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MBA Journal: B-School Update

A Very Long Week

"Gee, you look familiar," a classmate said to me early one Friday morning. "It seems like it's been less than a week since I've seen you."

We both smiled wanly. Of course it had been less than a week. In the UW EMBA (Foster EMBA Profile) program, classes are on alternating Fridays and Saturdays. Our last class day had been the previous Saturday.

"It's funny," I said. "Before I entered the EMBA program, I had a co-worker who asked if an EMBA was one of those fake MBAs where you sit in a room for a few hours and get a fancy looking diploma at the end of it. I tried to tell him that it was a real MBA, a full-time class program I would attend while working, but he said it was impossible, since his wife did a full-time MBA, and there was no way she could have worked while she was going to school. So, in his mind, there's no way we are getting 'real' MBAs."

""I can't believe he would think that," my classmate said. "Obviously he doesn't realize how much work we do."

Truer words were never spoken. Even though it had been less than a week since I'd seen my classmates, those six days felt much, much longer.

Mountains of Work

This was winter quarter, meaning class time was compressed as well. At UW, the winter quarter barely lasted two months, from the beginning of January to the beginning of March. With the compressed quarter, we had "only" three courses. Those three courses, however, meant more work than some other quarters when we had more courses. Two courses were Operations Management, which every week featured a different complex Excel spreadsheet to conquer, and Marketing Strategies, which required mastery in a different software and its associated implications every week.

Our other course was one of the major features of the UW EMBA program, and one to which I had been looking forward. Titled Leadership Speaker Series, it was taught by the CEO of Alaska Airlines, Bill Ayer, who invited several prominent CEOs and senior executives to share their experiences with our class. Bill would be in the class during each presentation and facilitate analysis before and afterward. You might think there wouldn't be much to that class—just show up, listen, and ask questions—but you'd be wrong. Imagine our surprise when, halfway during the fall quarter, books started showing up. Bill expected us to read them to prepare for his class. There were additional Harvard Business Review readings for each speaker. That was on top of the papers that were required, which Bill read and commented on himself.

On this particular Friday, we were in for a long day—not only did we have our two four-hour class sessions, we also had Bill and a speaker for two hours after lunch, plus a meeting for the international trip after the last class. The class day wouldn't end for us until almost 8 p.m.

A Deluge of Readings

I thought about what had happened since the last class the previous Saturday. After class, my husband and I had our weekly date night. This is a tradition we have upheld since I started the EMBA program—the night of classes is always a date night. It was even more important now because I was commuting back and forth to San Francisco every week, thanks to the new job I had taken at the start of the year.

Sunday was spent on homework. We had two case studies due in Marketing Strategy on Monday—the Conglomerate's New PDA case and the Forte Hotel Design case. One was a group assignment, so I started my portion of the work for that. I also made a dent in the readings for marketing for that week—one chapter of the textbook and other assigned readings revolving around how providing services enhances firm value.

Late Sunday afternoon found me on the way to the airport, where I caught a flight to San Francisco to prepare for the work week. On the way, I read one of the books Bill Ayer had assigned. I had already read Transparency and The Halo Effect and was working my way through How The Mighty Fall. House of Cards was up next. On arriving in San Francisco, I caught up on e-mail and prepared for the work week ahead.

Meetings upon Meetings

It was going to be a big week for me. On Tuesday, I was holding the first all-hands meeting of my team. I had been on the job for only a month, and my team is geographically dispersed, so it would be the first time I would meet many of my team members. The entire department had undergone a huge reorganization, and this was the first time everyone would be in the same room together as part of the same team. One of my first orders of business was to have everyone agree on a team charter: What the team mission is, where we want to go, and how to get there.

Monday was full of meetings. Being new to the organization, I was invited to a lot of meetings to establish working relationships and learn how my team could best serve its internal and external customers. I also had a meeting with my direct reports to prepare for the meeting on Tuesday. By the end of the workday on Monday, we were ready for Tuesday.

That evening, there was a study group conference call, this time talking about decisions required for Markstrat, a computer simulation for the marketing class in which each team emulated a company. It came complete with product launches and the effects of marketing on various customer segments, and the goal was to maximize our stock price. We spent several hours debating—which Sonite products do we support? When do we enter the Vodite market? It was after 11 p.m. before we hung up, after which I finished the work on the marketing assignments and submitted them before deadline.

Tuesday was my all-hands meeting. I walked into the conference room, which was filled with more than 30 expectant faces, ready to tackle the agenda. It was an intense day leading the team through the charter, raising issues, answering questions; I was drained at the end. Homework that night was to finish the readings on marketing strategy for class that week, to start the marketing case paper due that week (Netafim), and start on the readings for operations management—more readings from the text and other readings about matching supply to variable demand. The case study to be turned in that week was on queuing.

Writing a Paper

Wednesday was a catch-up day—e-mail, plus debriefing how the all-hands meeting had gone the previous day. Overall, the feedback was positive. The department had been through a lot in the past year, and some were understandably skeptical that the changes had not ended. I worked with my direct reports to come up with a plan to address the concerns. One of the solutions was to hold regular all-hands meetings, which is something I think we will do.

Wednesday night was given to Bill Ayer, as I wrote one of the papers required for the Leadership Class. Taking into consideration our readings from the class, we had to reflect on a time when we had to drive a significant change in our organization, critique our own leadership performance, and talk about what we could have done differently. The lessons from Transparency echoing in my mind, I wrote my paper about a project I had managed a few years ago that could have benefited from better and clearer communication. Satisfied with the effort, I submitted it that evening, even though it wasn't due until Friday. At least I had submitted one assignment before the due date that week.

Thursday was dedicated to one-on-one meetings with my team members. I have team update meetings, but I believe it is necessary to meet on a regular basis with each individual, so you can learn what's affecting him or her and how you can help. By Thursday afternoon I was on my way back to the airport—this time to fly to Seattle, where I had a study group that night. My readings on the plane were the HBR articles that Bill had assigned for that week's speaker. That evening, Dave, Aidan, Maju, Rebecca, Eric, and I discussed the case studies to be submitted the following day for both marketing and operations management, and we talked about how we would tackle our group projects for the quarter. We finished as usual, after 10 p.m.—just enough time to get home, introduce myself to my husband again, and prepare for class the next day.

Yes, those six days felt like a very long time.

"So what did you say?" my classmate asked. "Did you tell him off?"

"This was before the program started," I said. "I didn't know what to say. But I'm guessing if he spent a week in our shoes, he'd change his mind."

Megan Lum is enrolled in the Executive MBA program at the University of Washington Foster School of Business and is expected to graduate in 2010. Halfway through the program and as a result of the economic downturn, Lum lost her job as a senior environmental manager at Weyerhaeuser Company—not to mention the funding for her education. But she found another job at Pacific Gas & Electric Company in San Francisco, where she's been since January 2010. Lum has an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Windsor in Canada.

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