Behind the Scenes at Stanford GSB’s Executive Challenge


Behind the Scenes at Stanford GSB’s Executive Challenge

Get an exclusive MBA student’s-eye view as a mentor guides her squad through this intense one-day test of leadership skills.
March 7, 2018
Squad 44 (from left): Abiodun Buari, MBA ’19; Jamie Beaton, MBA ’19; Alice Song, MBA ’19; Lauren Humphrey, MBA ’18; Sarah Hoffman, MBA ’19; Thomas Hanley, MBA ’19; and Tyler Willibrand, MBA ’19 | Shaun Roberts

At the end of their first quarter at Stanford GSB, first-year MBA students face alumni and faculty judges in the annual Executive Challenge. Every year since 2007, members of the school community have come together to create an experience that can’t be found anywhere else: Six-person squads, each guided by a second-year Arbuckle Leadership Fellow, pair off to role-play three business cases with three panels of judges.

Until the day of the challenge, the students don’t know the details of those scenarios — situations that will allow them to spread their wings and to experience what being a real-world executive actually feels like. As they present their cases, they’ll also need to read the room: assessing the other individuals and their relationships, and understanding how those alumni and faculty judges see the students in their fictional roles. Their decision-making skills, ability to communicate, and self-awareness will all be tested as the scenes play out. Throughout the event — the culmination of the first-year Leadership Labs class — they’ll also draw on their other courses, ranging from financial accounting to organizational behavior to ethics in management.

During the previous weeks, the members of Squad 44 were coached and mentored by Arbuckle Fellow Lauren Humphrey, MBA ’18. Arbuckle Fellows are selected through a competitive process to work with MBA1s, both in small groups and one-on-one, during their first quarter.

Now Lauren will take you through the squad’s day at the 2017 Executive Challenge.

It’s here! For the 10 weeks preceding today’s Executive Challenge, every MBA1 has been considering the question, “Why would anyone follow YOU?” And now, finally, the members of Squad 44 sit together among 400 classmates in CEMEX Auditorium, all of us mentally preparing for the day ahead. | Shaun Roberts
We’re in a race against the clock. My squad members have just 10 minutes to scan today’s three cases and put their heads together before submitting the names of the sets of partners who’ll give us our best chances. I can only observe as my squadmates plan their cases, but we’ve been working hard all quarter and building rapport, and there’s no substitute for preparation. My MBA1s’ diverse backgrounds and personalities give them a chance to use each person’s strengths and skills to advantage. Even Tyler’s flamboyant tie gets a joking shout-out as a potential asset in one case. | Shaun Roberts
And we’re off. Squad 44’s Thomas Hanley (left) and Tyler Willibrand were game to go first, adopting roles in a case they received only an hour and a half ago. (No pressure, guys!) As they work to persuade the alumni “executives and advisers” to follow their agreed-upon course of action, they’ll be scored on task effectiveness, process management, and relationship management: that is, addressing the business goals, guiding the problem-solving or decision-making, and building trust and buy-in. | Shaun Roberts
We’re underway. The judges, now in character, are going to push our team. Tyler and Thomas, who’ve also been briefed on their roles, forcefully bring their perspectives and motivations to the scenario. They work to make their case and deflect their critics’ counterarguments — all within a 20-minute time limit. Adding to the tension, the rest of the squad members, as well as other judges, are looking on. | Shaun Roberts
Once the clock runs out, the judges are firmly back in “alumni mode,” eager to offer insights and reflections on the team’s effort. They’re our benchmarks for success in the business world, so it’s great to get their impressions. After all, this is Stanford, where everyone knows that feedback is a gift. | Shaun Roberts
One down and two to go. The squad is beginning to understand that today will be a marathon, not a sprint. We reflect on what we’ve learned from the first round, and then the squad shifts its focus, readying Alice Song (left) and Abiodun Buari for the second leg. Finally, the two quickly confer outside the judges’ room and make last-minute adjustments. As Abiodun says, they’ll be happy regardless of what happens, because they’ll get feedback that is going to help them grow. | Shaun Roberts
Right out of the gate, the “management team” offers up strong opposition to Abiodun and Alice’s carefully planned strategies. But, having observed Round 1, they know what to expect and are ready with new tactics to try to bring the judges around to their way of thinking. | Shaun Roberts
As the clock ticks down, Abiodun and Alice push hard to find potential allies on the panel. But some of the judges just won’t budge. After time runs out, even the judges concede that this was a really tough case. They praise the teammates for a hard-fought battle. | Shaun Roberts
After a fierce second round, our team members celebrate their partnership. They paired up to take advantage of their complementary communication styles — Alice calm and poised, Abiodun confident and energized — and although they didn’t get the result they wanted, they showed their solidarity, kept their cool, and demonstrated their ability to think on their feet. | Shaun Roberts
With no time to spare, everyone works through lunch to get ready for Round 3. The squad turns all its energy to prepping Jamie Beaton (left) and Sarah Hoffman, our final pair. While Jamie has real-world experience with their scenario, Sarah is deliberately taking on a case and a role with which she’s not necessarily comfortable. | Shaun Roberts
The mood is tense. This case is complicated, and heavy on financial details. The squad turns to Thomas, who has the most finance experience, and he’s feeling the pressure. Everyone pitches in, brainstorming individually and then discussing arguments that might play well. | Shaun Roberts
Ready to go! For the last time, we gather outside the judges’ room for the next role play. It’s all hands in to wish Jamie and Sarah good luck. This team will benefit in part because we regrouped after the previous rounds, working to learn from every mistake. | Shaun Roberts
Nailed it. Team 3 needed just over 16 minutes to present the case and win the judges’ backing — well short of the time limit. As their supporting Arbuckle Fellow, I couldn’t be prouder. Jamie and Sarah had an answer for every question that the alumni threw their way. We could see Sarah blossom as she stepped into her role, determined to effectively counter points with which she disagreed. She owned the room, and her advocacy for her teammate’s ability to deliver on his promises played really well with the judges. | Shaun Roberts
After the third case comes to a close, we walk back to our squad’s prep room. We’re tired, but also proud of what we’ve accomplished. Now it’s time to debrief and consider the day’s events. In round 1, we saw that great leaders take the time to understand the motivations of their teams, and use those interests to get the best out of everyone and drive toward a common goal. Round 2 showed us that leaders need to be willing to seek out allies and form coalitions; no leader leads alone. And round 3 both demonstrated the value of preparation and showed that loyalty for one’s team makes for a truly inspirational leader. | Shaun Roberts
All the members of my gang will take home a framed photo with personal inscriptions from their comrades on Squad 44. The photo commemorates the day, but it also reminds us of the entire 10 weeks we worked together. As their Arbuckle Fellow, I wanted them to have something to carry through the rest of their journey at Stanford GSB — something that would remind them of just how far they came in this first quarter as they worked to discover what makes each of them an effective leader. | Shaun Roberts
At the awards ceremony that caps off the event, the members of Squad 44 are elated to hear that we were the winners of one of the three Best in Case awards — earning the top score for our third case of the day — and we came in first overall among the 12 squads in our MBA1 section. What a way to finish the Executive Challenge, and what a fantastic experience in Lead Labs this quarter! | Photo courtesy of Lauren Humphrey
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