On Graduation Day

The instructions sounded simple at first: "Your hood should be worn draped around your neck with the largest portion hanging in back. The velvet border, showing your field of study, should show on the outside. The velvet should fold under on the lower back to allow the colors of your university to show."

Considering everything that we had been through in the previous several weeks, you'd think this was an easy task. The day had arrived that we all had been counting down to for almost two years: Graduation from the Executive MBA program at the University of Washington Foster School of Business (Foster EMBA Profile). It hadn't been an easy road by any stretch. The last several weeks had been particularly brutal. Not only did we have our full course load; just two days prior, we'd had the culmination of our business school experience—the business plan competition.

The business plan was a course unto itself. Each team had worked on its business plan for at least the last several months; some teams had been working on theirs throughout their second year, weaving group assignments from several classes around their chosen business. For the competition, each team squared off against two others for the first round, presenting their business plan to a panel of successful entrepreneurs and executives. The best four teams advanced to the second round, which afforded each the opportunity to present its plan to a panel of venture capitalists. To increase the pressure, the final four teams' presentations were recorded for posterity. The winning team had been announced that night during the graduation dinner.

That had been a long and exhausting day. While Team Phoenicia did not win the business plan competition, I think we achieved what we wanted, and we were all proud of the final product we had presented to the judges.

teaming up to fix the hoods

The dinner that night was surreal—it was great to celebrate that we were finished, but it was difficult to believe that we were finally done. Done, finished, complete. No more case studies to read, reports to write, team projects to collaborate on. After the unrelenting nature of the program, having such a sudden stop was almost disorienting.

So two days later there we were, outside Meany Hall, a group of Executive MBA almost-graduates struggling to arrange our hoods. At almost the last minute, someone discovered the secret—just exactly how to arrange the cord and button on the back of the hood that would assure that the school colors would show just as much as the field-of-study color. A flurry of activity followed as we all arranged each other's hoods before the processional. As with so many other things in the EMBA program, this little conundrum had been solved through teamwork.

Team Phoenicia had accomplished the goal set out in our charter: We worked together as a team and we graduated as a team. We had discovered that we were not required to sit in alphabetical order for the ceremony. Therefore we elected to walk together—as a team for the last time—in the processional to the auditorium.

The ceremony was a blur. I imagine that like most others, I was lost in my own thoughts. In some ways, the prior two academic years seemed like a very long time. In others, they seemed so very short. It was hard to believe that tonight could be the last time I would see some of my classmates.

In the previous 21 months, I had lost one job, found another elsewhere, and found yet another in a third city. The second year of my program had meant weekly commutes of at least 700 miles to come to class and study group meetings. I estimated that I had flown roughly 30,000 miles in the second year of the program to finish. I looked around in the audience and saw my husband Roy, smiling at me. Roy was my steadying force and rock throughout the program. I could not have done it without him, just as I would not have been there without my team and classmates.

"Bob for a day" talks at commencement

I remembered my first accounting midterm, when I thought I would be the first person ever to fail an accounting exam. (I didn't, thank goodness.) I remembered struggling with the nuances of "our model" in organizational leadership. I remembered being mystified by some of the concepts in macroeconomics. Mostly, I remembered the lessons I took from all the classes and how I had been able to apply them to my work.

At that point, John, the student who had been "Bob for a day" in our excellent accounting classes, took the podium. John had been elected by the class to speak on our behalf at the ceremony. In addition to recognizing the professors we had selected with the Excellence in Teaching awards—our marvelous marketing professor, Shelly Jain, our inspiring and fearless leadership professor, Pat Bettin, and of course, the incomparable Bob Bowen, our peerless accounting professor—John shared some other thoughts.

He described a situation where he had had a disagreement with a teammate about the direction a team project was to take. He recounted that he and the teammate had sat down, thoroughly discussed the issue, agreed to respect each other's different opinions, and brainstormed alternatives. In that process, he said, something that started out good turned out to be even better.

That's a good analogy for the program as a whole. During its course, we learned many new things from many different viewpoints. Not everyone agreed with the viewpoints—discussions in class could get quite vigorous—but in the end, differences were respected. I believe the learning opportunities turned out to be even better.

Let the real learning begin

It struck me at that point that perhaps what we had just accomplished—going through the program and graduating—was the easy part. Granted, it was time-consuming and stressful and grueling. I thought about all the times I had directly applied the lessons learned in class to what I was doing at work. However, it was easy to remember the lessons learned in the program and how they applied to our careers because we were doing both at the same time. It was easy to remember to apply a certain principle of finance at work when there was a finance case study due at the end of the week for class. The greater challenge lay ahead of us. Would we remember how to apply leadership principles and how to be an authentic leader when we were in the middle of a tactical crisis? When taking over a new team, how effective would we be in establishing a team culture while we were absorbed in all the immediate things that need attending to when starting a new assignment?

I don't think it was until that very moment that it occurred to me that the EMBA had indeed given me tools that I needed to move my career forward. But it was my job now to identify opportunities to use those tools, and to use them effectively.

Now, I thought, is when the real learning begins.

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