May 20, 2012 is the official date of commencement activities for conferring the MBA degrees at Darden. On that date, we will have been students at Darden for 646 days. When asked in one of our final classes what “commencement” means, one of my cohort joking responded, “it means – commencing to get your life back again!” Our shared laughter showed how much we recognized the truth in that statement.
I was honored by my classmates who elected me to give a short speech at Darden’s graduation. There will be two graduation student speakers, and the other speaker is a traditional MBA student. At the graduation we will speak to the entire 300+ graduates, comprising both the executive MBA students and the traditional MBA students. As I was preparing that speech, by reflecting on my scholarship over the last two years, I started to realize that my experiences were going to be somewhat different from those of the traditional MBA students.
In retrospect, the idea of commencement has a slightly different meaning for executive MBA students. Commencement happened for me and my cohort 1 year and 9 months ago. Following our first week of immersion in The Process and the classrooms of Darden, we returned to our offices to begin – to commence – using the skills taught to us at Darden. Oh sure, it was a “soft launch” for most of us. Yet, the world had already changed for us. We had commenced seeing things with our new enterprise perspective; the world suddenly looked very different from how it had seemed just one week before.
This experience as an MBA for executives student let me put a new twist on an old joke. “Why did the MBA for Executives student cross the road?” “To get to her day job.” How true it was! As each On Grounds ended and we “crossed the road” to drive home to our day jobs, we initiated more and more business activities and experiences as our repertoire of business skills grew. As we rolled into Term 1 then into Term 2, we launched each new skill into our workplace as we learned them. I’ll never forget the thrill of being able to take a financial model for a deal I was working on, cloning it, and tinkering with the assumptions to do my own analysis of the deal.
We brought some of the freshest learning from the classrooms into the workplace. I remember holding just-released cases in my hands, which reflected current events in the business world. We applied leadership, communications, ethics and operations in the days after we read the cases. For every case we did in our learning teams and the classroom, we replicated that learning many times over in the workplace. After studying Accounting, suddenly the footnotes to a company’s financial statements made gripping reading, which was helpful in a discussion at work of the credit capacity for a deal. After learning that skill in Decision Analysis, I would routinely sketch a decision tree to help me evaluate possible future outcomes when I was at a decision point in life.
Our experiences at Darden also commenced more positive momentum on our careers. During the program, nearly a full half of my class used their Darden skills to take on new job responsibilities. A dozen were promoted, a decade used their business skills to take new jobs and we had a hat trick of entrepreneurs starting new companies. Personally, with three terms of leadership under my belt, I was given new responsibilities to manage a team of people responsible for company-wide contracts workflow. As we rolled into our second year of classes, filled with confidence from the Darden curriculum, I was ready to commence any project. Brimming with confidence, I saw the potential for a cultural change initiative at work, and successfully pitched my CEO to lead it.
The experience of Darden also made me realize a truth that I had forgotten for a while. Every day I am getting a grade from someone. This was obvious at Darden, where class participation counted, projects were regularly due and exams were spaced 8-10 weeks apart. Yet, being immersed in this constantly-graded environment also made me appreciate that others were grading me every day too. My clients, my boss and even my family were evaluating and rating my performance in technical skills, in my execution ability and in the skill with which I enhanced the performance of other human beings. This constant evaluation environment gave me the self-awareness to raise my grades in class, and in life.
As I walk across the stage on May 20 to get my diploma, I will be wearing something “borrowed”, but definitely not blue, under my robes. My son will lend me his Tae Kwon Do belt. 646 days ago, we commenced our practical application of business studies, practicing our skills as we crossed the road from Darden to the workplace and back. As principled leaders ready for the world of practical affairs, I believe my cohort and I have earned the right to consider our Darden degree as a black belt in business. Classmates, you are now giants, walk gently in the world.
Congratulations to all 2012 graduates!
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: