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Imagine

November 6, 2011

In 1971, John Lennon called upon us to find our better selves. To Imagine a world without countries, without religions, and in so doing to abandon two of the most powerful concepts that divide us one from another. Imagine that you find your better self.

It has now been a week since I completed the first MIT Executive MBA Intensive. I have struggled with that experience, its meaning and its description more than I might have thought possible. It is, after all, just an MBA program. It’s not a religious retreat, it’s not a spiritual journey, and it’s not 3:00AM prom night and wow was that amazing, can we do that again?!?

The problem with writing about the MIT EMBA is truth in advertising. They promise and they deliver a completely transformative experience. But how do you make a transformative experience accessible to an audience? How can I, within the poor confines of a blog, help you to understand an Intensive?

Writing about the MIT EMBA experience is like writing about the most overwhelming sexual experience of my life, in the immediacy of the act, my mind still awash in chemical aftermath. Dragging myself to my desk, still sweating. Exhausted, exhilarated, perhaps a little delirious. Riding the post-coital high, even as I am drawn to drift off into narcosis. Find, in this immediacy, the right words and the right tone to paint that scene. To share the scent of her hair, or that shifting sensation of touch that begins as a man reaching for a woman and becomes as water, where I know not where I end and she begins. Write that. Convey that. Share that.

The literature of transformation is extraordinarily well developed, yet remains unextended to executive education. Stories of personal transformation abound. We cannot but digitally trip over them on iTunes. They are fundamental to humanity’s need to understand how experiences shape our identity. But, while “Platoon,” “Gettysburg,” “The Thin Red Line,” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” each convey the transformative effects of war… the literature of the transformative effects of Executive MBA programs is not surprisingly quite thin. There is no well-developed vocabulary, no well-understood tropes, no Bildungsroman to build upon. I’m on my own here.

Nelson Repenning, the Faculty Director of the MIT EMBA program, is both direct and unwavering in his description of the program’s goal, “We aspire to create people who will change the world.” Much is expected of you as a student, but if the first Intensive is any indication, then the program is delivering tools and skills that will significantly increase the probability of attaining such a lofty goal.

The mechanics of the Intensive are easily conveyed. Nine days, each day beginning around 7:00AM and lasting until very late in the evening usually 10:00PM or so. Some students will study even longer, especially if they were not able to complete the reading assignments prior to arriving in Cambridge. The program is structured around learning teams of eight people, assigned by the Program. Each learning team is subdivided into two study groups. Projects are carried out by teams. Homework assignments and other similar tasks by study groups.

The workload is significant. It’s my personal theory that the program specifically chooses a tempo that is too intense for an individual to succeed, but achievable to a well organized group. The first Intensive is, in many ways, a social experiment in which new learning teams and study groups find ways to collaborate efficiently and succeed, or they don’t. But above and beyond all of the mechanics, something far more ethereal is happening.

Imagine.

Imagine there’s no ego. It’s easy if you try…

Well, honestly, it’s not so easy to imagine a world, or even a workplace, without the roiling politics of executive egos. The imagery of executives, especially as played out on the news every day, centers on the trappings of ego and the associated narcissism, greed, and generally bad behavior of what has now become a social class.

The Occupy movement, whether you happen to agree with its politics or not, has squarely defined executives as part of the 1%- those earning wages above $380K, according to the IRS. Those earning more than $160K are in the top 5%. I would hazard that most, if not all of the members of our class are in the top 5% and quite likely to move into the top 1%, if they are not already there. The most organized, vocal social movement since the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement and the 1970’s Anti-War Protests is targeting executive excess. If you are in business school or thinking about applying, this should give you pause. The executives are the new nobility and the populace looks positively revolutionary. What are B-schools doing?

The MIT EMBA is, not surprisingly, far ahead of the curve on this issue. When Nelson Repenning talks about creating people who will change the world, this is part of what he’s talking about. It’s no longer good enough to simply build a strong balance sheet, executives should now take responsibility for repairing the tears in our social fabric. They should align the forces of capitalism with the general needs of society and find ways to reaffirm the social contract between businesses and ordinary people. And at MIT, social repair begins with assholes.

MIT has a long standing “no asshole” rule. If you come to MIT as a student, I’m confident that you’ll hear about it your first day. They don’t like assholes at MIT and they work very diligently to prevent assholes from being offered admission to their programs. They are quite sophisticated at the process of asshole detection and elimination, as one would expect from MIT. I can categorically offer this advice to prospective MIT EMBA applicants. If you are an asshole, you should not bother applying. You will not be admitted. Deadly serious.

