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Channeling the Chief

3/9/2012 --

Weekend MBA capstone challenges soon-to-be-graduates to imagine themselves in the C-suite.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — During their two years in the Ross Part-time MBA Program, Weekend format students have learned the core business disciplines and examined complex problems through multiple lenses. But have they channeled their inner CEO?

C-Level Thinking is a unique capstone course that asks MBAs to take all they've learned and apply it from a new perspective.

"The goal is to make our students think like C-level executives," says Puneet Manchanda, the Isadore and Leon Winkelman Professor of Marketing and chair of marketing.

Ross faculty designed the class to target the skills companies most desire in their leaders.

"We've repeatedly heard firms say they want MBA graduates who can think on their feet; collaborate well; and communicate effectively with peers, superiors, direct-reports, and customers, " says Paul Clyde, Andy Andrews Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy, academic director of the Part-time MBA Program, and research fellow in the William Davidson Institute. "So we created the course specifically with these goals in mind."

To kick off the semester, the heads of two Ann Arbor-based organizations — Dominos Pizza Inc. and St. Joseph Mercy Health System — presented some of their most vexing challenges to the class. Students then divided into groups, with six teams examining each company. Each team honed in on an issue they viewed as especially important, preparing recommendations to present to a panel of faculty, fellow students, and, most importantly, the CEO.

"As far as I know, nobody else offers this class in any kind of MBA program," Manchanda says. "The amount of time and effort that the CEOs and their leadership teams are putting in is unprecedented. This makes the class comes alive and lends it a very high degree of credibility."

At the conclusion of the presentations, student teams collaborated across lines to come to a consensus on a final set of recommendations for their respective CEOs.

"The students are remarkably positive and mutually supportive in their interactions," says Frank Yates, professor of marketing. "Yet at the same time, they routinely challenge one another's claims."

That support, in part, stems from nearly two years of working side by side. "This experience is a culmination of what we've learned about everybody's specific strengths and weaknesses through all the different teams we have been on at Ross," says Jackson Buell, MBA '12. "The trick is pulling it all together to create a 'greater than the sum of its parts' outcome."

Having student teams develop solutions for real issues faced by real companies may sound like the school's signature Multidisciplinary Action Projects (MAP) course, an immersive, action-based learning experience that places MBA students (including those in the Weekend format) inside firms to act as consultants.

But the professors say C-Level Thinking provokes students to think and act from a totally different vantage point.

"In MAP, students work on well-defined problems," says Martin Zimmerman, Ford Motor Company Clinical Professor of Business Administration. "This course takes a new step in action-based learning by asking students to identify broad developments affecting a firm and make recommendations on how the firm should respond."

"The course requires students to think in a non-formulaic way," says Clyde. "There's no answer book that students can reference because there is no right answer."

That ambiguity sometimes was frustrating for students.

"The challenges with which we've become accustomed have been more structured in nature," says Andy Jones, MBA '12. "This class requires that we brainstorm, debate, and perform research just to understand what the true challenges and underlying forces are before we can even begin to think about proposing recommendations."

But the class isn't done once students submit the final recommendations. The last portion centers on meta-thinking, having students reflect on their processes throughout the course. "As managers, we spend very little time thinking about thinking," says Manchanda. "We want students to turn the lens back on themselves in order to learn important lessons about their thinking patterns — both positive and negative — that will help them be more supple in their thinking going forward."

In developing the course, the professors relied on their respective specialties to frame the assignment. As a former group vice president and chief economist at Ford Motor Co., Zimmerman was used to navigating top-level change. "That experience, together with my analytical training, gives me insight into how businesses monitor external change, analyze developments, and formulate responses. I continue to draw on that experience as I guide students."

For Kendra Giza, MBA '12, the opportunity to practice CEO-think in real time is good preparation for her future management career. "Having to think and act in this situation is a lot different than being an employee talking about CEOs' decisions post facto."

Adds Jones, "I can't think of a better way to close this challenging program."

— Amy Spooner



For more information, contact:
Amy Spooner, (734) 615-5068, aschulz@umich.edu