Explained: The MBA Experience
My final class in the Executive MBA program at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business was Saturday. Graduation is May 15. The future is now.
What was the program like? What did it involve? Was it tough? Are you happy with your decision to go back to school? What will you do next?
At this risk of looking self-indulgent, I thought I would summarize my 21-month MBA experience for my friends. (And, yes, this is an endorsement of the W.P. Carey program!)
The First Year
Forty-three individuals stepped into the Exec classroom in Tempe in August 2008. (Thirty-six would make it to May 2010.) Six came from Intel. Another nine had jobs in high-tech industries. Five of us were, or were about to become, unemployed. Seven were female. Five flew into town from out of state to attend. I was the only journalist (big surprise).
The schedule called for the class to meet for full days every other Friday and Saturday. Each morning would be one class (perhaps financially oriented) and each afternoon a different class (likely dealing with management subjects). There would be team assignments for rotating groups of four or five, individual assignments, papers, midterms and finals.
The first “class” was actually a three-day orientation, called Strategic Decision-Making. It introduced everyone to tips for analyzing business case studies – and introduced class members to each other. There was some “Apprentice”-like rivalries but they were mooted.
The key message from Professor Dan Brooks was that decision-making could be quantified, through framing, evaluating and weighting of choices. His message: The brain is a muscle — use it!
The program began in earnest two weeks later.
Financial Accounting: Welcome to the balance sheet. Let’s analyze financial statements. What equations can you use to determine pension costs, lease costs, inventory costs and taxes. Don’t forget these adjustments to the income statement.
It was sink or swim. About four of the group decided to get out of the water.
Organizational Theory and Behavior: This was a course about organizational cultures, leadership, team-building and business values. It was also a not-so-subtle message about how the entire cohort could tolerate one another for the next year and a half.
Teams faced off in debates, like whether or not electronic monitoring of employees’ activities was necessary or ultimately harmful. The presentations were also a chance for each student to be critiqued on his or her public-speaking skills and annoying mannerisms.
After five weekends and some tough exams, it was over. For those of us returning to school after a spell, it was time to dig in for the long haul or figure out ways to get by.
Statistics: The math-phobic in the class didn’t get a break in the second trimester. Everyone learned about populations, samples, standard deviations, probabilities, distributions, multicollinearity, linear regression, and, of course, the null hypothesis.
Fortunately, these terms were also explained through business examples.
Marketing: The “non-financial” course for the first winter was good ol’ marketing. For some it was new; for most it was a review. A highlight was a simulation game in which each team applied product, staffing and distribution strategies over a two-year period.
It was also during this trimester that yours truly was featured on the Channel 12 News as an “older worker heading back to school.” (Search “carey mba”)
The spring also brought the opportunity to attend a three-day seminar put on by ASU’s Center for Services Leadership. It was, naturally, focused on customer-relationship-building and service mapping.
Managerial Economics: For much of the cohort, this third-trimester class, taught by Professor Bill Boyes, was a highlight of the MBA experience. In a sound, simple manner, Boyes explained centuries of free markets, the voluntary exchange of goods and services, and individuals acting – rightly — in their self-interest.
He also addressed market failures, when citizens (usually through government) jump into a market because they don’t like the outcomes (someone “wins” and someone “loses” and it’s not “fair”). Of course, he showed how this attempt at control actually hurts markets, breeds inefficiencies, and demotivates individuals.
The irony – and value – of course was that these lessons were being taught during a time in which the federal government voted for the massive stimulus, approved taking over GM and Chrysler, and began debating government-run health care.
Managerial Accounting: The third numbers course, using some of the learned financial-statement and statistical concepts. Cases were focused on cost drivers, activity-based costing, and determining in what processes the organization is making money or losing money. Is there a way to re-engineer a system to make it more efficient? Should certain functions be outsourced or eliminated?
Building a website
Awareness of other programs offered at ASU led to my participation in the New Media Academy, offered by the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Over 10 summer Saturdays, various instructors provided hands-on guidance in website development, the uses of social media, video and sound editing, and photography.
The writer posing after a dinner at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Business and Public Policy: After a two-month break, the MBA program continued in July 2009 with two special sessions about business and government, taught by Professor Gerry Keim.
The first classes took place at the Arizona State Legislature, to explain how constituents and advocacy groups affect the direction of legislation and government spending. The week included a simulation in which each student played a role in the passing of a state budget. One student was Speaker of the House, another was President of the Senate and a third was the Assistant to the Governor. Others played representatives and senators, as well as lobbyists.
As many people might believe, the big winner will be, in the end, the lobbyist. This occurred with our exercise, as the public affairs manager for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce collected the most “points” in the game. (That person was me.)
Two weeks later the class traveled to Washington, D.C. for another set of classes and visits with elected officials and lobbyists. In the “belly of the beast,” much of what we had discussed in prior classes became more apparent. The takeaway? If you’re not there, it’s your ox that gets gored. Or, if you’re not at the table, then you might be the meal.
That’s why Microsoft now has the most prominent building closest to the Capitol.
The Second Year
Be prepared to work harder, graduates of the Class of 2009 warned us. They were right. (And I ended up taking an additional class!)
Managerial Finance: Professor Tom Bates had a lot of material to get through in five weekends, and he made sure we did. If you were struggling, you were encouraged to get additional help outside of class.
