First Semester Top Ten

Now that we have completed a full semester of class, exams and papers, I thought it would be appropriate to develop a top ten list of lessons learned from the semester. I hope that future EMBA classes will cherish this list and avoid some of the pitfalls of my first semester back in school.

10. When taking exams, it is best to actually read the directions. If they say “don’t out your name on your exam,” DON’T PUT YOUR NAME ON THE EXAM.

9. On the first day of class, it is best to refrain from the urge to announce to the class that you intend to be at the bottom.

8. When speaking with your military colleagues during, refrain from references to “Maverick” and “Goose” and under no circumstances should you invite them to play volley ball in the quad while listening to “Playing with the Boys” which you just happen to own.

7. Decision Analysis “DA” is another name for statistics though, most of the course, you will think the initials DA refer to the way the class actually makes you feel, i.,e., like a dumb a–.

6. The phrase “hot mic” does not refer to one of the five guys named Mike in your class, it’s actually a reminder to mute your phone before you flush during a distance class.

5. When the DA professor asks if more data would be beneficial to answer a question, the answer always is “yes” rather than “my boss doesn’t pay any attention to data, why would we need more?”

4. “Business ethics” is not an oxymoron.

3. Do not refer to the circle of communication on your Management Communication paper as “Lili’s egg thing.”

2. Trust the process.

1. Do not forget to regularly thank (i.e., buy expensive gifts for) your family, friends and coworkers who got you here and are picking up your slack at home and work during your time at Darden.

The Richmond Half Marathon

Before starting Darden, I was uncertain how it would impact our day to day routines around the house. One of those routines was daily exercise. It may sound ridiculous, but this one thing has been an incredible stress reliever for both Jennifer and me. A few years ago, we started trading off mornings to run around the Charlottesville streets before the kids woke up.

For the past two years, we’ve run the Richmond Half Marathon in November. Since our exercise had been such a stress reliever, I really hoped I would be able to continue to stay on top of it and run the Richmond race again this year. Even though the race was scheduled for the first weekend of our exam period, I signed up and maintained my training.

Today, Jennifer and I ran the Richmond Half Marathon and both had personal best times. Proof that Darden, though a “hungry beast” (as one classmate called it), still allows you to preserve many of your favorite things.

Looking forward to next year’s race!


Why I am a Health Care Lawyer

One of the best parts of working for a group of incredible physicians is hearing how they improve the lives of our patients. Connor’s story is a reminder to those of us who support physicians that if we keep providing our doctors with the tools they need “behind the scenes,” they can focus on the truly important things – our patients. It is doctors like Bobby Chhabra who help differentiate the UVA Health System and serve as a reminder to those of us who support Dr. Chhabra as to who we are all here to serve.


Finding Balance

Re-entry into the routine of family life after a week at Darden was a welcome relief. Even though I was incredibly exhausted, I was energized about the semester to come and excited to return to Darden for the first On Grounds Residency (“OGR” or as I like to pronounce it “Ogre”) in a few weeks. Managing the challenges of balancing family, work and school were next on the agenda.

Towards the end of the summer, Jennifer and I started reserving Wednesday nights for “yoga dates.” We would get a sitter, go sweat in a yoga class and then walk down the road to grab some post workout refreshment and food. With Darden weekly classes on Tuesday and Thursday night, Wednesday seemed an ideal day to split the week, though it mean three nights in a row where my kid time was minimized. Still, the benefits of spending quality time with Jennifer took priority.

During the weeks that followed, keeping our yoga dates was increasingly important, though more challenging than anticipated. With the kids back in school, the first few weeks of their school came with a multitude of parental obligations as well as the need to re-establish the school routine. This year, the back to school routine was more complicated than in the past. I was missing parent-teaching meetings, back to school nights, little league practices, soccer games and the start of my daughters horseback riding “career.” This definitely stung a bit, but I promised myself and my family that this was a one-year hiatus; I will be there next year.

