Executive MBAs return to business school to learn. What sticks with them isn’t always the regression models or design frameworks. Instead, many come away with something far more fundamental to their long-term success: self-awareness and self-control.
Even after earning his MBA at Arizona State’s W. P. Carey School of Business, Pablo Bouvier considers himself to be an “incomplete leader.” On the surface, that may seem like a curious observation from a seasoned energy construction manager, one who leads planning and scheduling efforts for nine reports and 200 projects. For Bouvier, it reflects his understanding that leadership involves being open enough to continuously learn and courageous enough to listen.
‘EVERY INTERACTION IS A CHANCE TO MAKE A POSITIVE IMPRESSION’
“At work, I now value my group as a precious treasure,” he explains. “My main goal is for each of my team members to become much better professionals than what I could ever be and I have this idea very present every day I get to the office. I make appointments with each one of them frequently to go for lunch and have one-on-one conversations to discuss goals and concerns. They all know my door is always open for them.”
The value of openness wasn’t the only leadership epiphany absorbed by this year’s class of graduating EMBAs. At U.C.-Irvine’s Merage School of Business, Wyman W. Lai, an MD who co-heads the Heart Institute at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, learned that a leader is always on…and always being watched. That means their words and deeds have an outsized impact on the people around them.
“Every personal interaction at work is an opportunity to make a good impression,” he observes. “Business people are often more prepared than those in medicine when it comes to social interactions—we were not taught to treat each and every interaction as a professional interaction. In this sense, I learned to more aware of my “personal brand” and my ability to make an impression on people.”
POLITICAL SAVVY, SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE AND CULTURAL AWARENESS
Those impressions make all the difference when there’s conflict. Navigating these disputes requires, in Maurice Andrew Malcolm’s words, “political savvy and social intelligence.” The managing principal of a consulting firm’s healthcare division, Malcolm believed he had these virtues “nailed.” Like Lai, he learned he needed to practice them 24×7 in every venue with every potential audience.
“Now, I constantly ask myself, “Who are the stakeholders and where do they fall on the matrix of importance versus Influence,” shares the University of Maryland grad. “With this knowledge, I no longer think of meetings in terms of being potentially innocuous. To quote one of my classmates, “If you are not at the table…..you’re on the menu!” I make sure that I am at the table.”
Corporate culture wasn’t the only backdrop that EMBAs needed to master. For IMD’s Gautier Porot, a one-time Swiss Guard to two popes, cultural awareness took center stage at a school where the Swiss were a fraction of the student population. It was this international dimension, Porot says, that took his analytical and interpersonal skills to the next level.
“Looking back at all classes, group exercises and discovery expeditions, the biggest lesson I gained during my EMBA is the ability to identify, understand, and interact with wider range of international corporate cultures. By working and learning with classmates coming from various industries and countries, you get to discover and be familiarized with unique cultures and business practices. It is a fabulous business cultural lab where all questions can be asked and techniques be tested. I consider this gain as a true added value for my work as I interact every day with various type of customers (multinationals, family offices, high-net worth individuals), operating all around the world, facing important security issues.”
THE BEST LEADERS ARE STORYTELLERS
That’s exactly what these Best & Brightest Executive MBAs can expect: They are now the pacesetters, globetrotters and rainmakers whose hard-won business experience has been tempered with theoretical training and experiential learning. Ande Noktes, for one, enrolled at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School to build better relationships with her board. Once there, her understanding of leadership changed drastically – replaced by a new perspective that reverberated in every corner of her life.
“As a single mother of three, a school leader, and a social entrepreneur, I learned that bending time and space to my will has its limits. I learned to let go of things—some that mattered, even. And I learned that to lead is not just about being charismatic and empathetic and having an unflappable vision—it’s about creating clarity and knowing when to say goodbye to ideas, routines, or programs that don’t serve that clear purpose anymore. Leading a family or leading an organization: this lesson was invaluable.”
The Class of 2018 may not have come away with all the answers, but they can set a vision, formulate a narrative, and inspire their peers. According to Arizona State’s Karen Marshall, the best leaders are “good, and honest, storytellers.” They know the questions to ask – and the appeals to make – to build consensus with various constituencies. Erlinda Arriola, a business strategy and investments VP outside her weekend treks to the Yale School of Management, calls this framing the message. And it was an invaluable skill that yielded immediate returns in her work.
“During investment committee meetings,” she recalls, “leaders in the room reacted differently to the words we used, and it is critical for my role to gain support for an investment. Using “and” instead of “but” and framing questions to focus the discussion on the main investment thesis helped me gain support from senior leadership on partnership deals and strategic investments.”
GOING FROM EMPLOYEES TO INNOVATORS
Such lessons weren’t confined to the board room. Don’t see your reports as innovators? You’re not alone. Take Pascal Larose, Chief of Staff of the 35th Canadian Brigade Group. While he valued his subordinates, he considered treating them as “innovators” as “a bridge too far” – even viewing it as a disruptive force. After two years in the McGill-HEC Montreal EMBA program, Larose champions innovation as a requirement for growth – and one that netted impressive results once he loosened the reins.
“Just after the program, I communicated to my team my full support for them to pursue their dreams and shared my own visions,” he explains. “I am really proud of them as they recently succeeded in establishing a highly mobile, full communications network, including the capacity to print in 3D, in the Arctic Circle. All this was exclusively powered by renewable energy. This project, the dream of my team, made the news around the world.”
While Larose embraced innovation, Olabayo Allen-Taylor found her voice thanks to encouragement from faculty members at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management. In the process, she applied this same approach to her role as the principal of an elementary school in Oakland, California. “I make it a point to give space and opportunity for new teachers and staff to give input in front of seasoned peers,” she asserts. “As a result, my staff as a whole feels more comfortable sharing and engaging, which in turn has strengthened our practices as educators.”
NOT THE SMARTEST GUY IN THE ROOM…EVEN WITH AN MBA
In fact, business school curriculum often exposes students to ways to shorten the distance between management and the front line. Before entering Yale SOM, Eric Tichy would strive to be the smartest guy in the room as the associate director of clinical pharmacy services in the Yale New Haven Health System. As an MBA student, however, he discovered that the rest of the room is usually the source of the best ideas.
“As a leader, I need to spend more time listening to my team members and ensure they have the psychological safety to bring those ideas and information forward,” Tichy notes. “Before SOM, I was a terrible listener and I would often jump to conclusions because I thought I had to know the answers to all of the problems. After applying these lessons from SOM, I have created more of a coaching culture at work, and team members now describe me as a great listener. Indeed, even my wife agrees that I have made positive strides!”