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The Human Arts of Business: Business students step out of classroom for leadership skills and practical experience


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
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.

Effective leadership requires skills, habits and attitudes that are fundamentally extra-academic.  -Dr. Steven Tomlinson

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.

Working 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
Working 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 other habits.

“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 your success.

The salsa dancing 'boutique workshop' taught students to loosen their hips and prepare for unique elements of doing business in other cultures
The 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 respect.”

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.

We're working with real people who are interested in problems for which these students can actually provide answers.  -Dr. Tommy Darwin

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 project.

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.

MBA student Stephen Froelich engages in discussion in the Design Innovation academy, where students apply the product design process to business
MBA 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 site.]

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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