The first Intensive is that workplace without ego – and it makes for an amazing experience. Asshole rejection in the application process ensures that students have an opportunity to explore new management techniques with a group of equally engaged, willing, and well behaved participants. Intensives become such powerful workplace experiments because they allow us to practice forming and running new organizations in a controlled laboratory. We can evaluate approaches independent of the personality flaws of our fellow executives, so that we can understand the efficacy of an approach, obtain constructive feedback, and learn how to design workplace systems that drive performance.

Lest you think, “Wow… What a bunch of nonsense. What are they going to do next? Sit around and sing Kumbaya?”, I’ll offer you yet another insight to MIT culture. They are incredibly hard nosed about soft management skills. Everything that I’ve written about the MIT EMBA still applies, even when exploring soft skills, such as group dynamics. Everything is measured. By the end of the first Intensive, you’ll find your fellow classmates measuring your capabilities as a manager and offering constructive feedback on how you can improve your performance within the group in ways that will help the group to improve its own performance. At MIT there are mathematics behind soft skills.

If you are applying to an EMBA program, I strongly suggest that you meet with current EMBA students. It’s something that I skipped  in my own search, but later found that the personality traits and personal maturity of the class is far more important than I realized. To put it in economic terms, maturity is a far more scarce resource than technical skills. When you interview, think about whether you would like to work in a close team with the students that you are meeting. Are they focused, mature, and most importantly… nice! Or are they boastful and arrogant? The reality of an EMBA program is that you will learn as much, if not more, from your fellow students as you do from the faculty. Be selective about the people that you are willing to spend your time with. Ask the students whether the EMBA program is as selective on personality and cultural fit as they are on hard skills. If they have no idea what you are talking about, think carefully about attending.

The fist Intensive is comprised of three courses, taught over the nine days. Leadership and Integrative Management (LIM) is the flagship of the Intensive. You will rethink your concept of Leadership and begin to approach Management from a highly integrated cross-functional perspective. You will spend the majority of your time either in LIM lectures or working on your team project. The LIM is organized around the “Deep Dive” – it’s a five lecture series, taught by six separate faculty members on a single case study. For the Class of 2013 it was Wal-Mart. If you read my prior blog post entitled, “Intensive Preparations”, you’re aware that preparation for the Deep Dive required reading about 500 pages of texts, reports, cases, and journal articles.

When you arrive at MIT, LIM begins with a discussion of leadership. MIT puts forth a particular measurement model and asks you to assess both the senior management in your company and yourself on this model. Students then randomly form groups of three to discuss these measurements and their implication on both their company’s performance as well as their personal performance within the company. The resulting discussions are highly illuminating, especially when translated back to your learning teams later. This focus on measuring leadership, even with the admonition that all leadership modes are personal, i.e. that there is no one right way to lead, is very MIT. They are very hard nosed about the soft stuff.

LIM continues for three full days. Leadership lectures and exercises give way to a series of Deep Dive lectures that analyze the Wal-Mart case. The first examines the concept of sustainability and the creation of shared value. I wonder what Occupy Wall Street would think of a class of MBA students focusing on how best to integrate social need with the profit motive so that both goals are achieved in ways that increase economic value?

A series of five more lectures follows over the second and third day. Each lecture examines Wal-Mart and sustainability from a different perspective: Customer Value, Employee Value, Shareholder Value, Operational Value, and Strategic Value. These lectures are the core of the “Integrative Management” portion of LIM. MIT develops within its students the ability to dispassionately consider a problem from these five different perspectives simultaneously. In the EMBA program, there are no “accounting problems” or “operations problems”… there are just problems, each of which must be viewed from a variety of perspectives and solved with a combination of tools. Just like real life.

I think that it is this Integrative view that makes the MIT approach to Action Learning work well. I’ve noted that even in the short time that I have been a student I have already harvested a number of concepts and brought them back to my company. The lessons are immediately applicable, in my case from the first days of Orientation, to the problems that I was facing at work. The Integrative view helps to make these lessons immediately applicable because class room work represents a much higher fidelity simulation of workplace problems. But while the problems are real, the lack of ego in the environment makes it possible to consider solutions in far greater depth. The loudest voices in the room don’t dominate the conversations. The soft spoken insights make it through. And, in the process, there is some realization that in your own organization significant untapped value lies dormant because those softer voices aren’t contributing to your process.

At the conclusion of the third day, Learning Teams are announced. I have to admit, it was like being a child all over again. The excitement and anxiety of waiting to find out who is on your learning team is pretty significant. The one comfort is that the stringent no-asshole policy at MIT significantly suppresses the likelihood that you’ll have a problematic teammate. When you are applying to an EMBA program, think about that long and hard. MIT’s admissions policies ensure that your teammates, upon whom the quality of your education depends, are not only top-notch academic achievers, but also nice, kind, helpful people who go out of their way to ensure that the whole team learns. Huge value.

