MBA students looking for an edge in today’s tight job market got a leg up on the competition last month with the two-day MBA Leadership Challenge, a program focused on honing valuable – and marketable – leadership skills inspired by U.S. military training.
Fifty-two USC Marshall students traveled to the Marine Corps base in Twentynine Palms for the annual event – a behind-the-scenes look at military life and a unique opportunity to broaden their understanding of effective business strategy.
A joint project of the USC Marshall Military Veterans Association and the U.S. Marine Corps, the event connected business students with Marines and Marine Corp instructors in a cross-cultural exchange. Over the course of two days, students participated in a wide range of hands-on training exercises, gaining critical expertise in team-based problem solving and decision-making under pressure.
“It’s a fun, once in a lifetime event,” said second-year student Ryan Wilson, a former army officer and a chief Leadership Challenge organizer. “It’s not every day you get to climb around an M1AI tank and shoot all the weapons in the Marine Corps inventory.”
But the event offered students much more than what Wilson identified as the “cool” factor. It was also a chance, he said, for them to learn leadership lessons from combat experience that can be translated into business success.
Wilson, a West Point graduate who will enter American Airlines’ leadership development program when he completes his MBA this spring, sees tremendous value in a program that applies military training to a corporate environment.
“There’s so much the Marine Corps, and the military in general, does that the business world can use to become more efficient,” Wilson noted. As an example, he cited the practice of after-action review, a standard military tool for evaluating “what went well, what went wrong and what you can learn” from a particular operation.
By contrast, Wilson pointed out, “In the business world, you simply go from one task to the next.”
Evaluation was a central component of the Leadership Challenge. At the conclusion of the event, students received a thorough assessment of their performance.
The Leadership Challenge, which began in 2004 as a one-day event at Camp Pendleton, continues to draw a high level of interest. According to Joseph Hernandez, program coordinator for USC Marshall’s full-time MBA program, the event has resonated with students. “Since it started, there’s been about a 30 percent increase in participation,” Hernandez said. This year, in addition to the 52 student participants, there were also two from Santa Monica-based Financial Research Group, which sponsored the event.
Julian Timmerman, a second-year USC Marshall student and a two-time participant in the Leadership Challenge, said this year’s event was the best yet.
“They incorporated even more leadership scenarios into the weekend and increased the accountability we had for each of the decisions we made,” he said. One big lesson he will take with him as he prepares to leave USC and enter a management training program at GE is the military’s emphasis on preparation.
“They train like they fight,” he said. “The idea is to rehearse in an environment that is as close to the real thing as possible, so that when you see something for the first time, it’s not actually the first time.”
While the focus of the challenge was skills building, organizer Wilson pointed out a number of other “hidden” successes.
The time they spent together allowed students and Marines to get a sense of the others’ daily lives – their struggles, challenges and sacrifices.
“After meeting these guys and understanding what they go through and their training and level of professionalism, it puts everything in perspective,” Timmerman said. “It really contrasts with what you see on the news.”
And the respect, Wilson said, is mutual. “Last year, the Marines were so excited about how well everything went and the bonds that were made,” they were eager to collaborate again this year.