The workload at Darden was also picking up. Even though we only had two classes each week, the technical material was challenging. Accounting and Decision Analysis (a.k.a. statistics) were not exactly my strengths. Adding to the complexity of the subject matter, getting accustom to learning in an on-line environment was easier said than done. The screen for an on-line class is divided into four sections: the list of class participants, the live video feed of the professor, the professor’s screen with his/her notes and a chat window for students to chat during the class. While the list of students remained static, the other three were moving all the time. How do you watch three things at once and focus?

Despite my efforts to focus my view only on the professor’s screen (i.e., the slide deck or excel spreadsheet), I found myself lost in the conversation by not watching the chat window. With the chat window removed from my screen, I was able to follow the professor going through the slides when suddenly in an almost perfectly choreographed ADHD moment the professor would “chase a squirrel” pausing mid-sentence and say something like “oh Jessica, you’re having computer problems, let’s pause and see if we can take a look at your screen and figure it out.” or, my personal favorite “actually, Mike the answer is no.”

Wait – what just happened? What did Mike ask and when did he ask it and if there are six Mikes in my class, which Mike was the one to ask a question? I thought I was following the conversation, but there had been a completely parallel conversation going on in the chat window which I’d missed. Was I supposed to be following that too?

Another hidden challenge of the first few weeks of class was determining how to fit the upcoming OGR preparations into the routine. The OGR had 17 classes over three days and what appeared to be about 300 pages of material to review and prep in advance. Sweet. Lucky for me and Learning Team 5, one of our team members had excellent organizational skills (and apparently never needed to sleep) so he was able to organize the upcoming OGR materials into a spreadsheet (of course, it’s Darden, you have to exclusively use Excel) and distribute assignments across the team.

Back at work, my team was very supportive and provided the appropriate daily teasing when I’d show up wearing my Dora the Explorer backpack in the office. My boss, Brad, was similarly supportive and interested in what I was learning. One of the advertised benefits of Darden is the immediate applicability of the school material to the work environment. I found this to be the case from the start. I now had a better understanding of the financial statements I’d be reviewing for years and brought a new level of confidence to business meetings. Brad also did a nice job keeping me in check when I’d show up with another “great idea” that I’d learned the night before in class. He would often look at me as though I just told him I’d eaten several small children for breakfast, shake his head and politely say “we’re not doing that.”

As it turned out, balancing home, work and Darden was possible, though more challenging than anticipated. It’s kind of like having your first child. Everyone tells you how tough it’s going to be and despite your conscientious daily readings of What to Expect When Expecting, you have no clue what you’re doing when your first child is born or how that child is going to impact every aspect of your life or just how hard it’s going to be until you’re working on three hours of sleep and changing diapers covered in someone else’s vomit at 2AM. At some point, you hit your routine and accept your new life. This too is part of the learning process.



We received  our Learning Team assignments a few days into our Leadership Residency. These were the formal teams that we were assigned to work with for at least the first two semesters of school. Our teams were expected to meet regularly outside of class to work on group projects and support each other throughout the semesters. The members of Learning Team 5 (nicknamed “Highly Entertaining”) were six brave souls with a breadth of professional backgrounds spanning accounting, financial services, investments, law and the military.

The senior statesman of our group was Shawn who had a career in the United States Air Force. Not only had Shawn served to lead combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Shawn also had a unique skill- he was a professional opera singer. Where does Darden find these people with such diverse backgrounds?

In addition to starting Darden, Shawn was in the middle of three significant life events. He was completing a divorce, transitioning jobs and waiting for surgery to remove a brain aneurysm that was on the peak of rupturing. Just when you think you’ve got a full plat entering school, someone like Shawn immediately puts your situation into perspective.

As Learning Team 5 assembled Wednesday evening for dinner, Shawn shared his medical condition with us. Shawn was optimistic about the outcome of his scheduled surgery and assured us that he would be back in September for the first three day residency. While that seemed almost impossible to comprehend, we hoped he was right. As Shawn opened up about his condition and the uncertainty of his future, he opened the door for me to feel comfortable sharing my Dad’s news with my Team.

