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.”