Tag: Desk of the Dean

Students from the MBA class of 2024 visit the fields at Kingston Family Vineyards outside of Santiago, Chile, during their global immersion visit in August 2022.

One mark of any successful enterprise—particularly one that places excellence and collaboration among its core values—is the ability to learn from its innovations, to iterate based on those learnings and to execute a new vision.

It’s a principle we teach at WashU Olin Business School, and it’s a principle we used to fine-tune our bold and rigorous global immersion for first-year MBA students. The result: It’s still bold. It’s still rigorous. It will continue to galvanize each class with exceptional grounding in global business practices. It’s just optimized based on our experience.

Launched in 2019 with fanfare as part of our globally focused Full-Time MBA program—and including some acclaim from b-school observers—Olin has conducted its six-week, three-continent immersion for MBA students four times. Those experiences opened the minds of incoming students to the global reach of their business aspirations. They’ve forged lifelong bonds among members of each cohort.

All that continues in global immersion 2.0. But those experiences taught us a few things about how we can improve the global immersion for future MBA students.

Rigorous and manageable

For example, the MBA class of 2025 will begin on July 10 rather than mid-June, allowing incoming students more time to continue working and plan their transition to graduate school.

Instead of six consecutive weeks of travel at the start of their program, the next cohort will experience a global immersion broken into three separate, more manageable trips in the program’s first year—first to Washington, DC, and the Brookings Institution in August; then to a European destination in October; and, finally, to an Asian destination in March 2024.

This new timing will allow incoming students to acclimate to the rigors of the program and the city of St. Louis. It will also enable them to use some of the learning from their on-campus coursework in the global immersion projects.

And once Olin’s curriculum designers evaluate which cities will provide the most relevant opportunities for student growth and development—and consider issues around safe travel and student access—we’ll announce specific locations abroad in spring 2023.

In addition to those changes, we’re slightly reducing required core curriculum credits, giving students more room for electives that meet their unique needs and interests. Meanwhile, coursework during the three trips remains tailored to each experience, allowing students to confront real-world, global business challenges.

Same globally oriented course content

Courses during the global immersion trips will continue to look deeply at how international values, cultures and institutions influence business abroad. Students will study business models in a global context and how strategy is shaped when implementing business operations on a global scale.

We know our MBA students have come to value Olin’s truly global program. Among so many other benefits, it gives them an additional story to tell about their career preparation.

And now, with the benefit of a critical review of the program, we have refined the experience to reduce the stress on students and their families, keep them fresh for their studies abroad and in St. Louis and avoid potential conflicts with career conferences and student experiences.

In short, WashU Olin will still offer the bold, rigorous, global program we unveiled in 2019—and we remain one among very few schools focused on global business experience. We’re proud to offer students an experience spanning three continents—in one truly global MBA.

Pictured above: Students from the MBA class of 2024 visit the fields at Kingston Family Vineyards outside of Santiago, Chile, during their global immersion visit in August 2022.

Young office worker at the computer remotely working with "Desk of the Dean" overlay image across the bottom. Image illustrates the blog post about the future of work and the need for businesses to adapt.

On January 24, 2020, WashU’s IT department sent an email to everyone at the university. Eight days later, it said, we each would have a personalized Zoom account. It seemed at the time to be a novelty, a nice new feature to try.

Little did we know. Within six weeks, Zoom was indispensable.

Within two years, we’ve been forced to entirely reexamine how we approach our careers and our education. In addition to its toll on so many lives, the pandemic has forced us to reassess and reappraise our roles as business leaders and educators.

Consider, for example, how we have recognized demand for digital education in ways I had not anticipated. That’s illustrated by the impressive debut cohort for WashU Olin’s new online MBA program—a program we hadn’t planned to launch before the pandemic. A program, indeed, that’s already attracting strong interest for a second cohort.

Navigating new ways of working

Consider also the experience of Olin students and corporate recruiters as they negotiate job offers in a post-pandemic world. Jen Whitten, associate dean and director of the Weston Career Center, says they’re confronting issues around hybrid working arrangements and remote work. They’re grappling with compensation models thrown askew by the separation of geography (cost of living) from the actual workplace.

Job candidates ask themselves now: Can I do my job remotely while I travel? How will simple things like the cost of commuting and parking factor into my job satisfaction?

“These are the conversations students are talking about,” Jen said. “Candidates are weighing all these things against what other companies are offering. They have a new set of things they can evaluate as they make a decision.”

The digital environment changes the way we work. At the same time, it is amplifying new attitudes about work that have come to roost during this global crisis. These attitudes underpin the zeitgeist of “The Great Resignation,” a trend well-documented in a recent edition of The New York Times Magazine.

‘Essential feature of capitalism’

And, as BlackRock CEO Larry Fink pointed out in his latest letter to CEOs from January 2022, these attitudes are forcing business leaders to respond.

“Workers demanding more from their employers is an essential feature of effective capitalism,” he wrote. “It drives prosperity and creates a more competitive landscape for talent, pushing companies to create better, more innovative environments for their employees—actions that will help them achieve greater profits for their shareholders.”

Yet even as Fink positions these trends as an appropriate manifestation of capitalism, I also recognize that today’s students are questioning everything—even capitalism itself—as my colleague at Columbia Business School, Glenn Hubbard, examined in The Atlantic in January.

“If these students are harboring doubts about the free market, business leaders need to take notice,” he writes. “But many Millennial and Generation Z Americans have come of age amid dislocations that give even MBA students pause about capitalism.”

In this context, business leaders and educators must be more circumspect about a world that simply requires people to show up in offices and do their jobs. At Olin, we are opening ourselves to ways of working that embrace virtual offices and hybrid arrangements not for the convenience it offers to workers, but for the ways it can foster inclusivity and participation.

That is why Jen and the WCC are calling out these trends—and helping students respond. The need for inclusivity and global understanding is what’s behind the global immersion for Olin MBAs. It’s why we’ve invested heavily in the Center for Digital Education and expanded opportunities for online education.

And as a school that champions values-based, data-driven decision-making—preparing students to change the world, for good—we continue to embrace our responsibility to confront these questions and equip students to succeed in an ever-evolving global business world.

Students standing in front of Mount Vernon during DC residency in October 2021.

During the second full week of October, the entire Full-Time MBA class of 2022 got a real-time lesson in operational logistics, supply chain disruption, crisis management, labor relations and strategic pivoting.

Coincidentally, we also sent them to Washington, DC, for their weeklong residency at the Brookings Institution.

By all accounts, the students’ time at Brookings was extraordinarily well spent. They rubbed shoulders with movers and shakers in the nation’s capital and gained deep insights into the ways business and policy intersect. Indeed, WashU Olin’s link with Brookings is a valuable differentiator among business schools.

But we didn’t expect that merely traveling to Brookings would bring students face-to-face with the realities of today’s business world. As Southwest Airlines struggled with labor shortages and crippling flight cancellations, it was a real-time demonstration of how the pandemic continues to impact the global economy and shape what the next  normal will look like for the foreseeable future.

Passing the test

In some ways, the trip to DC was a test we didn’t expect we’d be taking. October’s excursion was our first attempt at group travel since the start of the pandemic. After the delay of their excursion, our MBA students were finally able to go on the first leg of their global immersion—a trip that should have happened in August 2020.

I tip my cap to the staff, faculty and students who rolled with the challenges and bore the experience with grace and resilience. I’m especially grateful our students saw past the inconvenience to appreciate the many benefits of their weeklong engagement at Brookings. That included time with noted members of the media, policymakers and scholars who work inside the capital, who connected the ways business and government influence each other. It also included a side-trip to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate.

We learned we could manage travel under even the most trying circumstances. We dug deep into our toolkit to accomplish the task—tools we’ll certainly need as we plan for the balance of our students’ global immersion, now scheduled for the spring semester.

All strategy is emergent

For our students, this shouldn’t be difficult. As I’ve said before, our current students have never known a WashU Olin experience untouched by the pandemic. They’re well familiar with the imperative to pivot and reset based on circumstances, resilience that will serve them well during their careers. And I believe we’ve done a good job of modeling that behavior as a school.

I’m also fond of saying all strategy is emergent. That is, we must plan, but leave room in the plan to capitalize on unanticipated circumstances. Thus, we planned the MBA global immersion, and we have adapted to ensure we carry out that commitment.