Throughout the week, Shawn was a fun and meaningful contributor to our team and classroom discussions. He brought a much needed jolt of life perspective to our team when we got down too far “in the weeds” on our assignments. When class concluded on Saturday, I looked forward to seeing him in September and wished him well over  the next month.

Shawn’s condition was more complicated than originally thought and one week after leaving Darden, Learning Team 5 received an email from him. Shawn’s email read,

“I am very sorry to say that I can’t make this part of the journey with you.  I think you all are so amazing, and was really looking forward to conquering this MBA with each of you, and the rest of our great cohort.  Sadly, that is not to be. But with any luck, one day we will ALL be alumni together.”

Even though we only spent a week getting to know Shawn, he would be missed and looked forward to seeing him back at Darden the next fall.

About two weeks after we received Shawn’s email, we received word that Shawn’s aneurysm had ruptured while he was waiting for his medical team to determine the appropriate next steps for his treatment. Shawn was in a medically induced coma at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. As of the date of this writing, Shawn remains in a coma. We are all thinking of Shawn and hoping for him to fully recover. In the interim, he remains an inspiration to us for even attempting to start Darden while carrying  an enormous load. He also serves as an ongoing reminder to maintain perspective on what’s important during our journey.

The Speech

One of the mental hurdles I had to overcome to start Darden was becoming comfortable being away from my family the first week of first grade for my daughter. Jennifer and I had a tradition of being there when our kids got on and off the bus the first day of school. I knew this would not be possible for my daughter’s first day of school and I came to accept this realty in the days leading up to Darden. Missing her first day took on greater significance than one might think because it represented the first time my decision to return to school would impact our family’s traditions and routine.

As one of nine Charlottesville locals attending Darden, the administration had strongly encouraged me to stay at Darden the entire week of our Leadership Residency to allow for time to build relationships outside the classroom. Though I tried it one night, I quickly decided that the mental health benefits of staying at home outweighed any missed networking opportunities with my classmates.

Who knew that making school lunches and breakfast for the kids would provide me a much needed daily strategic renewal?

When I departed for Darden on Tuesday, I did so with an unexpected feeling of victory. The following day would be the first day of first grade and while I knew I would have to leave for Darden before the bus arrived, I would still able to be present for my daughter’s first day.  Darden hadn’t taken away this important family tradition and I was pumped.

Five hours later as I tried to calmly breath outside the classroom my mind racing about Dad’s cancer, the start to my morning represented hope. Hope that even though I knew Darden would have a life changing impact on my family, it was manageable and, importantly, meant that I knew I would be able to be there for my father.

Knowing there was absolutely nothing I could do for my Dad at that moment, I entered the classroom, practiced a lot of deep breathing and prepared to speak.  A few more deep breaths and I delivered my story to a class of virtual strangers. Only fumbling my words for a brief moment, the speech seemed to go well.

Feeling like an incredible weight had been lifted, I collapsed in my seat. A few minutes later, the class took another break and I was overwhelmed with the number of positive comments I received from my classmates. Some asked questions about my son and were so happy that the story had a happy ending. Others shared that they had become emotional listening to it. Little did they know the range of emotions I was experiencing while presenting went well beyond those associated with my story. Despite this unexpected challenge, I was able to successfully deliver my story and connect with my classmates. Maybe I was just caught up in the moment, but it truly felt like my speech allowed me to build a bond with my audience and transform them from mere classmates to something more.

Unexpected Challenges in Mile 1

The next six days of our Leadership Residency were full of rich content with surprises around almost every turn. Days were long and nights were full of team meetings to prepare for the next day, followed by a pint or two at the Darden pub. The focus of the week was leadership from an enterprise perspective.

Over the course of the week, the faculty weaved this theme through the material as we covered topics in Management Communications, Leading Organizations, Accounting, Finance, Macro Economics, Ethics, Marketing and this interesting sounding class called “Decision Analysis.”

It was clear that Darden had exemplary faculty in a range of classes. It was also increasingly clear that there was a large volume of work. Along with “leadership from an enterprise perspective”, two other phrases were repeated all week: “this is a marathon not a sprint” and “strategic renewal.” Both phrases were inextricably linked.

