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Conquering the Summit

Author: Karen Hart
September, 2011 Issue

In business—as in life—there’s more than one way to be an effective leader.


Rock climbing is a physically and mentally demanding sport that tests a climber’s strength, endurance, agility and balance. The goal is to conquer the summit of a formation without falling. Getting an Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) degree, an MBA program targeted specially to executives, at Sonoma State University (SSU) is somewhat like rock climbing. That’s why William “Bill” Silver, Ph.D., dean of SSU’s school of business and economics, likes to use a rock climbing metaphor to help students prepare for the program.

In lead climbing, the leader climbs from the ground with rope attached to a harness in case of a fall. Another person, called the second, “belays” the leader by feeding out enough rope to allow upward progression without undue slack.

“I tell EMBA students to make sure their belayers are ready,” says Silver. “Tell everyone you know⎯family, friends, bosses and employees⎯that you’re going to embark on this incredible learning journey, and ask for their support and commitment to your success.”

SSU launched its EMBA program to meet the demand for promising business leaders in the North Bay in January 2010. Nineteen students were in the first graduating class of this fast and rigorous new program.

Cohort one

This first group of students, known as “cohort one,” represents up-and-coming leaders in the business world. (A cohort is a group of people banded together or treated as a single entity.) The students ranged in age and typically held 10 to 20 years of work experience. They represented a mix of rising stars in initial leadership positions and more executive senior leaders. Some work in small or family-owned businesses, while others come from corporate offices or nonprofit organizations. Many of the students hold general management positions in the organizations where they work.

“We actively recruit a diverse cohort of students representing the depth and breadth of business in the North Bay,” says Silver. “They have full-time careers⎯ successful careers⎯plus lives with family, friends and activities. Students come in and move through the program together in a cohort. These students are talented and experienced leaders. They learn from faculty, business leaders and each other. The cohort is an integral part of the success of the program, and it’s one of the most extraordinary experiences a person can go through.”

The program delivers a set of business tools and methods, and focuses on strategies and emerging trends in the business world, according to Silver. There’s also a strong emphasis on leadership. “The world needs leaders who make a difference⎯not just a difference in the organizations for which they work, but for the communities in which they live,” says Silver.

According to Silver, a results-oriented leader has three critical skill sets: business acumen, emotional intelligence and the discipline to deliver results. SSU’s curriculum was built on these skill sets. First, students are taught a core foundation of financial, operational and strategic business acumen. Second, students get hands-on experience to effectively engage people. And finally, they learn how to execute and deliver results.

Classes are taught by the faculty at SSU as well as business executives who serve as adjunct faculty for some courses. In addition, more than 50 North Bay business leaders have joined students in the classroom as guest lecturers to share their insights and experiences.

“We’re sensitive to make sure classes are taught by people who can teach real-world business,” says Silver.

SSU’s EMBA program requires a significant time commitment. EMBA students meet every weekend, on alternating Fridays and Saturdays, for 18 months. Students log in eight hours per week in class time and up to 24 hours per week, outside of class, studying and meeting with their group. The program also includes two trips⎯a four-day sailing trip for leadership training and a 10-day international trip to study other business systems and cultures.

Leadership training

Part of SSU’s philosophy includes getting EMBA students out of the classroom and into the world for hands-on learning. Says Silver of the sailing trip in San Diego, “Leadership is about doing. It’s not something you can learn about in a classroom. It’s about getting something done while working with others. This trip is an accelerator.”

The leadership exercise takes place in small groups on 30-foot sailboats. “We create a learning laboratory in the water,” says Silver. Skippers give students a crash course in how to sail. Each student learns how to operate a certain part of the sailboat then teaches his or her job to the other students. The teams then run through drills and increasingly difficult exercises. In the end, students compete in races.

Despite the fact that most EMBA students have already been in leadership positions, they find they still have much to learn when they set sail. “On our first cohort excursion, we had a group arguing before it hit the open water,” says Silver. “It was a great example of the sailboat being a mirror of leadership success—or lack thereof—and team performance. The playing field is leveled on a sailboat. The boat only goes forward if the crew works together, so no single person can succeed by him or herself. And the skippers who teach them to sail are world-class sailors. They’re remarkable leaders who model different [leadership] styles along the way.”