But we’ve also established a new online MBA set to debut next month—a program borne of our experiences over the past two years. Our strategy remains fixed on being a leading global player in business education. Our emergent strategy accommodates students who have demonstrated they want to learn in—and for—a digitally enabled world.

That flexibility will be the way of this new world.

Pictured at top: MBA students from the class of 2022 standing in front of Mount Vernon during their DC residency in October 2021.

Olin banners hanging in the atrium depicting the school

Leaders in the corporate world know the importance of having a guiding star for their organization—the values, the mission, the vision. Having that guiding star is one thing. Ensuring your team members know, understand and follow it is another thing entirely.

At WashU Olin, we have that guiding star. Indeed, our institutional values hang from banners in the atrium for all to see: integrity, collaboration, diversity, leadership and excellence. And in spring 2021, we sought to gauge how well members of the Olin community recalled those values—and how well their definition of each value aligned with the definition our school intends to communicate.

What emerged was a picture of the Olin community that largely understands, agrees with and practices our institutional values. At the same time, we identified areas of improvement, strategies to more fully communicate our values and opportunities to better highlight and recognize the values-based contributions of our staff and faculty.

So, let’s take a high-level walk through what we learned and our next steps.

Why conduct this survey?

Anyone who works at Olin by now should be familiar with our four pillars of excellence: sparking the entrepreneurial spirit; instilling a global business mindset; fostering experiential learning; and, primarily, empowering values-based, data-driven leadership.

Our programs, our coursework and our career services are steeped in these pillars. It’s what we want and expect for our students. And we should hold ourselves to those same standards.

As I mentioned, closing the loop is important. Having values and communicating them are two separate issues. So, the survey we conducted in April-May 2021 was built to measure whether our colleagues share the same definition of Olin’s values. Beyond that, we hoped to learn whether individuals live out these values in their daily work and see others doing the same.

We also wanted to understand the Olin community’s ideas about how we could deepen the commitment to the values, while also recognizing those who do it well. I’m happy to say the survey delivered what we set out to accomplish.

Strengths and opportunities

I’m gratified to report that a large majority of Olin’s team is very aware or extremely aware of our school’s values. In fact, 85% responded positively to the values and more than half say the way we articulate these values gives them a more favorable impression of the school. And, for the most part, the survey respondents share the same definition of the values (By the way, check here for Olin’s definition of each value.). A large majority said they can see the way all five values apply to Olin. The strongest of those was excellence, where 91% saw it reflected at Olin. The lowest—yet still a majority—was diversity, at 63%

And certainly, as we know well, that is an area of opportunity for Olin, which is why I’ve devoted resources to recruiting leaders in that area and charting a strategic plan for inclusion, diversity, equity and access. That’s why we’ve now appointed a senior associate dean, Ashley Macrander, who has joined my senior leadership team to spearhead these important strategic initiatives as developed by the task force.

Meanwhile, we will appoint an associate dean for IDEA who will work with Jacqueline Carter, the program manager for IDEA. And we’ve hired Gisele Marcus, a new faculty member dedicated to developing curriculum around diversity and equity.

Gisele will also work with the dean’s office to design and build the new diversity research lab, a new hub for scholarly research in the realm of diversity in business—including the workplace, financial markets and more. The lab will be designed to gather scholars and assist in research funding where needed.

Much remains to be done, but I am confident we are heading in the right direction on this front, and I remain firmly committed to furthering our progress.

Where the survey leads us

In addition to our work toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive workplace—work begun well before this survey—we are also embarking on several initiatives to better communicate our values, promote alignment, foster a values-based workplace and recognize individuals who are leaders in this area.

Watch for experiences such as webinars and other materials defining what it means to be a values-based and data-driven leader. We’ll also work with department leads and area chairs to develop resources that will link the work of each team—and individuals within those teams—more directly with Olin’s values. Survey respondents recommended more guidance in this area, even though a large majority could cite examples of colleagues incorporating values in their day-to-day work.

Finally, Olin’s HR team is working on designing a recognition program to highlight and celebrate individual who embrace our values. We’ll incorporate a values-based component in our performance appraisals and, in partnership with marketing and communications, we’ll build a mechanism to spotlight individuals and their values-based success stories.