Even though it had been almost fifteen years since I graduated from law school, the nightmares from my first year had only recently vanished so I could see parallels to the first year at Darden. This was going to be a long slog through loads of material with a steep learning curve in the fall of year one.

What was different this time, was the need for physical stamina. I had been running and participating in triathlons for the past few years and I thought I was in pretty good shape and had good endurance. Even though I had not competed in a marathon, the analogy fit. My early morning training was going to help my endurance through the long days in residency and those to come when I was juggling work and family with school.

My training regiment was also going to benefit me in one other important way – as strategic renewal.

Strategic renewal was a concept introduced by our Management Communications professor Lili Powell. The concept was simple: Give yourself time to “recharge”. I could tell that prioritizing strategic renewal sessions was going to be critically important and easier said than done. Since I had been using triathlon training and weekly yoga dates with Jennifer as my strategic renewal from the stresses of parenting for some time, I knew the benefit. I just really hoped I could keep it up.

What I didn’t realize, was how important this strategic renewal practice was going to be so soon.

Most of the assignments the first week were completed in teams and delivered in class only if called upon or volunteered. The one exception to this was the speech we were each asked to make for Lili’s class. The speech was time limited and recorded for posterity. The class was divided up into thirds with the first half of the alphabet going first on Wednesday which meant I was one of the lucky few to lead off.

Despite a tight time period to deliver our speeches, the topic was broad. We were asked to speak about ourselves and our occupations. After considering a number of topics, I chose to speak about a very difficult time in our family. When my son was in kindergarten, he came down with swine flu and spent three days in the pediatric ICU at UVA before making a full recovery.

Even though the circumstances at the time were incredibly scary and stressful, our experiences in the hospital were top notch and reinforced my decisions to practice health care law as well as work at UVA.

I practiced the speech almost thirty times and was only able to deliver it twice without choking up. The weight of the subject and the exhaustion from the long week at Darden had set in. As I sat in my chair waiting for class to start, I was using all the deep breathing exercises I could remember from my strategic renewal activities. We took a short break before launching into the speeches. In order to take my mind off the speech, I brought my phone into the hall to mindlessly check messages.

As we were called back into the room to begin presenting, a flurry of messages came across my phone. I looked down at my phone, read the message and just closed my eyes defeated, “Dad has cancer, please call ASAP.”

The Fun Begins

It was like a scene in a movie. Dad hugs kids and kisses wife goodbye before walking to the car with his suitcase in hand. Dad then drives off watching the family on the front porch through the rear view mirror.

My first morning departing for Darden looked very similar to this scene with one important exception –  dad was blasting “The Humpty Dance” from the car as he drove off.  Day 1 at Darden had arrived and things were about to get real.

As members of the Executive MBA Class of 2016 filed into their pre-assigned seats, we were greeted by the program director, Barbara Millar. Barbara shared with us that our first day at Darden was going to be different than any other day we’d have at school; we had a number of administrative tasks to handle like securing our ID badges, setting up our computers, learning about Honor at UVA and touring the Lawn.

There would be no academic work today, only time to get acquainted to our new surroundings and members of our cohort. After thirteen years gaining differing perspectives of UVA as an employee, I was beginning to see the University through a new lens, as a student. It didn’t take long after putting on the student lens to start thinking about one of the most notorious part of student life at UVA – streaking.

At 41, was I too old to streak the Lawn while singing “The Humpty Dance”?

Time would tell.

My thoughts of brief (hopefully) incarceration vanished as we began to hear from the faculty. Every interaction with faculty was the high quality that I expected. The students in my class, however, were far more impressive than I could have imagined; they were incredibly accomplished and brought a range of experiences from virtually every business sector.

While I was not surprised by the compliment of backgrounds from  financial services, health care, law, banking, investments, consulting, and information technology, what stood out most was the group of current and former members of the US Armed Forces. Approximately a third of our class had current or former military, many of whom had served in combat operations in Iraq and/or Afghanistan.

