Final Exam Includes Real-World Lessons

The day-long Executive Challenge 2008 requires first-year MBA students to draw upon all they had learned during the previous three months.

December 01, 2008

The meeting started with smiles and handshakes around a conference table, as the newly-installed CEO and president of a troubled manufacturing firm met for the first time with the company’s four existing vice presidents.

Then, the fireworks began.

During the next 20 minutes, the new executives — actually two Business School students who assumed the roles of incoming management — explained why things had to change and solicited suggestions from their new colleagues on how to turn around the company’s operations.

And the company’s four vice presidents? They were really Stanford Business School alums playing the part of corporate skeptics at this fictitious company.

It’s all part of Executive Challenge 2008, a management trial-by-fire that has been called “a reality check like no other.” The day-long exercise requires first-year MBA students to draw upon all they had learned during the previous three months in Strategic Leadership, a cornerstone course of the MBA curriculum that teaches students the many facets of what it takes to thrive in an executive leadership role. Held in early December, the Executive Challenge served as a final examination for the class as some 380 students got a chance to showcase their management skills.

About 160 alums, some of whom traveled long distances to take part in the event, either played roles in the simulation or served as judges who gave feedback to the students immediately after observing their live management performance. Participating alums included executives from Intuit, Tesla Motors, Oracle Corp., eHarmony.com, Google, Chevron, and McKinsey & Co.

“It was tougher than I thought,” admitted first year student Emily Ma, describing the experience, “but I am so glad I had the opportunity to be here.”

Promptly at 8am, Evelyn Williams, a Business School lecturer and director of the Leadership Laboratories of the Center for Leadership Development and Research, gave the day a kick start — addressing the sea of students who sat before her inside Vidalakis Hall at the Schwab Residential Center.

“The good news is that, no matter what happens in the cases, there is only upside today,” Williams told the students, all clad in dark suits in keeping with their executive characters. “So keep that in mind as you are preparing this morning. It is really all about pushing yourself to do the best possible job. No matter what happens, I guarantee you’re going to learn something today.”

A few minutes later, after being whisked across campus to Bishop Auditorium on a golf cart, Williams briefed a roomful of alums about what they should expect. “As we put together this day, one of the overarching themes was how can we bring men and women who have perfected their leadership craft and put them in a situation where they can convey and teach that craft,” Williams explained.

“I’d like to encourage you to think of this as the future in front of you. We talk here at the GSB about changing organizations and changing the world. Today you have an amazing opportunity to imprint on future leaders of the world how they’re going to signal and behave and treat the people who work with them, for them, and above them. So I ask you to think about this as you go through the day — how you can help them go to the next level.”

Management professor Charles O’Reilly echoed that sentiment in his pep talk to alums. “Why should anybody follow you? Just because you have a degree from Stanford or a title, that doesn’t mean you are a leader. We have been trying to design a program that really helps our students think of these issues in a practical way.”

The intricately choreographed day had a host of moving parts. The first-year MBA students were divided into squads of six or eight people. Each was assigned a leadership fellow — a second-year student trained to coach the team on how to make effective presentations, how to run meetings, and other essential skills. Each fellow had participated in last year’s edition of the Executive Challenge and so knew something about the situations the first-year students might face — although they were instructed not to let any information slip about what was to come. Students also couldn’t use computers, the Internet, mobile telephones, photocopiers, or printers to make handouts for the judges.

Each student team received the same cases, focused on four different corporate scenarios. Students were allowed about an hour to read material associated with the case, decide which two members of their team would assume the required leadership roles, and map out a plan to deal with the challenges. Then, it was on to center stage — a round table set up at the center of a classroom — and the 20-minute role play exercise began.

Getting to interact with seasoned business people rather than role play with other MBA students was an “exceptional” experience for Justin Nassiri , MBA Class of ‘09. “Walking into that room and seeing heads of companies and board members and directors of boards — and negotiating against them — it was a new feeling.”

The alums serving as judges didn’t hesitate to give candid feedback about a student’s performance, including things they did wrong, said first-year student Elizabeth Ivester. “They say it very nicely, but they are very honest,” she said, adding, “I think it is very valuable.”

The late-day rally and reception at the Arrillaga Alumni Center after the Executive Challenge ended provided a chance to celebrate and talk informally with business participants, said John Fenwick, MBA Class of ‘09. “I realized that this community that I was a part of extended far beyond my classmates … It really extended to the alums.”

“It’s very interesting to watch the students deal with things that come up in a day-to-day context in business,” said Stu Francis, MBA ‘77, vice chairman of Barclay’s Capital, after a day of role playing. “You don’t learn it until you do it, except at Stanford. You learn it here.”

Several of the alums who played the part of corporate executives or judges giving feedback said they wished they had had a similar program in place back when they were in business school. “It would be great if I had had this,” said Elizabeth Ronn, MBA ‘84. “It’s a great way to think about teaching people in a safe environment.”

By Michele Chandler

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