According to Silver, this experience teaches students that there isn’t one right way to be a leader. Students have the opportunity to try on different leadership styles. “They find that certain styles work better in certain situations, and sailing is a sport with constantly changing situations. A leader is aware of what’s happening and does what’s necessary. Students learn that versatility and awareness are core leadership skills.”

At the end of the four-day sailing trip, students complete assessments and give each other feedback about their leadership strengths and challenges.

The number one lesson for Dr. Stefan Tunev, a student in the first cohort, was how to adapt to a situation he couldn’t control. “I’ve always had the luxury to start new things and build my own team,” says Tunev. During the sailing excursion, however, teams were organized ahead of time. “Naturally, we start sailing and I think, ‘I wouldn’t have picked these people, they’re not performing to my expectations,’ and I was tempted to withdraw,” he says. “The number one lesson for me was to keep the ball in the game.”

According to Tunev, he and the other crew members took turns being the captain on the sailboat, and their crew went on to win all three races.

“It’s meant to be an introspective exercise. You get honest feedback about your personality and leadership style,” adds Meredith Nicklas, another EMBA student from cohort one. “It was definitely eye opening and a good bonding experience.”

International trip

The EMBA program also features a 10-day international trip. The first cohort traveled to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Beijing, China. “We go on business visits across different industries, learning the feasibility of international operations,” says Silver.

The goals of the international trip are to learn how to establish a global supply chain, observe international business culture and practices, build international partnerships and alliances, and show students how to think globally about international economics.

On the international trip, the idea is for students to contrast an emerging economy with one that’s more established (such as in the United States). The students of the first cohort visited an intellectual property firm that focuses on piracy and patents, Chinese robotics entrepreneurs as well as Marriott Hotels.

Not only do students learn about international business, they also get a lesson in moral responsibility. “For students, it becomes an interesting examination of business practices and ethics,” says Silver.

According to Silver, the first cohort visited a U.S.-owned factory in Vietnam that produces unfinished wood products. The company, based in Eugene, Oregon, found that sales were rapidly declining in 2001 and moved the factory out of the country to Vietnam because of the cost of labor. “What buys you four hours of American labor buys an entire month of work in Vietnam,” says Silver. Nevertheless, factory conditions weren’t up to American standards. “There was dust, heat and humidity,” says Silver, “and none of this would meet OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standards.”

What’s the right thing to do?

“Teaching leadership has to be anchored in a values-based framework. We don’t tell students what the right values are,” says Silver, “but we do try to teach them how to examine their values in the context of real business decisions and dilemmas.”

“From a business perspective, I understood why they’re doing it,” says Nicklas. “But knowing what we know about health issues and work conditions, [the American company] should have upgraded work conditions for its associates.”

Final project

Near the end of the course, students work together in groups to create a business plan. The business plan can be for a new venture, an existing enterprise, or SSU can assign a project for an organization looking for help. “The experience is about taking an idea and running it through a series of questions to see if it’s fundable, sustainable and marketable,” says Silver.

Once the project is complete, a panel of professionals, consisting of business leaders, investors, venture capitalists and professors, judge each team’s final project and a winner is declared.

The final project was the one experience that really stood out for cohort one student Dr. Aleisha Dobbins. Dobbins and her team developed a reorganization plan and organizational development strategy for Neighbors Organized Against Hunger (NOAH). “We gave them everything they requested and more. We showed them how to take their organization to the next level.

“At the end, there was this realization that this would be the last time we were together,” says Dobbins. “I realized how far we’d come. We had changed externally, but more important, we’d changed from within. Like a butterfly, after our 18 months metamorphosis, our growth and self-realization, we were all ready to spread our new wings and fly.”

The SSU difference

What sets SSU’s EMBA program apart from other similar programs? It’s tailored to the students and made personally relevant through hands-on learning. “We try to build to the strength of each student so they get what they need,” says Silver.