I sat next to one of those war veterans named Mike at lunch. (I quickly learned that this didn’t really narrow it down much as there are at least 6 guys named Mike in our class. There were almost as many Mikes as women.) As we casually chatted about our backgrounds and reasons for choosing Darden, Mike shared his experiences in the Army in Iraq. The stories he shared over lunch blew me away (no pun intended).

Mike had studied at West Point and was deployed to Iraq thereafter. He was now a civilian working in a leadership role in the private sector. Mike was bright, articulate and funny. As I internally compared his experience to mine, I was humbled and incredibly appreciative of his years of service.

Mike recounted stories of leadership in the post Iraq war occupation. As I sat and listened to his stories, one overwhelming thought came to mind – this guy had experienced these things well before his 30th birthday. My first official leadership role didn’t formally begin until I was almost 33, but Mike had a leadership role in combat operations well before reaching 30.

If this was the kind of leadership talent Darden was recruiting to my cohort, I couldn’t wait to begin the formal portion of the program on Day 2. Streaking the Lawn would have to wait … for now.

Lessons from a 6 Year Old

Now that my son was a rising fifth grader and my daughter a rising first grader, our family had developed a tradition for the night before the start of school. The kids would fill their new backpacks with cool cartoon laden folders with things like SpongeBob SquarePants, lay out their carefully selected back to school outfits, select a restaurant for the family to eat the last supper of summer and, importantly, have some sort of emotional breakdown complete with anxiety filled tears and attempts to negotiate their way out of the inevitable.

The night before my first day at Darden was no exception.

The start of the Darden school year is a one week Leadership Residency from Saturday to Saturday in late August. Classes begin at 8AM and are scheduled until 5PM with evening activities that keep you going until about 10PM. Students are encouraged/expected to stay at the Darden hotel even if they lived locally.

The first week of school had been on my mind since submitted my application in December.

It was one of the items in the “cons” column in my analysis for attending Darden. While I understood that it would be an incredible way to immerse yourself into learning, it was also the week of my daughter’s first day of school and Jennifer’s birthday week. I had never missed meeting the bus for the first day of school and I certainly had never missed Jennifer’s birthday.

Jennifer was completely understanding about her birthday and didn’t let me focus on it one bit. Her family would be in town for a weekend reunion and we could celebrate another time.

The kids, on the other hand, were feeling the stress of me returning to school and regularly questioning my decision.

“Two years, Dad?!” they would often say. “Why are you doing this?” By the end of the summer, I had my stump speech pretty well memorized and could do it from the shower or while making dinner.

I attempted to emphasize the importance of school (something my son regularly questioned and by regularly I mean daily) and how I was trying to be a role model for them for hard work and the importance of life-long education. I also told my son that we could study together as if that was cooler than the Charlottesville skateboard park or throwing the baseball in the yard. He sort of got it.

My daughter was less persuaded. Having just graduated from kindergarten, her idea of school revolved mostly around coloring and singing songs about the alphabet. As far as she knew, I was pretty good at both of those activities. Why did I need to go back to school?

Following tradition, we ate at my restaurant of choice and then went home to set up my backpack complete with new SpongeBob folder (a gift from work) and pack my bags for the week. The tension in the family was beginning to reach a peak. I promised both kids I would read to them and kiss them in the morning before I left. Jennifer had fun plans for the weekend and I was trying to emphasize how much fun they were going to have.

I packed my bag to check in for the week. Even though I was only going to be 2 miles from home, it felt like I was about to cross the Atlantic. I packed everything from workout clothes to business attire and everything in between. I carefully folded the notes they kids had made me for my hotel room to ensure their safe arrival at Darden. Once packed, I went to my daughter’s room to read and lay with her for a few minutes to get her settled down.

She sat on my lap as we read. Neither of us focused on the content of the fine Disney literature, just that it would be our last night together for a week. I gave her the tightest hug I could muster and with tears in both our eyes, we laid down in her bed for a couple minutes. As soon as her head hit the pillow, her emotions peaked. “Dad, why do you have to go? Please don’t go. Please.”

Wiping away tears, I thought what if I don’t stay over?

