UNC Kenan-Flagler Insights

Flying lessons: Action-based learning at UNC Kenan-Flagler

April 25, 2012 By kfblogadmin1

Students may not have the clout of a business owner, but sometimes that can be an advantage. A North Carolina sawmill asked Lily Nguyen (MBA ’09) and her UNC Kenan-Flagler STAR (Student Teams Achieving Results) Global consulting team to make connections to sell lumber directly to lumber vendors in China. The students reached out to lumber associations and furniture manufacturers in China and set up in-person meetings. They asked questions and got answers, which they brought back to their client, along with business cards of every contact, photos of the operations and a PowerPoint of all they had learned, including a plan for what to do next.

“We weren’t afraid to ask questions,” Nguyen said. “The businesspeople we met in China were willing to talk with us because we were students. The information flowed more easily for us.”

STAR Global is one of more than two dozen action-based learning courses that UNC Kenan-Flagler makes available to students at every level. The business school has augmented its action-based learning experiences over the years, and it is paying off for students and their eventual employers.

Action-based learning goes beyond the sort of learning-by-doing provided through internships, said Lynne Gerber, director of action-based learning at UNC Kenan-Flagler. Action-based learning has four components: principles, practice, feedback and reflection. Not only do students apply what they learn in the classroom to real business problems in a real company, they are coached by a professor or an industry executive, receive 360-degree feedback and have a chance for reflection on what they’ve learned and how they can apply that in the future.

“We’re creating an even stronger group of graduates who can take that real-life learning experience and apply it to the things they do when they graduate,” Gerber said.

STAR Global and Domestic began in 2006 with students consulting in depressed areas of North Carolina with companies trying to stay competitive as once-local industries – agriculture, textiles and furniture – globalized. After Gerber took on the program in 2009, she shifted the focus to work on projects for businesses that actively recruit or have the potential to recruit UNC Kenan-Flagler students.

Nguyen, for example, joined a team that helped a sawmill in eastern North Carolina develop a plan to sell lumber directly to vendors in China rather than through a distributor. Born in China, Nguyen was reared in the United States and concentrated on finance at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

“STAR Global allowed me to see from a different set of eyes how business was done elsewhere,” she said. “None of us had experience in lumber, but we used our MBA skills to understand the issues, evaluate the market and help the client understand key factors impacting vendor selection and how to make more of a name for itself in the Chinese lumber market.”

The STAR Global team met virtually once a week for seven weeks leading up to a two-week stay in China to execute its plan. Meeting virtually prepared Nguyen for her current position as senior product manager in business development at Synthon Pharmaceuticals, where every project involves a virtual team made up of people from different countries and cultures with varying fluency in English.

Strategy and entrepreneurship associate professor Paul Friga, author of “The McKinsey Mind” (McGraw-Hill, 2001) and “The McKinsey Engagement” (McGraw-Hill, 2008), has been involved with the STAR program since 2009. He has infused into the program a methodology of hypothesis-driven consulting, employed at global consulting giant McKinsey and Company and coined by Friga as the McKinsey Method.

Corporate executives who are participants in UNC Executive Development programs and students in UNC Kenan-Flagler’s online MBA@UNC program also take advantage of action-based learning, said Susan Cates, executive director of MBA@UNC and associate dean of UNC Executive Development.

“The last thing executives in our custom education programs want is to listen to someone lecture them about academic theory,” Cates said. “The impact of the concepts they’re learning isn’t felt in business five years from now; it’s felt immediately as a result of the company-specific applied projects that we incorporate into our design process.”

Mark Short, managing director of organizational development at Duke Energy, noted that his company and UNC Executive Development designed targeted action-based learning projects as part of Duke Energy’s custom development program. Duke Energy employees in the program are split into teams, assigned a real company business problem and tasked with coming up with recommendations for resolution.

“The program is a safe incubator where participants can practice through action-based learning tools and exercises in the classes and then come back and apply them at the company,” Short said. “They hit the ground running when they come back, and we see an immediate impact on the individual level, the team level and the company level. That has immediate results for the business and the bottom line.”

To date, the company has opted to put into place 70-80 percent of the recommendations that have come out of the program for issues such as how the company can reduce its carbon footprint, Short said. “Not only are they coming back and being successful in their own roles, but they are championing action-based learning and educating others in that process,” he added. “While I may only send 30 people to the program each year, they’re influencing hundreds back in their business units. It is the easiest program of any to sell internally because of the impact.”

Both through live simulations and coaching in global immersions and through virtual ongoing project work, the working professionals in the MBA@UNC program tap into the School’s philosophy of learning through practice, feedback and reflection.