As you might expect, I got a great Learning Team. In fact, we were so pleased with each other that after the first day of working together, Learning Team 1 adopted the nickname Team Awesome. When’s the last time that you were part of a team in your company that decided to rename itself Team Awesome because you’re all just so damn glad to be part of the team?

For the next four days, i.e. days 4 – 7 of the nine day program, the Learning Teams work to develop a set of recommendations for Wal-Mart, by studying the company’s challenges from one of the five views. The team’s assigned view is randomly selected by drawing cards. For these four days, students also attend Microeconomics and Financial Accounting classes from 8:30AM until 4:00PM, with a lunch break. LIM team projects, together with homework assignments, take up the late afternoon and evening hours. I was typically back at the hotel by 10:00PM or 10:30PM each night, then back up at 7:00AM each morning. These are long days.

Just a brief note on teaching quality. There is always a concern at top-ranked research universities that teaching is of secondary importance to the faculty. I absolutely have to point to Chris Noe (accounting professor) as a living example of MIT Sloan’s commitment to excellence in teaching. I am a classically trained scientist with no formal training in accounting. I know how to read a balance sheet, an income statement, statements of cash flows and shareholders equity, only because I learned on the job. Like many, I supposed that I expected accounting to be a “necessary evil” that I had to learn in order to earn an MBA. Certainly, I did not apply to MIT to go to accounting classes. But I have completely changed my tune. I would advise prospective students to apply to the MIT EMBA program just to take this man’s accounting class. It is, without a doubt, a spellbinding display of academic theatre to watch him teach. Chris Noe is the Cirque du Soleil of accounting education.

Dr. Noe (yes, it’s an intriguing homonym for James Bond fans) makes accounting accessible by teaching it as an analysis tool. Numbers tell a story and Chris is a masterful storyteller, showing you how to use accounting tools to analyze a business in the same way that we as engineers are taught to use various engineering tools to analyze an engineering design. Will the business model work? Where are its weaknesses? Where are its strengths? Accounting is no longer a necessary evil, but rather a very powerful weapon in the hands of a hard-nosed data consumer, as MIT refers to its graduates. Sigh… he had me when he said, “Let’s forget about debits and credits… They’re confusing and just get in the way of understanding what’s really going on in a company.”

Throughout the week, a variety of Microeconomics homeworks were due, both individual assignments and group assignments. Without exception, we overanalyzed each one of these problems, putting far more time and effort into them than was actually called for. We were warned early in the program that this is typical of MIT students, but even with the admonition we over did it. Sloan is not looking for you to work longer hours. Certainly, the days are already long enough. They are looking for you to find ways to work efficiently so that everyone in your group gets to the right answer as quickly as possible. This is a recurring theme… It’s not good enough to be right, we ALL have to be right. What the homework tended to teach is that a lot of wasted effort is expended because teams move forward without clarity. It seems trite to say, but doing a complete RIF restructuring on an economics problem set that simply wanted the students to recognize the difference between economic and accounting costs took five additional hours. Five hours down the drain. That could have been sleep. And, as we repeatedly learned, the soft spoken people in the group often realize that the more forceful people are headed in the wrong direction. Food for thought in your daily work lives. Listen more. It’s a very easy way to increase your team’s performance at work.

By day 7, you are beginning to Imagine. You’re Imagining the sheer bliss of transporting the dynamics of your Learning Team back to your day job. You are Imagining the performance improvements that you can make in your own organization. You are Imagining what you, your colleagues, and your company could be…  Imagine all the people…

The problem that we all face is finding a way to make Action Learning work within our organizations. My experience thus far is that there are at least three challenges: (i) capturing relevant lessons from the program, (ii) conveying the lesson to willing colleagues, and (iii) distilling a plan of action so that lessons translate to improvements. I’ve also noted that much of the value that I am finding in the program is sprinkled throughout the various lessons. Because much of the value of the program is experiential, it’s not as simple as sharing the slide sets from the lectures. You can’t learn to ride a horse by reading a book.

Throughout the Intensive, I experimented with various tools and techniques. By the end of the week, I came to like using Evernote to take notes during the lectures. These notes were often insights on problems that my company is facing, or approaches that I thought might be useful for others. Evernote syncs to the cloud and supports sharing with my colleagues back at our company. By writing directly into Evernote, I avoid the need for the extra transcription step associated with paper notebooks. It also allows my colleagues to read along and consider whether they have any issues that they would like me to investigate while I’m still on campus. You have to be balanced in this approach, especially so that you don’t distract yourself from the lesson. I find that taking a unilateral approach, where I jot down my notes during class for shipment to the company, but where I do NOT take emails back from the company until that night, works fine and, moreover, seems well aligned with the goals of the program. Where this approach can fall apart is if you allow yourself to be drawn into the Internet during class – getting emails from work, surfing the web, buying shoes on Zappos, updating your Facebook page, and so forth. Just don’t be an asshole and all will be well.