The first day was going to be filled with things like tours of the UVA Lawn and student ID pictures, if there ever was going to be one night in all of my experience that coming home wouldn’t impact my school work, it would be my first night.

I sat up in her bed and said, “Ok. How about this? How about if I just go for tomorrow and come home tomorrow night?” I’m not sure why the idea hadn’t occurred to me before this, but I felt like I’d just negotiated peace in the Middle East. She looked up beaming from ear to ear and said, “promise?”

“Yup, and I’m going to prove it to you.” I walked back down the hall unzipped my bag and unpacked. I felt like a hero. Darden could have almost all of me for two years, but my commitment to family came first.

24 hours later I’m lying in bed reflecting on the excitement of my first day and my heroic move to put family first and come home. I had fulfilled my commitments to school and family and I was relieved and still reveling in my decision to come home after the first day.

After exchanging details about each of our activities from the day, Jennifer rolls over and says “oh, I think I figured out why she was so upset last night.” “Really?” I replied, thinking I know exactly why she was upset. My girl was going to miss me and couldn’t possibly think of me being absent for a week let alone her first week of school.

“She thought you were leaving for two years. She was totally fine when she realized it was just a week. Goodnight.”

A (Surprise) Dose of Perspective

One of the key elements of my plan to prepare for the workload at Darden was to spend the summer prior to my start full of time with family and friends. This plan did not go as expected.

In early June, I received an email from Darden containing a friendly message welcoming me to Darden and “inviting” me to complete mandatory pre-matriculation courses and pass tests for each subject. The “silver lining” was that all you had to do was pass the tests with a 70 and tests could be taken multiple times, if necessary.

 After taking a deep breath, I thought, this can’t be too bad right?

A qualified “yes” was the answer, but it took me a while to appreciate the full benefits of the classes.

When I clicked through the email link, I found 7 courses. 7 courses! They included: Math, Statistics, Probability, Finance, Accounting I, Accounting II and Excel. I hadn’t cracked a math text book for over 20 years and have never had any formal education in any of the other subjects.

 After more deep breathing (more like hyper-ventilating), I began to progress through the stages of grief.

  1. Denial and Isolation – CHECK
  2. Anger – DOUBLE CHECK
  3. Bargaining – CHECK
  4. Depression – CHECK
  5. Acceptance – Sorry, not ready for you yet – I’m still stuck on #s 3 & 4

For the bargaining stage, I immediately put my years of legal experience to work and began formulating my argument to Darden admissions for why I should be exempt from this requirement. I developed less than creative arguments like: this must have been an error and isn’t this what you all are planning to teach me in the fall and, my personal favorite – what about my work/life balance and need to be one with nature and my family in my last few months of freedom?

Knowing these arguments would not likely carry the day, I started to work my way through the courses. What I came to quickly learn was that the material, though daunting at times, was full of things that I had always wanted to know. It also gave me a chance to test the waters at home and work with a “school schedule.”

Like it or not, this was the start of my (unexpected) transition back to school.

I stuck to a strict schedule of one course per week and made it through each course without having to retake any of the tests – the biggest shock of the summer. Though I would have appreciated more notice about these pre-matriculation courses and time to complete them, the material helped to bridge the gap between my skills and the analytical and technical skills needed in school.

As I began the first week of class, terms were more familiar to me than they would have been without the courses. In addition to providing a better framework to understand school, the pre-matriculation courses put my return to school in perspective in two important ways.

First, passing these courses gave me confidence that I could be successful with material that was technical and quite foreign to me. While I am not striving to be top of the class,  if I could pass these classes, I knew I could be successful at school, at home and at work.

Second, my success would not have been possible without an incredible team effort of understanding and support at work and home. This was a striking difference than when I was last in school. While support from parents and siblings were important before, returning to school now was pulling me away from some responsibilities at both work and home. Without the understanding and encouragement from Jennifer and the kids at home as well as Brad and my team at work, my success at Darden would be in serious jeopardy.

Lucky for me, this early test of my support system gave me the emotional confidence to know that I could do it. With these boosts in confidence, I was ready for my first week of class.