“One thing that’s great about the program is that it’s very timely, because we all have full-time jobs,” said Jamie DeMaria, executive director of strategic development at Medscape and an MBA@UNC student. “When I was taking strategic marketing, we were going through a strategic marketing review at my company, and we were able to apply some of the same techniques I learned in the classroom.”

One of the action-based learning projects available to executive MBA students is the Global Entrepreneurship Lab. In 2010, Ted Zoller, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, initiated the lab that pairs Executive MBAs with entrepreneurs in Denmark.

Companies whose projects are selected to receive STAR consulting appreciate the solutions that STAR teams develop for their organization’s business challenges. These projects often have significant financial impact for the companies. Brian Worrell, GE’s vice president of financial planning and analysis, coordinates GE projects and UNC Kenan-Flagler students. GE recruits many UNC Kenan-Flagler alumni as well, and hired 33 between 2009 and 2011.

“Students who have had action-based learning come in with practical tangible experience in analyzing a situation and delivering results quickly,” Worrell said.

GE has worked with students on STAR Domestic projects – understanding the nuclear medicine market and examining ways to penetrate certain segments of the electric vehicle charger market – and STAR Global projects (most recently in Brazil) – looking at how to go to market outside of large cities.

“Our projects have had a mix of undergraduates and MBAs,” Worrell said. “We like their eagerness and ability and willingness to learn, and they don’t come in with preconceived notions. They’re incredibly hard workers. Their output has been very good.”

GE values UNC Kenan-Flagler students and alumni in part because of their leadership ability. The School’s Leadership Immersion course, running an entire quarter and devoted to activities and mentorship that build leadership, is another example of action-based learning.

Coming into business school as a middle-school math teacher, Dustin Gross (MBA ’10) could have benefited from any number of courses to strengthen his business aptitude. By investing a quarter in Leadership Immersion, he benefited from real-life business challenges (such as new product introduction), Outward Bound self-awareness and team-building experience and working one-on-one with a leadership coach, in his case, John Moellering, chairman of USAA, a Fortune 200 company.

“If you envision being a senior-level manager, why not learn from the best?” said Gross, now investment manager in corporate development at Quintiles. He learned the power of asking questions to draw out others and secure their buy-in rather than dictating what to do. “Action-based learning is a way to learn without losing your job,” he said.

Case studies and simulations can only go so far, he said.

“You can’t practice real-world leadership skills sitting in a classroom. Having an MBA with active leadership experiences gave me a professional edge.”

 Leadership Immersion

Tara Fiscella (MBA ’11), alone in the woods with a thunderstorm raging around her, huddled under a lean-to she’d built herself and wondered how this would make her a better private wealth investment adviser.

Instead of taking courses on hedge funds or private equity in her last semester of business school, she’d applied for Leadership Immersion. Her first week in the course, she’d been dropped off somewhere in the Appalachians, armed only with a flashlight, her journal and her memory of the demonstrations she’d sat through the previous few days.

“Thank goodness I paid attention when they showed us how to build a shelter,” Fiscella said.

Functioning well in the business world requires knowledge and skills not necessarily learned in the classroom. Though not once has Fiscella had to gather tree branches and pine needles since she began her career as a private wealth adviser for Goldman Sachs in Atlanta shortly after graduation, she has put to good use some of what she learned about teamwork, pacing, how others perceive her, and her response to stress and fear.

Through working on teams in Leadership Immersion, Fiscella learned the importance of setting goals and objectives early on and being very clear about the different roles and responsibilities of each team member. She brought that mindset to the team that she joined at Goldman, and it was very well-received, particularly by those who previously had frustrating team experiences.

The self-awareness she gleaned from 360-degree feedback in the immersion taught her to be aware of how others interpret her actions.

“I thought I was being superefficient,” she said. “They saw me as too aggressive.”

Leadership Immersion uses action-based learning to teach students how to resolve conflict, manage change, communicate, empower and delegate, said Mindy Storrie, director of leadership development at UNC Kenan-Flagler. She underscored the importance of giving students feedback and helping them reflect on their experiences of practicing leadership.

Fiscella found the feedback to be exceptionally powerful in increasing her effectiveness in interactions with the rest of the team.

“What it boils down to in many professions is how well you work with others to deliver results,” Fiscella said.

Lindsey Musselman (MBA ’09), senior consultant at Deloitte, led a team during the immersion that was tasked with raising as much money as possible in 24 hours for the Make-a-Wish foundation.

“Today, I frequently find myself in high-stakes, time-constrained situations in which I have to motivate a team of peers, subordinates and superiors to accomplish a particular task,” she noted. “The skills and lessons that I learned during the Make-A-Wish challenge are often on my mind. I find myself checking in with my team to see how people are feeling about the task at hand and ensuring that everyone remains engaged throughout.”