Key to the experience of the Darden MBA are the times my cohort come together at the University. These sessions in Charlottesville are, in the vernacular of the University, called “On Grounds”, honoring Mr. Jefferson’s appellation for the campus as “The Grounds.” These on grounds sessions are a fundamental part of the engine powering the learning experiences, leadership development and networking of our program.
The two-year Darden MBA program has four week-long intense on grounds, called “Leadership Residencies”. At the beginning of the program and about every six months after that, we come together for a week in Charlottesville to particularly focus on the leadership aspects of our education. During the regular terms, which call in between the leadership residencies, the class re-convenes each month for three equally-intense days. Each of these Thursday-Friday-Saturday on grounds sessions is chock-a-block with learning. We have formal classes, practical applications and exercises. Before and after the formal instruction, we meet as learning teams to prepare for and to solidify our learning. And in the late hours of the night, when those sessions wind up, we find time together to build camaraderie and strengthen our personal connections.
The grounds at Darden contain classrooms, study team rooms, dining center, public meeting rooms, a residence and an on-grounds pub. The vast majority of the class stays overnight every night in the residence. Cloistered on grounds, we are temporarily freed from the drudgery of a commute, and from many of the distractions of our lives outside of the MBA program.
If not gathering in another public room, my classmates often find themselves in the pub at the end of the day. My cohort refers to a special type of discussion after hours, wherever it happens, as a “pub case”. A pub case may spontaneously develop from time to time as a situation from a classmate’s life. Sometimes, these are questions how to handle personnel matters. Perhaps they are decisions on someone’s mind, for example, whether to invest in new technology, or to recommend a course of action to their business. The keen minds of my cohort, filled with the fresh lessons of the classroom, eagerly chime in these situations. The debate can be intense as voices offer personal experiences, manipulate the tools taught in our classrooms and extrapolate to fresh ideas to help solve these problems. These pub cases allow us to test out our leadership theories. They let us exercise our new classroom learning. They let us teach to and learn from each other.
At other times, the public meeting spaces or the pub is an incubator of embryonic business ideas. Sometimes, a classmate has a budding business idea, and is delighted to discover that another classmate is interested in the same or similar idea, and an alliance may be formed. Other times, the novel business idea is subject to a “panel” discussion, and the innovator hears some useful critique, learns of some competition, or is encouraged to proceed.
In these final hours of the days we are on grounds, as we gather together in informal sessions, we are often innovating in a comfort zone, networking without knowing it and learning without effort.
Peter Vanderloo is an in-house lawyer at a well-known tech company in the first year of the Executive MBA program at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. His previous posts at Poets&Quants for Execs: