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Symposium Builds Leadership Acumen for Wisconsin MBA Students

By Clare Becker

November 30, 2017

Building resilience. Leveraging storytelling in corporate presentations. Navigating organizational change. From immediate practical techniques to more in-depth personal growth and career planning, Wisconsin Full-Time MBA students are bolstering their management skills through the Leadership Symposium, a week-long workshop of intensive programming that ran for the first time this October.

A comprehensive event that includes all the Wisconsin Full-Time MBA career specializations, the symposium offers students big-picture content that enhances what they are learning in the program’s regular curriculum and prepares them for their future as industry leaders. Designed specifically for first-year students but open to those in their second year, the Symposium dovetails into other curriculum—including core courses such as Leading and Working in Teams and Ethics, Business, and Society—as well as other established activities like the M. Keith Weikel Leadership Speaker Series.

Moving to a modular semester 

MBA students listen to a session in the Plenary Room
The Leadership Symposium is the latest in the portfolio of offerings available to Wisconsin MBA students. PHOTO: PAUL L. NEWBY II

The Symposium was created when the full-time MBA program moved from the traditional semester schedule to a modular schedule this past fall, says Blair Nelson Sanford, assistant dean of the program. Conceived as a way to carve out maximum impact for students, the framework divides each semester into two seven-week modules of core courses, required specialization courses, and applied learning experiences; the Symposium takes place during the eighth week, a break between the two modules.

The advantages to adapting a modular framework are significant, Sanford says: students not only complete their core coursework within the first year, but they have more space for electives or to take classes that allow students to explore multiple dimensions of business. With the new model, the program was also able to create a one-credit consulting class, Integrated Company Analysis, which provides students an additional applied experience, working with a local company to provide strategic solutions to a current business problem they are facing.

Building future leaders

The program offered “Leadership Catalyst” workshops as part of the Year 1 cocurricular programming, but had not made leadership development a concentrated focus until the Symposium. As the concept began to take shape, it was critical that the Symposium be an intentionally interactive learning experience—discussion, reading, writing, participant exchange—and not a time for students to sit back, Sanford says. It was also important to provide time for students to learn from each other.

The goal of the Symposium is to help teach core competencies like creative problem-solving and understanding unconscious bias while positioning students for the job hunt and succeeding in the workplace. Dan Olszewski, director of the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship, led a session on the entrepreneurial mindset, building on work he delivers in other entrepreneurship classes; he also presented the work to students in Vietnam who were interested in entrepreneurship. These insights into entrepreneurship are valuable to all MBA students, regardless of specialization, says Sanford: “To provide value, students need to think like an entrepreneur in each function of business.”Student quote about Leadership SymposiumOther workshop topics out of the 15 total sessions included change management, emotional intelligence, talent development, building a network, and developing a successful mindset from a mental health perspective.

“The Leadership Symposium was a great opportunity for students to develop necessary soft skills,” says Rodrigo Stabio (MBA ’19). “While our core curriculum develops our hard skills, the Leadership Symposium taught us skills such as emotional intelligence and artful presentations that are necessary for our future success.”

While some of the presenters come from private industry, several of the workshop facilitators, like Olszewski, are Wisconsin School of Business faculty. “We’ve got expertise in the building,” Sanford says. “I think it’s great for students to have access to that talent.”

Spring 2018 and beyond

The next Leadership Symposium is already scheduled for Spring 2018, and Sanford and Gina Jenkins, associate director of career and leadership development, have already started lining up speakers.

For the students who attended the first Symposium, what they learned is a building block, with real-world impact that lasts beyond just one week. Sanford says coaches will work with the students on how to use some of the content they’ve gathered as pitches to employers for jobs and internships, as well as how they continue to learn and improve the quality of their work while still at WSB.

“My hope is when students reflect on their Wisconsin MBA leadership development experiences, they’ll realize the impact in their courses, their networking, their actions, and their performance during internships and jobs. It’s an exciting and rewarding process to watch.”