When four MBA students at
The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business
took their first kickboxing class recently, they could honestly
say they were sweating for the cause. The students were working
with Power Kickbox, an Austin-based small business, to help the
owner set up her financial systems and position her company in the
market. They’d learned that to really help a business, you
need to understand the business from the inside out. In this case,
it started with a punch.
Doing the Diamond Dance teaches students collaborative
leadership. Michael Stewart, president of the Graduate Business
Council, leads his colleagues Travolta-style.
This type of direct business experience is a key element of Plus,
a new program at McCombs that is changing the face of graduate business
education. Business schools are known for taking students out of
the working world and putting them in the classroom to hone their
analytical and problem-solving skills. Plus takes them out of the
classroom and puts them back in the world. For two weeks every semester
MBA students trade exams for brainstorming sessions, pinstripes
for dancing shoes, Texas for Taiwan or Brazil or Mexico.
“Every business school has this challenge,” says Dr.
Steven Tomlinson, who directs Plus. “The traditional academic
curriculum gives students excellent tools; but effective leadership
requires skills, habits and attitudes that are fundamentally ‘extra-academic.’
How can we help our MBAs become more powerful communicators and
more effective collaborators? How can we help them sharpen their
ethical reasoning skills and gain global perspective?”
Those extra-academic skills aren’t just things that students
can pick up once on the job. They may be the reason they find a
job, especially in a tight economy. A Wall Street Journal/Harris
Interactive survey found that the most important attributes recruiters
seek in business school graduates are “communication and interpersonal
skills” and “the ability to work well within a team.”
Since these and other so called “soft skills” can’t
be taught in a typical classroom situation, McCombs made a bold
move. It created Plus, which suspends classes for two weeks in the
middle of each semester to offer students a comprehensive professional
development program. With Plus, professional development does not
stand outside the business school curriculum. It is central to it.
Plus treats each of an MBA student’s four semesters as a
separate module, or area of focus. In the fall of the first year
the focus is on communication. The second module in the spring focuses
on collaboration and teamwork. The third module is an ethics workshop
created with corporate executives who will offer students a complex,
realistic ethical scenario to work through. In their final semester,
the global perspective module pairs McCombs MBAs with MBA students
at partner schools around the globe, and students will visit their
foreign colleagues as part of the Plus Global Study Tour.
This spring’s collaboration module brought nationally recognized
communication expert Barbara Miller to an auditorium full of students
to show them how to identify their own communication styles and
work with other styles. Using an improvisational theater group,
Miller demonstrated what might happen if someone with an intuitive
style sat down for an interview with someone with a thinking style.
Students roared with laughter watching the two falter, and they
recognized themselves in the scenario.
with an improv theater team on exercises like Vampire Village
helps students “develop the ability to think on their
feet,” says McCombs Dean George Gau.
“If we really want to accomplish things in the workplace,”
Miller told students, “we have to let go of the concept that
‘my way’s the right way.’”
When asked about Plus, Miller said that there’s great benefit
to introducing students to these concepts early, before they develop
“I want them to know that there are no such things as mistakes,”
she said. “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re
not learning and you’re not being innovative.”
Innovation was in great supply when the improvisational theater
group took the floor and made students play vampires, keep giant
balls in the air and practice listening to each other all the way
to the end of the sentence, something people rarely do.
The improv work helped students “develop the ability to think
on their feet,” McCombs Dean George Gau explained in an interview
with BusinessWeek magazine.
“Nothing we’re doing is taking away from the academic
curriculum,” he added. “We’re just adding another
set of skills.”
Students also enroll in one of eight Academies of Interest, more
focused areas driven by what students are interested in learning.
Academies include Real Estate, New Technology Assessment, Small
Business Consulting and Design Innovation. Academies give students
the opportunity to really focus on a particular aspect of business
and then to partner with a business to get experience.
In the Business Across Borders Academy, students learn about managing
commerce across cultures, and they learn how complex and critical
culture itself is. Doing business in other countries involves crossing
barriers far more complicated than language. As Professor John Doggett
explained to students, an understanding of culture will determine
salsa dancing “boutique workshop” taught students
to loosen their hips and prepare for unique elements of doing
business in other cultures.
“The most dangerous word in all languages is ‘assume,’”
he told students. “Your biggest challenge is to constantly
make sure you check your assumptions.”
Business Across Borders also offered “boutique workshops”
this spring. “We polled the Business Across Borders students—all
72 of them—about what kinds of learning experiences they wanted,”
says Dr. Leslie Jarmon, who directs the Business Across Borders
academy and co-designs Plus curriculum.
“Students realize that in a particular culture, business
people will expect certain social skills of their business partners,”
Jarmon says. “How great to demonstrate that one has already
taken the time and energy to learn some of those skills in advance.
You gain social capital and begin to create relationships and build
Boutique workshops included a Middle Eastern lunch, where students
learned how to eat Bedouin-style, and a salsa dancing class. While
one class may not prepare students to do business in Saudi Arabia
or Latin America, it will start the process.
“What Plus offers is a taste of the experience,” Jarmon
explains, “so that MBA students will realize, experientially,
there is so much more I need to learn about this.”
Within their academies, students also work directly with businesses
small and large, local and international, on real problems the businesses
are facing. Plus approached businesses and asked them to offer a
problem. In exchange for receiving the skilled help of a team of
MBA students, they had to give three hours of a manager’s
time to mentor students, and to give feedback on their final proposals.
Businesses responded enthusiastically, and students worked on everything
from a marketing campaign for V8 in Mexico to the financing of an
expansion of a local Austin restaurant.
The students who worked with Power Kickbox were enrolled in the
Small Business Consulting academy. Among the exciting aspects of
their project was watching the synergy of a team in action. Each
of the team members brought a specific level of expertise to the
Jane Kelley, a certified public accountant, focused on setting
up the financial systems in the business while Holly Lanham, a registered
dietician, looked at how the business worked with its clients’
nutritional information. Clay Parker used to work for Perot Systems.
He noted how difficult it was for the client to get a particular
piece of information, given her various databases and mounds of
paperwork, and then investigated comprehensive systems she could
use. Nadya Kozyreva-White helped her align her vision for her business
with her customers’ expectations.
Working together, the team was able to do far more for the client
than any individual could have alone. The client’s challenges
were typical of a small business, and diving in gave the students
the chance to see that first-hand. The client is so pleased with
the results that she hopes the students will be back in the fall
to work with her again.
student Stephen Froelich engages in discussion in the Design
Innovation academy, where students apply the product design
process to business.
“The classes give you these tools to work with,” says
Kelley, “and Plus gives you a chance to say, ‘Oh, this
does work in this situation, and this doesn’t work.’
It really helps you link classes to reality.”
This is exactly the point. Research consistently shows that adults
learn by experiencing, and learning experiences like the ones Plus
offers not only help plump up resumes, they create better educated,
better prepared business people.
“I call them living case studies,” says Dr. Tommy Darwin,
who directs the Small Business Consulting academy and co-designs
Plus curriculum. “We’ve got two weeks and we’re
really going to come up with some interesting ideas. But the difference
is that these are ideas that might actually take off and go someplace
because we’re working with real people who are interested
in problems for which these students can actually provide answers.
That’s the best, to be able to be part of that and to help
that happen. And they’re seeing it. The energy is there.”
That energy will be what carries Plus into the future. As Plus
develops, the goal is to make it even more student-driven. Students
are applying for the position of project captain for the next year,
which means they will design their own projects with a business
partner, then recruit and hire students to work with them on it.
More and more, students will take the lead in how Plus is shaped.
“Any school can do what McCombs is doing by becoming actively
responsive to industry feedback, to a wish list or a complaint list,”
says Jarmon. “What Plus has done is taken that assignment
and done it in such a way that it is being driven by student energy
and student passion. That is the amazing thing.”
[For more information and to watch an informational video, visit
the McCombs MBA Web