We are stilling working on steps (ii) and (iii) at our company. So far, my management team seems to prefer that I work one-on-one with our VP of Operations, Barbara Simard, who takes the time to understand in detail what I’ve learned, why it’s applicable, and how it will help the company. We then work together to think through step (iii) and develop a plan of action, which she will then implement through the company. The issue here is that it is very easy to overwhelm your company with a thousand, disconnected lessons learned and cause more harm than good. Having a “designated receiver” seems like a good approach, as it focuses and directs the enthusiasm while finding a way to introduce a permanent change into the company’s operating processes.

I had earlier tried a different approach, which failed miserably, but I’ll share it anyway as it provides a useful lesson. While still in Boston, I wrote up an assignment for the management team in which I asked them to think about a new approach to a problem at their upcoming meeting and report their findings to me. When I later talked to Barbara, she said that they read the email, but given the agenda that they already had it was difficult to simply switch approaches and still meet their goals. If we really want this to work, she said, we have to have a better process than simply sending an email with little context and no supporting discussion. When I got back from Boston, we talked at length about how to manage change within the company. I think that we’ve developed a reasonable approach, which we are now trying out. We’ll see how it goes, learn from it, and make adjustments, but importantly, we’re actually DOING something to manage change. We’re now proactively thinking about how we want the company to operate, rather than always reacting to management issues as they arise. Action Learning, viewed from within the company, is change management driven by the MIT EMBA experience.

Returning now to the description of the Intensive, the 8th and 9th day (the second weekend) fully revert back to the Leadership and Integrative Management (LIM) course. The morning of the 8th day is spent forming Corporate Teams. Each team is made up of representatives from all of the former Value-specific teams, an exercise meant to mimic senior executive teams comprised of representatives from various functional areas of the company. The Corporate Teams integrate the recommendations from its members to create a final recommendation for Wal-Mart. Two representatives from each Corporate Team present their findings in 8 minutes or less to the class in general from which a winner is ultimately selected. The prizes are astounding! I won’t spoil the surprise. You had to be there. The remainder of the 8th day is spent in debrief, reviewing and learning from the experiences of the Learning Teams and the Corporate Teams.

The 9th and final day focuses on feedback and values. At MIT, feedback doesn’t mean sitting around discussing how the week went. It’s actually a module designed to teach leaders effective ways to both give and receive feedback within an organization. It’s another step in the process of developing Learning Teams, in which norms are established for giving feedback to an individual. Interestingly, all nine teams develop nearly identical norms independently, and, according to Dr. Repenning, the norms that all nine teams establish are the same nearly universal norms that almost any group will establish.

The Intensive ends in a very personal way, as each member of the class takes a moment to write a brief statement of what they want to achieve over the next 20 months from four different perspectives: work, family, the EMBA program, and personally. It’s rather like trying to write and share four different elevator pitches in just a few minutes. These value statements are shared in random pairings in an exercise that convincingly demonstrated to me that with constructive feedback from an interested colleague, you can significantly improve the quality of your values and objectives (as well as their articulation) in well under 15 minutes.

The LIM course is both quantitative and thorough in its approach. It leaves you with a very clear sense of the additional performance that can be attained from your existing staff, if managed differently. Moreover the LIM provides a very clear set of tools and techniques to help you to achieve those performance improvements, together with a weeklong significant participative experience which both (i) proves to the participant that they can extract additional performance from themselves, and (ii) provedsto the participant that they are not an outlier, by allowing them to watch similar performance gains across ~70 other participants, in at least 36 different teams  (9 learning teams, 18 study groups, 9 corporate teams) formed throughout the week.

The first Intensive is a profoundly transformative experience in which you discover the existence of organizations without assholes (Societes sans Trouducs?)which leads  you to Imagine a workplace free of the incredible constraints that come with fragile egos. You begin to value both fit and personality above mere skill, as you find new ways to work within groups. In these groups you will likely find quite different and yet more powerful leadership styles than those that you’ve exhibited for the past decade or two. The MIT EMBA  will touch your most primitive desire to give to those around you, as the faculty realizes their going of creating the people who will change the world.

At Sloan, you will begin to find your better self. And, when you do, you may just have the same reaction that I did…

That was so hot! Let’s do it again!

-R.

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