There are a few things all graduates from a top MBA program will pick up in the course of their studies, including accounting skills, a class or two on business strategy, and at least some instruction in leadership.
While accounting and strategy are pretty straightforward, leadership can be anything but. Great minds, stretching from Aristotle to Steve Jobs, have come up with a variety of different ways to define the essence of leadership. And there’s certainly no shortage of books on the topic, ranging from the truly inspirational to absolute junk.
So how does Vanderbilt set about teaching a topic that has so many different meanings for so many different people?
It comes down to three important pillars: A classroom curriculum designed to transform natural leadership instincts into systematic, smart decision making; a highly personalized leadership development program offering a Korn Ferry-based skills assessment followed by one-on-one executive coaching; and a small, supportive environment where student leaders have the opportunity to make a big impact.
Then there’s Owen’s size. The school is small enough to be able to “invest in students at an individual level,” says Eric Johnson, dean of the Owen School. But it’s also a top institution offering the kinds of opportunities available at its elite peers. “For example, we have many of the same clubs and student organizations that Wharton does,” Johnson says.
This multidimensional, hands-on approach to leadership offers students a robust platform from which they can continue to hone their leadership skills long after they’ve left school.
So how does Vanderbilt set about teaching a topic that has so many different meanings for so many different people?
In the classroom
All full-time MBA students start with the class Leading Teams and Organizations, a required course that is taught in the first mod each year.
And every year, Associate Professor Tim Vogus, who has taught the course for the past decade, braces for an onslaught of generalizations and vague leadership platitudes coming from students.
“One of my primary goals is to get students thinking in terms of specific decisions they’d make in tough situations,” Vogus says.
Among the cases and simulations the class examines is one that imagines students serving at the helm of Mission Control at NASA. The scenario says that after many hours carrying out grueling, mindless tasks ordered by commanders on the ground, a group of astronauts in midorbit demands to conduct a few scientific experiments of their own. If they’re denied, the astronauts say they’ll go on strike.
Vogus says responses to the astronauts’ demands vary—with one student going so far as threatening to cut off the ship’s oxygen supply—but at the very least he wants to force students to consider the crew’s perspective. “These astronauts are all highly trained scientists and they’re being given about as much autonomy as a fry cook at McDonalds,” he explains. “What makes their work meaningful? How do we keep them motivated? They just want to be treated as individuals with autonomy, not robots.”
While there is no correct answer for how to handle this simulated strike in space, Vogus says the goal is for students to understand how to transform their gut reactions into thoughtful decisions executed in a systematic way. This involves developing not only a sense of self-awareness about how a person reacts in certain situations, but also understanding how a decision’s consequences ripple far beyond one’s immediate field of vision.
Vogus also tries to get students to think about leadership as something beyond the traditional notion of a Jack Welch-styled executive barking out orders from behind a wood-paneled desk. “Leadership comes in many different forms,” Vogus says. “It’s not just about where you are on the corporate ladder.”
Leading is learning … and vice versa
For Associate Professor Ranga Ramanujam, leading is inseparable from learning. This is the primary message in his popular leadership course, Organizational Learning and Effectiveness, developed in 2011 after years of teaching Leading Teams and Organizations.
“How do you intentionally and continuously learn to be a better leader? You learn from experience, from others, from experiments and from failure. It’s ultimately not an academic exercise,” Ramanujam says. Nevertheless, he says, there are three key areas that a person must continuously learn to manage to become an effective leader:
- Yourself—How do your actions help achieve results?
- Information—What data can you harness to make better decisions?
- People—How do you influence others in a way that gets the job done?
“This is management in the true sense of the word,” Ramanujam says. “I tell MBA students not to shortchange the degree they’re getting by defining themselves narrowly in terms of a function. First and foremost, you are a manager, no matter what area you specialize in. Being a manager is a multifaceted and complex role.”
Even seemingly trite tasks such as forming teams and splitting work assignments can offer opportunities to learn about effective management, Ramanujam says. In class, he instructs students to group themselves into two sets of non-overlapping teams and then observes how they select team members. Students typically group themselves with others in their same areas of concentration or with whom they have worked previously, forgoing opportunities to expand their networks. “At one point, I developed a map of the class to show the students what was happening,” Ramanujam says, pointing out that it was also an example of how he tries to find actionable data in everyday situations.
He is surprised, too, by the tendency of students to divide project work among team members in equal portions out of a sense of fairness without also considering what will produce the best final outcome.