The topics were valuable: Time-Value-Money, financial forecasting, the cost of capital, evaluating project costs, valuations and capital structure. After the first accounting class and statistics, Managerial Finance brought all of the concepts together in a way you would expect an MBA program to do. Some classmates are still having nightmares about cash flows, net working capital, betas, and weighted average cost of capital.
Operations and Supply Chain: This half-class – only five meetings – looked at processes, parts, people, planning and plants. Whereas Managerial Accounting urged managers to assess what activities to do and ones not to do, this class looked at doing all processes more efficiently.
Legal and Ethical Issues in Business: This second half-class was presented by inimitable Professor Marianne Jennings. Like the initial Strategic Decision-Making class, this section showed students a model to consider ethical dilemmas in business. Jennings presented in class – and through voluminous readings! – the types of ethical dilemmas everyone faces, the rationalizations we use to avoid them, and structured approaches for resolving ethical dilemmas.
Some of her “pearls:” Never trust people you cheat with; if management is for it, company directors should get an outsider to look at it; and the probability of an unethical outcome increases in direct proportion to the amount of money involved. Plus, no lyin’, no cheatin’, no killin’.
Supply Chain Management: This supply-chain class addressed logistics and network planning, sourcing, and demand forecasting. An interesting dimension was the application of supply-chain principles to areas like health care, information and humanitarian efforts.
Strategic Impact of Information Technology: For the uninitiated, this class was a blur of jargon and analytics. The focus was how to use data (and the SAS program in Excel) to drive decision-making. The potential for using information technology technologies for collaboration and monitoring was discussed. Finally, the class looked at disruptive technologies and how performance changes over time.
This trimester also afforded me the opportunity to take a class in the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Business partners John Wolfe and Bailey Mosier
Advanced Projects in Digital Media Entrepreneurship: Over the entire trimester, a partner, Bailey Mosier, and I conceived and developed an idea for a website for publishers. We crafted a plan, investigated alternatives, and honed the functionality we sought. We were taught to think like an entrepreneur – look to ease others’ pains and provide pleasure through your business. This was a nice complement to the MBA instruction.
Doing Business in Chile and Peru: The second trimester of the second year began a bit late – in December – with the focus being preparations for the cohort’s upcoming trip to South America. This class mixed history of Chile and Peru with their current economic climates, including products and exports. The key lesson was the advantages of free markets over state-controlled economies. Whereas free markets have been common in the United States for two centuries, recent history in both Chile and Peru involved socialist governments, totalitarianism and protectionism.
This is perhaps why economists in recently freed economies like these and ones in eastern Europe are more critical of the U.S. government’s recent actions than many American thought leaders.
Our international practicum team at ESAN University in Lima, Peru
Valuation of Businesses in Emerging Countries: Our cohort’s international practicum involved travel to Chile and Peru in February. The real lesson – as emphasized by visiting professor Luis Pereiro of Argentina – was that there is no substitute for putting your “boots on the ground.”
From a classroom in Tempe, teams contemplated various import scenarios of Chile and Peru products. It was not until we were there that we could identify challenges to our plans, including infrastructure, production and distribution limits. Unfortunately, we also underestimated the potential for a natural disaster to crimp our plans. This became apparent a week after we left when a devastating earthquake hobbled Chile’s commerce.
Pereiro showed tools to assess the value of businesses in foreign countries in which you make some assumptions about risk in Crystal Ball in Excel. It was an incredible experience.
Strategic Management: At last, the final trimester! This course, led by Professor Trevis Certo, was the capstone of the program. In addition to studying elements to consider in designing the direction of a company – i.e. governance, internal and external environments, strategies and growth – this class involved a “live case.” The teams were to act as consultants to a local health-services provider and, at the end of the semester, present recommendations to management.
The gathering of information about the firm, including its leadership, culture, financials and industry, was the most interesting element of the class.
Applied Financial Management: The first half-course of the last trimester was about a subject I had thought would be more prominent in an MBA program: Markets and risk. Professor Werner Bonadurer, a Swiss investment banker, explained how to manage risk in deploying capital, through hedges and tools. These could address currency changes, interest-rate changes, inflation and volatility.
Once again, the discussions were timely, as we studied credit derivatives, swaps, and credit spreads – legitimate, functioning tools of a market – just as representatives in Washington were looking to outlaw them.
Whereas Wall Street is often blamed for the current economic mess, the roots of the problem began with a policy of encouraging home ownership among citizens who couldn’t afford the commitment. Their loans were seemingly backed by the rising equity in their homes, which was being created by the demand of new homebuyers. Prices became inflated, values overestimated, and additional debts taken on. Banks were complicit in granting loans to unqualified buyers. Loans were bundled as investment tools and, in the heady days of low interest rates, capital looked for any investment that would outperform a Treasury note.
Too much money to invest, inflated prices, clever products and, yes, greed all led to the meltdown.
Intellectual Property and Innovation: The final half-class! At this point, it’s safe to assume that most of the class was more focused on graduation than applying law in the workplace. But the classes did provide interesting information on patents, licenses, trade secrets and copyright, along with employment contracts.
The take-away: Like with public policy, businesses need to acknowledge this side of operations, even if it doesn’t directly impact sales and revenues.
So there is it: the last 21 months of my life. Thank you, classmates and professors and Carey support staff. It was worth the investment of time and money.
Mom would have been proud!