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New MBAs Thrive at Leadership Boot Camp

9/5/2007 --

Students use leadership, teamwork, creativity and innovation during the Ross Leadership Initiative's challenging but fun Foundation Session.

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ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Immersed in leadership boot camp for six days, 430 incoming Ross School of Business MBA students emerged brimming with enthusiasm—thanks to the mental and physical challenges they tackled at the Ross Leadership Initiative (RLI) Foundation Session held Aug. 23-29.

The events, aimed at enhancing communication, sparking creativity and laying a foundation for leadership, ran the gamut from sledgehammer swinging to skillful storytelling and included nearly everything in between.

The Foundation Session, a high-energy orientation session, is the first rung on the RLI ladder. As its name implies, it lays the groundwork and opens doors to the possibilities of what can be accomplished in the 20 months to come. The RLI's series of unique experiences is designed to draw MBA students into scenarios that will develop and test their leadership capabilities in real time.

Under the direction of Susan Ashford, associate dean of Leadership Programming and Executive MBA, the 2007 RLI Foundation Session was bigger and more ambitious than ever.

"Our goal is to prepare students to lead globally diverse teams, consider the role of business in society and build organizational cultures that foster innovation," Ashford said. "RLI exposes students to the latest thinking about leadership and builds skills in teamwork, creativity and innovation."

The idea for a special secret challenge came to Ashford while she and her daughter watched a reality cooking contest on television. The contestants had to think on their feet, delegate authority, organize tasks and perform duties that tested their leadership abilities.

Ashford was assisted by Graham Mercer and Ali Waggener Boyd, as well as various faculty members and an elected student advisory board, to design and develop all the leadership programming for the RLI Foundation Session.

The following is a day-by-day breakdown of what the six sections of incoming MBA students experienced during Foundation week:

Day 1: Lead as a Connector and Communicator

The week started with physical challenges designed to help section members connect with each other's strengths in an outdoor, team setting. A model for team effectiveness was introduced and put to use, as part of the challenge.

Later, Robert McKee, renowned screenwriter and coach on the art of storytelling, treated students to a glimpse at how telling a story can influence a person (employee, client, etc.) forever. McKee challenged the "power point" generation to use effective verbal communication and critiqued individual sections' versions of the same story.

Day 2: Lead as Innovator

Called Innovation Boot Camp, this session helped students work on enhancing their personal creativity. Keynote speaker Jeff DeGraff, a Ross faculty member and author of "Leading Innovation: How to Jumpstart Your Organization's Growth Engine," sparked the dialogue that highlighted the importance creativity plays in helping companies overcome today's challenges.

During the last half of the day and into the evening, the students took part in "Grill for Glory," an elaborate, well-orchestrated food preparation and presentation challenge a la television's "Top Chef " or "Iron Chef." Given no advance warning and with only two hours in which to complete the three-part task, sections were charged to: plan, prepare and serve a meal for 80-90 people; market and present the meal to both judges and the other MBA teams; and create a unique entertainment piece that would last no more than five minutes.

A reality show cook-off on a huge scale, the event was assisted by consultants from the Food Network and a cast of dozens of support staff. Each challenge was judged by a panel that included members of the business community and the culinary community as well as Dean Robert Dolan. The challenge was held outdoors, amidst the backdrop of the ever-changing Michigan weather, thus prompting Dean Dolan to remark on the organizers' courage. "No one can say that we don't take risks," he said.

Days 3 & 4: Lead as a Visionary and Explorer

These two days featured leadership rotations that exposed students to Ross School values central to effective leadership: globality, integrity, diversity and social responsibility.

An additional session gave students feedback on their "360-degree leadership assessment" interviews collected over the summer from students and nominated colleagues. Notes on leadership style, proclivity for change, cultural adaptability and political skills were shared with students and their personal action plans for the coming year were uncovered.

Day 5: Lead as a Citizen

Busting blight and serving soup, students went off-campus to one of six local organizations to participate in a day of service with their section mates. For example, Motor City Blight Busters has taken U-M MBAs into Detroit's Brightmoor neighborhood to demolish and clean up abandoned crack houses for the past nine years. Blight Busters founder John George, a lifelong resident of Detroit and an iconic crusader in the fight to restore the city's urban core, donned work gloves and shouted orders as he worked side-by-side with students on site. He said that without the corporate support he has received, he would not have been able to keep his crusade alive for the past 19 years.

The burned-out and abandoned homes juxtaposed against newly renovated homes in Brightmoor gave one new Ross student pause. "We all came to this with preconceived notions about what we would find. There was a bit of culture shock on the part of some of us, as we haven't been exposed to that kind of poverty," said Harold Soper, who encouraged his peers to volunteer again and again after they begin their professional careers.

The Foundation Session's inspirational closing ceremony at Rackham Auditorium featured remarks from community leaders who have devoted their lives to service. Students shared what they learned working in the field, how the experience impacted them and what leadership means to them.

"The Foundation Session for the Ross Leadership Initiative was everything we dreamed it would be," Ashford said. "It got students actively involved, it brought the sections together, and it had students wrestling with difficult leadership issues, planning their development and working on their team, creativity and communication skills. They did important community service projects and rose to every challenge we threw at them. The Class of 2009 impressed the faculty they worked with—and they're off to a great start in their MBA program."

Written by Nancy Davis

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat
Phone: (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847