Baseball's Uber-Woman Mentors the Rookies
When Jamie McCourt was 9 years old, she came home one day and told her mother she was going to buy a baseball team. Forty-one years later, the tomboy who dragged her father to Baltimore Orioles games had partly made good on her promise. In 2004, McCourt and her husband, Frank, a commercial real estate developer, bought the Los Angeles Dodgers. Now vice-chairman and president of the club, McCourt is responsible for executing her husband's long-term vision for the franchise. As such, she is the highest-ranking woman in Major League Baseball.
McCourt, who served as president and general counsel for her husband's commercial real-estate firm, had previously practiced law for 15 years before going back to MIT's Sloan School of Management to earn an MBA.
This winter, she went back to school again, this time to teach a class, "The Pursuit of Leadership: A Female Perspective," at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. The class, which dealt with issues ranging from gender differences in management approaches to work-life balance, was the first of its kind at UCLA. BusinessWeek's management editor Jena McGregor caught up with McCourt recently to learn more about the course. Here are edited excerpts:
How did you come to teach this course?
When I went back to business school at MIT, I tried to do my thesis on building a new ballpark or buying a team. I had no anticipation of doing that then, it was just something that I still loved. Not a single professor would sponsor that thesis, because [the emphasis during those days] was Wall Street. I ended up doing my paper on naked short-selling. It's kind of amusing that I had that interest, and you just zigzag your way through life.
The other thing I tried to do my thesis on was helping women. When I practiced law, a lot of what I did in my later years was family law, and I was really surprised at the need there was to educate women about real-life situations. I tried to do my thesis on something that was about empowering women and teaching them how to leverage skill sets, but again, Wall Street was the theme of the day.
I always loved the idea of teaching, and I thought this was the perfect time to do this course. I see so much in the business world, whether it's baseball, real estate, or the law, and I love the idea of helping women. So I presented a syllabus and [UCLA's former dean Bruce Willison] thought it was a great idea.
Was the class intended to be about women managers, women leaders, or women and the work-life balance issues they deal with?
I went in with the anticipation of teaching women to leverage their skill sets. What I personally believe is that it's important to talk about leadership from the perspective of figuring out what you do best, not trying to be someone else. Just because you've seen someone and they do something well doesn't mean you have to do it in the same way. You may not be as friendly or financially oriented, or you may not have as global a view.
What became apparent was that this particular group [of students] really wanted to learn more about managing the role of work-life balance. There was no question that this was the most important thing to them. Through the Q&A [portion of the class], it always came back to how students managed their work-life [balance].
What was the student make-up of the class?
Most of them were second-year business students. There were a few who were older -- say, 40ish -- and there were six or seven guys in the class. The class was designed for women, but when a few guys signed up I wasn't going to say "Don't come." If they want to subject themselves to what we were going to talk about, good for them.
Why did the guys say they wanted to take the class?
One of the touching [comments] for me was a guy who said, "My mother worked, and died when I was 12. I think she was a really strong woman, I wanted to hear what it was like to have gone through life as a woman in business." One of them, who was getting married soon, wanted to understand why his girlfriend thought a certain way. Another one simply [thought], "She's in baseball, this will be interesting." It ran the gamut. They were good counterpoints, and there's much overlap in terms of their own fears. But there was also a difference in how they perceive the world, approach problems, and analyze disappointment.
How did you structure the course?
It was a quarter system. There were 10 classes; we collapsed the two days a week into one class that met three hours a week. I made them talk about themselves, so they had to hear their own voices and had to open up. This class is no good unless there's real participation.
You brought in a number of women leaders -- from producers Marcy Carsey and Sherry Lansing to Los Angeles County Second District Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke -- to share their real-life experiences with students. What did they share?
Everything we talked about was confidential. There were themes of perseverance and keeping your voice, and it was clear that the speakers capitalized on their strengths. I think the one thing everyone believed is that one perspective women bring is that they are both more intuitive and collaborative, and that it's part of the way they make decisions.
Everyone had a different perspective on work-life balance. But we all agreed there was no such thing. You just pursue what you think is important at any given time. My perspective is you can have it all but maybe not all at once. You have to really evaluate your own priorities. A lot of time was spent by speakers talking about work-life balance. It's why they got divorced, it's why they ended up in therapy, it's why they had stay-at-home husbands, it's why they didn't have children or didn't get married.
What were your students' reaction to the class? Are you going to teach it again?
One of the things that came out of the course was that all of them -- without exception -- said the most amazing thing about the course, in addition to the real-life perspective, was that they had a chance to talk to one another. They learned they weren't the only ones thinking about all these issues.
[The students] actually put a book together for me, and every one of them signed it and talked to me about how much the class meant to them. It was incredibly touching, because I really feel like it did accomplish even more than I ever thought it would. They talked about how their perspective on life, not just career, was changed. I feel very fortunate to have done it. They've asked me if I would teach it again, and I really want to. If I can figure it out schedule-wise, I think it's important to do it again.