There are lots of good reasons to seek out an executive MBA program—the intense leadership development, the broadening of strategic vision, growth in self-confidence, executive presence and, of course, the potential salary increase.
Yet those skills should not be learned in isolation, with executives spending most of their time sitting behind a desk in a lecture hall. Vanderbilt University saw the need for real-world, C-suite experience to be part of the learning process. That’s why it created a year-long “Business Strategy Sequence” –a hybrid learning experience that straddles the classroom and the boardroom–during the second year of the EMBA program at the Owen Graduate School of Management. “Our two capstone experiences force students to integrate all of the core curriculum they’ve learned and apply it to real world business.” said Juli Bennett, Executive Director, Executive MBA Programs at Vanderbilt. “First students work together to create a venture and seek investment capital, a white sheet of paper so to speak. Next students work as a consulting team with a real business client to develop their corporate strategy for future growth. Both experiences give students opportunities to present and demonstrate their expertise to business leaders.” Bennett shares.
The strategy sequence at Owen enables learning to occur in those two settings: the classroom and the corporate world. The classroom component emphasizes traditional business school learning, through lectures, reading, case analyses and facilitated discussions. The strategy component is where the real-world, hands-on learning takes place and it all comes together through the Capstone Strategy Project, a final project that challenges MBA students to integrate and use all the tools and concepts from their coursework to build a strategic plan for a real client company.
That client is chosen by the team that will work with them, known as a “C-Team,” a group of four to five EMBA students who work together through the two-year program. The team is a carefully and thoughtfully comprised group of executives with complementary backgrounds and expertise, simulating the kind of diversity and cross-functional roles typically found on a C-suite team. Team diversity, however, isn’t just focused on job function and industry but also age, gender and ethnicity. Those differences create a de facto learning lab for students, but also allow them to leverage their collective consulting expertise. “Our Executive MBA and Americas MBA teams are in high demand and often have several clients hoping to be chosen by a Vanderbilt C-Team,” said Bennett. “Business professionals recognize the value of having a team of diverse, well-educated professionals share their perspectives and insights into their company strategy.”
Student teams decide to take on ‘client’ companies based on the companies’ willingness to make available the quality and type of information and support the teams need. The students also determine if the nature of the strategic challenges facing the companies can be met by the collective expertise of the teams, and if the companies are in an industry or market space that interests the team members.
The Capstone project is one of the most effective learning experiences for students because it is completely immersive. Teams of students are consultants working to build a strategic plan for their client, and the client, in turn, recognizes the value of the consulting advice being provided by experienced executive students. In fact, the quality of the work is so high that most companies implement many of the student recommendations, if not all.
Working on teams made up of professionals with diverse experience also widens the lens through which problems are examined. Students often learn as much—if not more—from their C-Team colleagues as they do from their professors.
And C-Teams are never completely on their own. During the entire EMBA program the teams receive extensive support from faculty and program staff.
“C-Teams are built with intentional diversity with members representing different industries and job functions.” Bennett continues, “For example, a C-Team typically has consumer product, health care, manufacturing and information technology industry representation. The team members bring their own functional expertise which includes marketing or business development, operations, finance or accounting, information systems, human resources and often someone with deep expertise in another non-business function, like a doctor or lawyer, who now find themselves running a business.”
Before graduation each C-Team delivers its final recommendations in writing and in person to executives at the client company. These services are often worth upwards of $250,000 in consulting time, and the reports are comprehensive and actionable, covering a wide range of issues. They include a corporate valuation analysis, an internal and external situation analysis, a critical issues assessment, recommendations and anticipated results. All of the work done for client companies is protected by strict confidentiality agreements.
Students report enormous benefits from working in C-Teams on a Capstone project. Amanda Cox, a 2011 Vanderbilt EMBA alumni, is an area sales leader at Marriott International. Her student peers came from a variety of professional backgrounds and the relationships she built with them, says Cox, fostered “a learning environment unlike any I have ever known.” The experience changed her career, she says, beyond the promotion she received while in the program. “I am in so many more cross-functional teams because I can be in those conversations with the CFO and CIO,” says Cox. “Because of Owen, I am a much more versatile professional.”