For Susan McFarland, the capacity to shift gears on a moment's notice is not just a useful skill—it's a professional necessity. As controller of Capital One, she is responsible for all of the corporation's accounting, tax, corporate planning, and procurement initiatives. This multifaceted role represents the culmination of McFarland's extensive experience in the realms of finance and accounting, but when she was admitted to the Stanford Executive Program, she was eager to take advantage of the opportunity to complement her existing expertise by honing her strategic abilities.
The Stanford Executive Program didn’t merely live up to McFarland’s academic expectations—it also benefited her in ways she had never anticipated. “The pleasant surprise for me was the extent to which the program broadened my horizons,” she explains. “I gained new perspectives not only from the distinguished faculty and challenging coursework, but also from the richly diverse group of participants.”
Since McFarland completed the program, the lessons she learned there have helped her exercise sound business judgment in myriad real-world situations, particularly as she has navigated the turmoil of the financial services industry following the financial crisis. Immediately after she returned to Capital One, McFarland and her associates were faced with the challenge of determining whether to shut down the company’s mortgage business. Because the Stanford Executive Program had given her “renewed motivation and drive,” she recalls, “I was able come in fully engaged and collaborate with my colleagues to make what has turned out to be a pivotal decision for the company,” to close the mortgage business.
Just as important to McFarland as the Stanford Executive Program’s practical takeaways, however, is the newfound self-assurance that the “very rich, very holistic” experience instilled in her. When she resumed work, more than one of her colleagues commented that she seemed more comfortable in her own skin. “I certainly increased my business acumen as a result of attending the program, but most importantly, I gained confidence as a strategic leader,” McFarland says. “SEP is not just an academic program; it goes far beyond the classroom and really stretches your thinking.”
Deputy Managing Editor, the Wall Street Journal
Executive Editor, the Wall Street Journal Online
Alan Murray wanted to attend the Stanford Executive Program for years before he enrolled. “It had always been a dream of mine; I’d had a long love for the university,” he explains. He got his chance in 2005, when he was writing the Wall Street Journal’s Business column. Although Murray arrived at Stanford “looking for knowledge that would help [him] write a richer, deeper column,” the program inspired him to develop new and unexpected perspectives on the newspaper business. “I started thinking about the problems that the Wall Street Journal faced—we were up against transformational technologies that were challenging our business model—and what we could do to get over those challenges.”
During Murray’s time at Stanford, class discussions about the value of versioning convinced him that the Wall Street Journal should offer certain readers a higher-priced, premium edition. He then conceived a new, three-tiered subscription structure for the paper that would “work the full demand curve for business information services.” When he returned to the Journal, Murray began to lobby to implement those changes, and he was promoted to his current role. “Now I spend all my time working on innovation on the digital platform, and we’ve been able to do exactly what I thought about in the Stanford Executive Program,” he says.
After the new business plan took hold, the Wall Street Journal achieved unprecedented success in the realm of online journalism—its monthly audience tripled, and its subscriber base grew to exceed 1 million in 2008. Murray is quick to credit his fellow students for expanding his thinking about the paper’s trajectory. “Most of us spend all our time in professional silos,” he notes, “but then you go to Stanford with really smart classmates from every industry and every part of the world, and that enables you to see your business in a very different way. When I look at what I learned, and how those things have affected not only my career but also the fate of the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones, I think the Stanford Executive Program was well worth it, many times over.”
In 2005, when Roland Auschel took a hiatus from his position as Head of the Europe, Middle East, and Africa regions at Adidas Group to attend the Stanford Executive Program, he looked forward to the experience as an ideal opportunity to both “brush up on the latest ideas in business thinking” and “build a network of executives from around the globe.”
While the program fulfilled Auschel’s expectations in those regards, it also provided him with unexpected benefits. Not only did it intensify his interest in “strategy and big-picture issues, rather than simply operational elements,” but his exposure to a wide variety of business models granted him “a much better understanding of the importance of company culture and team dynamics.”
Ultimately, that heightened awareness proved instrumental in equipping Auschel to better handle the “massive new challenge” he encountered upon his return to work: the merger of Adidas and Reebok, two brands that “had been fierce competitors for twenty years.” As Auschel grappled with difficult questions—“How do you bring two teams together? How do you bridge the cultural gap between two great companies? How do you expect them to help each other out?”—he was able to draw upon the knowledge he had acquired about post-merger integration through case studies and lectures at Stanford and apply it firsthand during the transition.
While Auschel has since been appointed chief sales officer of Adidas Group, he believes the Stanford Executive Program’s offerings transcend his specific role at his company. And although he relished the “total experience”—a “combination of a great location, great content, and equally great people”—the long-standing bonds Auschel forged with his fellow participants are what have resonated most with him. Those relationships were so strong, in fact, that Auschel’s class collaborated to organize the Stanford Executive Program’s inaugural auction benefiting a charitable cause—an event that subsequent classes have continued to host each year. “At the end of the day,” he reflects, “it left us all humbled, very touched, and emotional.”