From the outset of this process, I was determined that the survey would not gather dust on a shelf. Whatever it said, we needed to act on it. Hearing feedback from our community is what drives us to walk the walk as the values-based, data-driven institution we are.

Team members atop a bluff pulling another team member up as she climbs with an overlay of Dean Taylor

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day …

Henry V, Act IV, scene iii

Thanks to a global crisis that’s now overlapped three academic years, WashU Olin’s staff, faculty and students could be forgiven if they were simply exhausted. Since March 2020, “pivot” has become a four-letter word, and I am keenly aware that in these 18 months, I have asked much of the Olin team.

I have asked, and each time our team has answered with commitment, agility, innovation and resilience. This experience has me reflecting on how that happens. How do managers, leaders and teams continue pushing forward in the face of relentless demands?

Over these months, I’ve often thought of King Henry’s inspirational words to his men on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt. We’re in this together, he says. Years from now, we’ll recall with pride what we accomplished together.

I realize this may be a bit corny, but it’s no less true. I do remind our team that we’re in this together. I try to tie each of us, on a personal level, to the reason we’re here: not for a job, but to achieve the high standards our students expect—and we expect of ourselves. I remind colleagues that through our work, we maintain the financial stability of the school, and thus affect so many stakeholders—students, alumni, staff, faculty and beyond.

The power of team resilience

So, how does it happen? How do leaders continue to drive teams forward when the circumstances never let up? My colleague Andrew Knight, professor of organizational behavior, is well-versed in the related research under the umbrella of “team resilience.”

One category of this research studies how teams function when their work by nature is persistently stressful—trauma surgery teams, SWAT teams, firefighters and the like.

“The second category comprises teams that work under typically stable situations, but that face sudden serious crises that threaten their viability,” Andrew said. “These teams are typically engaged in more prosaic kinds of work, but something renders their old work processes and routines ineffective.”

Sound familiar?

In summarizing the research, Andrew highlights work from a 2015 paper published in ScienceDirect summarizing the five markers of resilient teams.

  • They respond in the moment to problems.
  • They preserve a positive team climate.
  • They stock up on resources, including the tangible (equipment) and the intangible (relationships).
  • They quickly recover from errors, learning from rather than ruminating on mistakes.
  • They remain highly viable when challenges subside, allowing them to face new challenges.

Tied to our experience

Andrew related the work of a 2020 research paper in the journal BMJ Leader to our experience. “This paper underscores the importance of action and learning in the face of prolonged crisis,” Andrew notes, calling out three steps successful leaders (and resilient teams) employ under these circumstances.

  • Create productive disruptions: Create time to connect and reflect among team members. “This aligns well with the use of town halls at Olin throughout COVID,” Andrew noted.
  • Reconfigure, redeploy and repurpose resources: View resources in a flexible way and use them to meet new challenges. In this case, Andrew referenced “the CDE as a resource to enable virtual and hybrid modalities.”
  • Attend to emotions: Check in with one another. Build connections. I think of the way we embraced collaboration tools such as Teams and Hive, frequent virtual meetings—and my opportunities to pop in and greet my colleagues.

Taking stock of our work

As I said earlier, I’ve asked a great deal of everyone—but I haven’t asked in a vacuum. Our senior leadership meets daily and decisions, by and large, are made by consensus. And it’s important to take stock of what we’ve accomplished.

  • We created and re-created plans for the MBA global immersion.
  • We adapted curriculum to hybrid instruction and upgraded classroom technology.
  • We conceived, planned and promoted a full slate of online-only SMP and MBA programs.
  • We built a summer experiential program last year to replace canceled internships.
  • We staged a robust springtime China residency program—in two locations—for SMP students.
  • We created virtual networking events to connect students with alumni and corporate recruiters.
  • We drew crowds to a rich series of virtual speakers and panel discussions.
  • We reworked policies and procedures to accommodate our virtual workplace.
  • We reconfigured building space, maintenance schedules and usage—again, multiple times.

These are only a few examples. And, indeed, they’re only examples of work the pandemic imposed. Through it all, our team continued meeting goals set in our strategic plan such as triple accreditation and the full rollout of our Salesforce client management system.

Which leads to the final, most important strategy for leading teams through crisis: We must remember to say thank you and look ahead toward the day when we’ll strip our sleeves, show our scars and recall what we accomplished together.