How the students help each other is also a critical part of the program. “As they do projects together, each brings something different to the table. They learn from each other in that way.”

An EMBA from SSU costs $41,000, which is a modest price compared to other, similar university programs that run as much as $170,000. Silver says he’d take his students against EMBA students from more prestigious schools any day. “They have a stronger work ethic, raw talent, good values and both emotional intelligence and business acumen.”

Future plans

Cohort one graduated in May, along with the other SSU graduates. According to Silver, 19 students entered the program and 19 finished, 18 months later. “That’s especially great for a first cohort,” says Silver.

Silver hopes to see all of the EMBA grads at an SSU alumnae event this fall. “Once a cohort, always a cohort,” says Silver. “They’ll be friends and business partners for life.”

In the future, Silver hopes to increase the number of students in the EMBA program. Cohorts generally have 20 students, but SSU hopes to increase enrollment and get more students from other areas in the North Bay such as Marin, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties.

“We also hope to see our graduates as business leaders in our community. Ideally, they’ll be on the boards of local organizations and running successful companies in the area. When this happens, SSU—like the leaders it graduates—will have made a difference.”

Meet the Grads

Here are a few grads from SSU’s first cohort.

Dr. Aleisha Dobbins is manager of training and quality in the clinical development business unit solutions organization at BioMarin Pharmaceutical, Inc. She’d been looking for an MBA program for several months when Rob Eyler, director of SSU’s EMBA program, visited the company.

“He told me about the new program. The schedule worked very well for me, the location was great and the cost was manageable,” says Dobbins.

Not only that, but Dobbins liked the idea of coming into this new program at SSU. “I was going to be part of history. I’d be in the first cohort. Everything lined up.”

Dobbins advises new students to do it for the right reasons. “It has to come from within: Do it for yourself. Don’t do it just to move forward in your job. If it doesn’t come from within, there’s no way a person can make it through.”

Meredith Nicklas, director of finance for Marriott Hotels, was looking to move forward with her 10-year career at Marriott in a regional position. She says she learned a lot from the course—as well as from her classmates. “You learn a lot when sharing your experiences with other students. We’d read a business case and interject our own experiences.”

Nicklas, who is married and had a six-month-old baby when she began the EMBA program, advises new students, “Prepare your support system for the time commitment. That makes a lot of difference.”

Bryce Pattison, vice president and chief financial officer for Royal Petroleum Company, had been looking at MBA programs for a while when he learned of the EMBA program at SSU. “I wanted to expand my business network and remain in this community. I thought it was a good fit, so I went for it,” he says.

The EMBA program changed Pattison both professionally and personally. “Professionally, it’s given me a bigger tool kit. There are solid, tried and true techniques that work with mergers, acquisitions, financial analysis and human resources,” he says. “Personally, it’s made me really appreciative of my family and friends, and has given me a better awareness of the world around me.”

His advice for incoming EMBA students? “You have to immerse yourself in the program and clear your schedule as much as you can. It’s a major time commitment. Also, check your baggage at the door, and come in with an open mind.”

Dr. Stefan Tunev, a senior scientific program manager at Medtronic, was working as a research pathologist and looking for a new challenge when he applied to the EMBA program. “Three years ago, I had reached the limits of what I could do as an individual pathologist, yet the demand for my services was increasing. I realized the only way I could satisfy this demand was to build a scientific team and become a team leader.”

How has an EMBA helped him on the job? As a pathologist at Medtronic, Dr. Tunev is always looking for ways to improve the lab where he works. “Now I know how to make a business case, and my operation has nearly doubled in the last 18 months in space, equipment and staffing. As a business leader, I consider and manage cost, what the payoff is and how long a piece of equipment will last.”

What’s his tip for a new EMBA student? “The number one step is to have family support,” says Tunev. “I had multiple discussions with my wife and we had to make a plan and financial commitment to babysitters. She’s also a scientist and saw the value in this program, which far exceeds the investment of time, effort and money.”



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