Moving Beyond the Classroom

This was my third semester of immersion in Action Learning. After completing two required projects in my first year of the Gies MBA program, I returned as a senior manager for three teams this fall semester. The role of a senior manager is to act as an experienced advisor to share the knowledge that has been acquired through trial and tribulation with those who are engaging in the process for the first time.

For students, Action Learning is different than any other class. The familiar prod of extrinsic motivation is removed. Grades are involved, but they exist only as a formal proxy for delivered results. Partial credit is no longer an option and cramming for a deliverable at the last moment is not possible. No, the usual techniques learned in college will not work here, because the work involved is on active projects for actual businesses. Real clients are expecting work that adds value to their company, not another exercise in collecting points. No trick other than dedicated time and teamwork will yield results. This can be a difficult transition to make due to the novel incentives involved. To ease the process, there is a suite of deliverables due at the onset with ample feedback to set expectations on quality. From there, the stage has been set to allow full engagement with clients with the goal of building intrinsic motivation through tangible expectations. Only from within will the drive to achieve propel one through the amount of work required to produce a material solution to a problem with no simple answer.

For me, performing as a senior manager has similarly been short of a script to follow. The biggest challenge has been acting as an agent without power in the engagement. I neither dole out final grades, as a professor does, nor do I determine whether the project was a success, as the client evaluates. This requires building trust with my teams from the beginning by proving competency that can add value to their projects. I cannot be a manager without tools for compliance, so I must act as a leader. This means guiding my teams in the right direction and communicating correct and transparent feedback promptly. It means questioning myself when providing advice to find if expectations were even properly set in the first place. The challenges have been formidable but the return in growth and self-awareness is worth the effort.

What is the outcome of Action Learning? Ultimately, Action Learning exists as a means to move beyond the classroom. Students learn to communicate and perform professionally on the timeline expected in business settings. They interact, interview, and network with clients ranging from startups to Fortune 100 companies. The engagements and problems are real and relevant to the industry. With little commitment other than scheduling time to meet, companies can hear an outside perspective, invest in future talent, and market their brand in a way that career fairs cannot. Students can expect references and recommendations for their hard work and even internships or other continued involvement are a possibility after the project closes. The outcome of these projects is a blurring of the edges of academia into education that is substantially distinct from traditional curricula.

This semester has been one for the history books. Still, all involved persevered and completed another set of successful Action Learning projects. These experiential additions to the standard courses continue to create incredible value for all involved and never fail to deliver on stories to share and lessons learned. I have had a fantastic time growing as a leader by advising and providing feedback to students as a senior manager. Teams have proven themselves capable of professional execution and added a substantial addition to their résumés. Clients have benefitted immensely from hundreds of hours of thoughtful labor from intelligent young minds that will be designing the future. Congratulations to all participants and here is a final recommendation for the rest to get involved in Action Learning!

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