENT TOOL: SELF-AWARENESS

U.C.-Berkeley’s Erica Peng

“My attention is my most valuable resource,” she says. “Many things will be competing for attention and so we must work to keep our active minds focused on our priorities. Managing others requires your attention; you can’t do that well if you can’t create the mental space to focus.”

More than attentiveness, great managers possess great people skills. At the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, MBAs can practice these skills in ISEL (Interpersonal Skills and Embodied Leadership). Taught by Erica Peng, the course is a boot camp on self-awareness, an unflinching look in the mirror that reveals how others interpret words, tone, behavior, and context.

“Through deep personal reflection, rigorous coaching, and a weekly interpersonal dynamics lab (T-Group), students gain a better understanding of themselves and their relationships with others, says Chen Song. “Thanks to ISEL, I am better able to communicate my thoughts, opinions, and emotions, which has made me a more attentive listener. Applied to a business context, I now more firmly understand the value of maintaining a tone of curiosity (rather than judgement) when leading teams. Doing so creates conditions for psychological safety, which in turn enables teams to operate at their best. Individuals are more willing to take risks, communicate more effectively, and build stronger relationships.”

“CASH EQUALS TIME”

What specific topics tapped into the imaginations of the 2018 Class? Company turnarounds certainly piqued their interests. That was true for Kristen Steagall, who considers Turnaround Management to be her favorite MBA class at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Case-driven, the course revolved around students teams presenting their turnaround strategies for the two companies being scrutinized each week – a process that made their strategies sharper, deeper, and more out-of-the-box as time passed. At the same time, the instructors added their own personal touch to the proceedings.

“Jeff Sinclair and Bill Hall try to make the cases come alive,” Steagall adds. “When we studied Ducati, Jeff brought in a real Ducati for us all to examine. When we did a case on Bob Evans, a member of the Board of Directors came to critique our strategies. This class put into practice everything I had learned thus far in my MBA and taught me to consider what strong performance means for all the stakeholders in a business.”

Notre Dame’s Alex Prosperi

The case method was also the centerpiece of Lessons From Turnaround Situations at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Not only did the class take a deep dive into the roots of failure, says Alex Prosperi, but also featured “rock star” wattage as well.

“Professor Daniel Connors – a former executive with Bain & Company who later went on to spearheaded Kinko’s turnaround – led the class discussion like no other class I’ve ever been part of. Each day we reviewed the facts of the case, discussed why the company was struggling, and identified what led to the turnaround. At the end of each class, Professor Connors shared his key takeaways from the case, which provided succinct and valuable business lessons that I can carry forward. In terms of a specific insight, Professor Connors drilled into our heads that in times of crisis, there is nothing more important than having access to cash – because “cash equals time.”

WHAT GOT YOU HERE WON’T TAKE YOU THERE

Not surprisingly, strategy also boasted a large cadre of champions. You can count Elly Brown among them. She considers Marc Ventresca’s Strategy & Innovation to be the best class she took at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. It upended what she thought she knew about strategy in mature markets – and gave her new ideas to adopt when she returned to McKinsey.

“[The course] suggested that the very strategies large incumbents employ to stay dominant (i.e. corner the market and exploit) may also lead to their downfall in the face of entirely new alternatives,” she asserts. “This class got me to begin to think through how to identify when and where new markets are starting to emerge, and how to position myself in an emerging market to give me (and my organisation) the best chance of success as new dominant designs and value chains consolidate.”

Similarly, Bennet Hayes dissected companies at various growth stages in Jon Lehman’s Lifecycle of an Enterprise. Another case-based course supplemented by guests, the course looks at the “mechanisms” behind success and failure. For Bennett, one lesson stood out. “What works for a company in one stage of their lifecycle – whether it’s the people, the strategy, or the product – may not be the recipe for success in subsequent stages,” writes the 2018 MBA from Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management. “In-class discussions were always lively (a rare feat for an 8 a.m. class), as Jon always pushed us to flesh each argument out as far as it could go.”

University of Virginia’s Peter Belmi

TAKING STUDENTS OUT OF THEIR COMFORT ZONES

The best MBA courses may change how students think and act, but they do something more: They make them uncomfortable. This, in turn, drives students to examine their limits. That was the special hold with Peter Belmi’s Paths to Power, an elective offered at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. For Devin Underhill, the course was a rite of passage that forced him to assess how far he was really willing to go to attain his career goals – and maintain his self-respect at the same time.

“Paths to Power is a course that pushed me well outside of my comfort zone,” he says. “We studied individuals’ rise to positions of power and the steps that they had to take in order to achieve it. Honestly, there were moments that made me cringe a bit seeing how far people were willing to go to get ahead. Yet, the class wasn’t about emulating those people, it was about deciding internally before I enter the “rat race,” what I value and how I can rely on those values as I ascend in my career.”

What other courses stirred the passions of this year’s Best & Brightest? Go to the next page for more favorite classes at the University of Chicago (Booth), MIT (Sloan), Northwestern (Kellogg), Cornell (Johnson), and Yale SOM.