Executive MBAs: A Conversation Starter

"Can I ask you a question?" my seat mate on a crowded flight from Seattle to Denver asked me. "Are you a college professor?"

"No," I replied, somewhat puzzled by the question.

"Well, I couldn't help but notice earlier that you were looking at something from the Foster School of Business (Foster EMBA Profile), and now you're looking at something from Harvard Business Review. I thought perhaps you were a business professor."

I smiled. "No, not quite," I replied. I'm actually a student. I'm currently studying for my MBA."

This exchange has been common over the course of the last year. I bring homework and class readings with me just about everywhere I go. As a result, I've had conversations with people about my MBA program on airplanes, in hotel lobbies, in airports, and doctors' waiting rooms.

"So, are you in a study group?"

I paused for a moment. Yes, of course I was in a study group. But the way that my Executive MBA class has evolved, I really feel like I have two.

Group Chemistry

The first, of course, is Team Phoenicia. University of Washington knows us as "R26 Purple Team", but early on we decided that we wanted a name with more flair. A member suggested "Phoenicia", after the ancient Mediterranean civilization whose name is derived from the Greek word for purple. Upon learning that the original Phoenicians had built their trade on a purple dye from shellfish, the choice seemed obvious. Another member had a graphic designer create a stylized purple sea shell as our logo, and we had our brand. It all fell together nicely, right from the start.

That was a harbinger for things to come. The UW EMBA program is heavily team-oriented—a significant portion of our grade in almost every class is based on group projects and presentations. UW doesn't divulge to us just how the school puts together the study groups, but there is an allusion to "secret sauce".

Well, the "secret sauce" worked for Team Phoenicia. In the year that I have been a Phoenician, I have learned to rely on Dave for flawless financial and accounting advice, Eric for thorough and exhaustive economic analysis, Rebecca for the ability to explain the most complex issues in easy-to-understand terms, and Aidan for brilliant and perceptive strategic insights. Together, we have done well. There is no way I could have done as well in the EMBA program without each one of my fellow Phoenicians.

Class Act

Then there is what I consider my second study group: my entire EMBA class. When I began the program, I was awed by the quality of the individuals in my class and wondered if I deserved to be in such a successful and talented group. After a year in the program, I consider each classmate a friend. We've come to know a lot about each other, but more important, we all care about each other. At a recent residency week, a professor who was winding up a class commented: "You are a special group. I've only spent a short time with you, but I can tell that you all genuinely like each other. There are times when you like to poke fun, but it's never mean spirited."

That observation is true. I'm reminded of the time when our superb accounting professor, Bob Bowen, asked for a volunteer to be "Bob for a Day" —to take the role of the professor and moderate group presentations that were the culmination of the quarter's work. A classmate, John, was quick to volunteer. Little did Bob know what was in store: On the fateful day, John came in dressed like Bob, with glasses like Bob—and did a dead-on Bob impersonation that included Bob's enthrallment with his iPhone ("Look, no screws!").

The next quarter, we had the good fortune to have Bob again, and again, Bob asked for a "Bob for a Day" volunteer for the quarter's last class. This time, it was unthinkable that anyone but John would volunteer, and we all looked forward to see what he had planned. Sure enough, John did his fabulous Bob impression. But he also had a surprise for us. He recruited another classmate, Spence, to fill the role of Allison, Bob's teaching assistant. (I doubt the real Allison ever chugged a beer as quickly as "Allison for a Day" did.)

When I lost my job earlier this year and wondered what I would do next, both my study groups came through. My team mates were an immediate source of support, but I was nervous about showing up for class. Here I was, the unemployed one, surrounded by bright and successful people. I needn't have worried. My classmates were supportive, offering help, advice, contacts, or just a sympathetic ear.

The Second Stage

"Then, it must be getting easier for you, now that you're in the second year of the program," says my seat mate. In some respects that's true. My classmates and I have become adept at juggling a full-time job with full time school. I think I (and my classmates) enjoyed this past summer more than any in recent memory. Suddenly, we had all this free time. What exactly had we done when we didn't have school?

All of us had looked forward to the start of the second year. We knew what to expect—except for all the things that were different. The classes and the professors didn't change, but the class did. Some people had switched jobs, others had met the same fate I did and lost theirs. Some had children, some got engaged.

The teams also were different. Some teams had new people transferring in from other programs. Jobs had lured away other members, leaving some teams too small to continue. Team members were split up and added to other groups. In my group's case, Gold Team's loss was Team Phoenicia's gain: Maju, who joined us at the start of the year. He brings us thoughtful perspectives on how we approach assignments and group projects, and Team Phoenicia is definitely the better with his addition.

I've also undergone some changes. I got a job—in a city almost 1,000 miles away from Seattle. My husband and I will relocate when I complete the EMBA program. UW offers two EMBA programs: The one in which I am enrolled meets one day a week, while the other meets for two to three days once a month. When I received my job offer, my husband and I sat down to consider how to proceed. I chose to keep with my original course. At the heart of it, I want to finish my EMBA program with Team Phoenicia. To their credit, my teammates could not have been more supportive, altering our meeting schedule to accommodate my travel so I can attend most of our meetings in person.

We have five tough classes this quarter, and another two quarters ahead. There is the business plan competition in June and also a highlight of the program in March —the international study seminar that will take us to Santiago, Chile, and Buenos Aires. For me, there is the challenge of balancing a full-time job, full-time school, and a 1,000-mile commute just about every week. With the support from classmates and team mates, I am confident we all can meet the challenges.

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