Evelyn Williams, Georgetown McDonough School of Business professor of management, knows that business leaders’ success depends on more than the right credentials and resume. The finesse and style that distinguishes great leaders requires an emotional intelligence that’s hard to teach in a classroom—at least, it’s hard to teach in the abstract.
That’s why Williams created the Executive Challenge, a day-long capstone event for her core “Leadership Communications” course, which puts students through simulations of real business situations based on leadership topics she also models throughout the course.
Williams’ design for the challenge, which she first introduced while teaching at Chicago Booth and later brought to Stanford before coming to McDonough, also draws on a special asset: the school’s alumni community.
“The Executive Challenge basically simulates the life of a senior leader, and we bring senior alumni from all over the globe to play roles in exercises with students,” Williams explains. This year, in fact, nearly 100 alumni were in attendance.“So students walk into one room to find a simulated board meeting. In another room, there’s a simulated senior management meeting or they are recruiting senior leaders to join their start-up. It really is an intergenerational learning event.”
The Executive Challenge assesses students’ growth in six topic areas: influence, assertiveness, setting expectations, conflict, decision making, and managing a boss. Over 270 first-year MBA students prepare for this challenge by breaking into groups for practice presentations and smaller simulations. This process takes place throughout the semester.
“Rather than sitting back and analytically discussing the case with the Socratic method, it’s much more experiential,” Williams explains. “We put them into a situation and they have to figure out, using emotional intelligence and communications skills, how to navigate through some very difficult situations.”
Those cases draw from nonfictional workplace experiences. One requires participants to figure out how to lay an employee off: “We know that most people, unfortunately, will have to deal with a layoff situation. How do you handle that as a principled leader? We would rather have students practice how to have that critical conversation in a risk-free setting rather than in the real world for the first time with real world consequences.”
In another example, students must inhabit the role of a new CEO whose management team won’t discuss budget forecasts because they’re unhappy with the recent leadership transition: “Students have deal with this unexpected conflict in a way that moves the conversation forward and ultimately strengthens their relationship to the team. We want students to learn the agility, resilience, and conflict management skills they’ll need in a global business world so they can be principled leaders for a lifetime.”
While the students benefit from practicing cases, the incorporation of alumni adds another dimension. Senior-level alumni working across business sectors and continents can offer their own perspectives while giving students a networking opportunity unlike any other.
McDonough’s cultivation of a global student and alumni body allows students to develop communications skills that work in many contexts.
“Being surrounded by such a diverse group of people prepares you for any situation,” says Cristhian Soto, a second-year MBA student who worked throughout Latin America before studying at McDonough. “For example, this summer, I was doing an internship in programming and analysis, which is basically the same process no matter what industry you’re in. My project was in Puerto Rico, but I was based in New York. I had to partner with a financing team and a marketing team in Puerto Rico, and had to communicate between those departments and other stakeholders in the U.S. and Spain. That kind of communication is an important soft skill. The way that you might start a conversation or meeting in Spain will be different from the way you do it in Puerto Rico.”
Soto praises the course and challenge, which allowed him to hone those types of soft skills and transpose them to a different cultural context.
Lauren John, another second-year MBA student, also noticed the course’s immediate benefit during a summer internship with the Target Corporation.
“I’ve worked with clients and done presentations before, but being able to focus on this part of who I am and who I’ll be as a leader was really important,” she explains. “I felt more confident going into two final presentations for my internships than I did before, and noticed a difference because of that class. You have all of that practice, which felt low-stakes at the time—the only stakes is your grade—but it was really helpful for the internship and even classes this year. I can definitely take the learning into the rest of my MBA work and going into a full-time job as well.”
John adds that the course informed her day-to-day communications for an internship project that interfaced with different departments. “I had to essentially motivate other partners across the company, so even in those moments, I took learning from the class cases to understand what their objectives were—and maybe any pushback they had.”
“What’s unique to Georgetown is its focus on principled leadership,” she says. “That means being intentional in the behaviors you exhibit, and being thoughtful about what those behaviors signal to the people around you.”
Interim Associate Dean for MBA Admissions Shelly Heinrich says, “That hands-on experiential opportunities like the Executive Challenge allow people to work outside their comfort zone, exceed the expectations they had of themselves, and make Georgetown McDonough the perfect launchpad for their career.”