“What makes an effective leader is defined by what you pay attention to,” Ramanujam says. “There are so many things that affect an organization. So how you allocate your attention makes a significant difference because you can’t pay attention to everything.”
Leader, know thyself
If leading does come down to learning, Owen students have ample opportunity to delve deep into their own leadership strengths and weaknesses through the school’s highly rated Leadership Development program.
Over the years, the program has added strategic partnerships with global talent management firm Korn Ferry and Hogan Assessments. MBA students begin by taking Hogan LEAD Assessments, a diagnostic tool used by a majority of Fortune 500 companies. It offers students a detailed roadmap of their working styles and points out unique capabilities, as well as challenges and areas for potential development. “We believe that self-awareness is the key to long-term leader success,” says Melinda Allen, executive director of LDP. “That’s why the assessment serves as an instrumental starting point.”
Students can tailor their LDP experience from a range of different approaches. The program includes an individual approach, which provides students with four one-on-one sessions with a vetted executive coach as well as a full 360-degree assessment. A shared approach that includes group coaching sessions and assessment tools is available for students who prefer working in groups. Alternatively, students can pick a flex option that provides two one-on-one coaching sessions at the timing of their choice in the first year. Students can also simply choose programming on an a la carte basis to best suit their needs. Nearly 80 percent of the most recent class of first-year MBAs participated in one of these approaches.
“For me, LDP defined the term ‘self-aware’ in a whole new way. We are all self-aware—I thought. How much could there be about myself that I don’t know already?” says Fazulul Haque Sheik, MBA’14. “But a few sessions into the program I realized that I knew very little about myself. LDP helped me identify my shortcomings, built a structure to help me overcome challenges, and most important, taught me the skills to replicate this structure anytime, anywhere to sustain the learning process.”
Allen says the program offers the type of personalized, in-depth leadership training normally reserved for rising corporate executives who have been identified as having high leadership potential. “Our students come out of school having completed the same program many people wait years to have access to,” she says.
Vogus says LDP adds a complementary layer to what he and others are teaching in the classroom. “In both LDP and in the classroom, we are able to meet the students where they are in terms of developing their leadership abilities,” he says.
Leadership as contact sport
As anyone at Owen—and elsewhere—is quick to point out, there’s only so much one can learn about leadership in the classroom or even an LDP program. Johnson likes to say that leadership is a contact sport, and that it’s Owen’s obligation to provide students with opportunities to lead in an environment that’s both safe and supportive.
“We want to figure out and expand ways to empower students to take ownership of things related to the school. We want to be there to support them, and if needed, to help pick up the pieces when things don’t go right,” Johnson says.
As a prime example, he points to the annual student-run Vanderbilt Health Care Conference, which has attracted top speakers and health care recruiters for the past eight years. While members of Owen’s staff, as well as faculty members like Larry Van Horn, executive director of health affairs at Owen, lent their support and contacts for the conference, it is ultimately the students that pull the event together.
“The two women who ran last year’s conference—Megan Eberhard and Kristen O’Neill—they absolutely owned that conference,” Johnson says. The dean says he sees similar examples all around Owen, from the roles taken on by student government and club leaders to those involved with service organizations like Project Pyramid and 100% Owen.
“Leadership, in the end, is about being able to positively influence and achieve objectives through other people,” Johnson says. “Many MBA students haven’t had that opportunity before coming to business school. Sure, we can teach about leadership—and we do that well—but we must also provide opportunities to get real experience.”
Leadership across Owen
Students in Vanderbilt’s full-time MBA program aren’t the only ones to benefit from the school’s Leadership Development Program. All degree-seeking students experience LDP programming in a manner relevant to their professional goals. Read on for executive program details —information for those just launching a career is here (lead and succeed)
Vanderbilt’s MBA for Executives program takes a four-prong approach to honing an executive edge in leadership. This involves interactive leadership workshops; resources and support designed to help students learn from their cross-functional C-team group experience; leadership assessments and coaching sessions with experienced executive coaches; and support to help the students develop individualized leadership development plans.
Master of Management in Health Care
The Leadership Development Program is woven throughout the MMHC program. It includes both an executive coach, who helps students develop a personalized leadership development action plan, and a team coach who supports teams throughout their capstone projects when they manage real-world projects for health care organizations.
Recommended reading from Owen classes
Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success
by Adam Grant
Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation
by Ryan W. Quinn and Robert E. Quinn
by Henry Mintzberg