Month: October 2014

Shawn

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.

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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.

The Decision

Making the decision to go to business school took almost 8 years.

When I made the decision, I had been a health care attorney at the University of Virginia Health System for almost 13 years having worked for both the UVA Medical Center and the UVA Physicians Group. I had a very strong understanding of both the legal and business sides of an academic medical center and a balanced perspective on how all the pieces and parts worked together. I had grown my areas of responsibility and developed a solid team around me. At home, I had two beautiful children and an incredibly supportive wife.

So why go back to school and why now?

The answer dates back to the start of my legal career in Sarasota, Florida in 1998. Shortly after starting my law practice, I came across an article in the Young Lawyers newsletter produced by the American Bar Association. The article was a call out to young lawyers to take personal control of their careers rather than let their employers do it for them.

It’s amazing how this one piece of advice has really stuck with me. In 2001, it was the impetus for me to question whether the traditional practice of law was right for me or whether a path as “in house counsel” would be a better fit. In 2006, it was the impetus for me to move from the UVA Medical Center to become the General Counsel of the UVA Physicians Group. And, in 2014, it was the driver for me to return to school at 41 to earn my MBA at UVA Darden School of Business.

In evaluating whether I needed another academic degree, I did what any good lawyer does: research. Most of my research came through personal discussions with health care professionals, including my boss, Brad, an MBA. Over about an eight year period, I considered whether to go back to school at all and, if so, whether to earn an MBA, MHA or MPH. During that time, a number of my colleagues earned their MBAs at Darden through Darden’s MBA for executives program and I saw their careers advance after graduation. The timing at home and at work was just never right.

Year after year, I would consider the question and year after year, I never pulled the trigger to apply; things at home or work just wouldn’t allow it. In addition, I was advancing in my career and did not have a “burning platform” for more formal schooling.

But each year, almost like clockwork, something kept bringing me back to this question about whether or not to obtain additional education. Each year, it became increasingly apparent to me that future health care leaders, including lawyers, are going to need formal business training. Any doubt about the truth of this opinion was erased by the Affordable Care Act.

For all of 2013, the Affordable Care Act “Obamacare” was virtually daily news. Even though the industry had become increasingly more businesslike from the time I began at UVA, this time it was different. Obamacare had been upheld by the US Supreme Court and health systems across the country were adapting to the new law. The national health care stage was making significant changes to the way in which health care providers were being paid; this required them to apply greater business discipline to their operations.

In addition, the regional landscape in Virginia was changing. Health systems across Virginia were constricting. In 2013, there were very few independent hospitals left. Physician practices were also being purchased across Virginia as health systems attempted to control their channels of patients.

At the local level, UVA was experiencing unprecedented change. All three top leaders of the university (president, provost and chief operating officer) were in their first three years on the job. The CEO of the UVA Medical Center had announced his retirement, the Dean of the UVA School of Medicine was in transition and the Health System had just hired its first Executive Vice President of Health Affairs. Despite this incredible amount of change, my team at the Physicians Group was seasoned and strong.

Perceiving a window of opportunity at work to obtain further education while letting the dust settle at the highest levels of the Health System, I began speaking with Brad about pursuing another degree. I also started conversations at home with Jennifer. After carefully surveying the landscape and weighing the options for what seemed like months, both agreed the time was right.

Convincing myself that I could do it was a whole other challenge.

For our entire married life, Jennifer and I had agreed to put family first. This principle drove our decisions to start our law practices in Sarasota, Florida rather than larger more urban settings with huge billable hour requirements. It also drove our decision to move to Charlottesville and raise our family here.

Since our oldest child was born, I was the hands on dad. Making dinner 4 or 5 nights a week was common while working on the weekends was rare. Coaching Little League for my son and meeting my daughter for lunch at school was the norm. Family was the priority and maintaining the appropriate work/life balance was the topic of regular conversations. As a result, I really struggled with what returning to school would do to that balance.

Part of our consideration was that our kids were a little older now (7 and 11) and needed me a little less and would understand. Jennifer’s work hours were somewhat flexible and we would be able to manage. We did our homework by speaking with Darden alumni and their spouses to learn how they managed and balanced home, work and school.

Ultimately, I convinced myself that we could do it.

So why Darden?

While I considered a number of different schools, I landed on the MBA for executives program at Darden “EMBA” because of the school’s strong reputation and superb faculty. Throughout my career at UVA, I had been fortunate enough to participate in a number of leadership development courses taught by Darden faculty. In the fall of 2013, my company asked Professor Elliott Weiss to train our management team on Lean principles.

Ten minutes into Elliott’s presentation, I knew that Darden was the place I needed to be. The case method of learning was very familiar to me from law school and Elliott’s passion about his area of expertise was clear. Over the years of working with Darden faculty, this passion was a consistent part of the Darden brand.

In addition, the split between in-person and remote learning in the EMBA program fit my learning style. I just didn’t think I would be able to learn as well in a purely on-line curriculum.

So I took the plunge and I started the marathon surrounded by a team of supporters. I submitted my acceptance letter in the spring of 2014 and started to structure operations at work to support my time away. At home, Jennifer and I started setting aside date nights which we promised to keep during school as a way to remain connected.

I had done my research. I had a plan for work. I had a plan for home. My home plan started with a commitment to family and friends in my last summer of “freedom.” My summer plan was going to launch me into school fresh and ready.

Darden, however, had other plans for my summer. On a random night in early June, I received a somewhat innocuous email from Darden about this little warm-up exercise called “pre-matriculation.”