Remarks to new University of Maryland Executive MBA Cohort 19

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University of Maryland Executive MBA Class of 2018

I delivered the following remarks to the incoming Executive MBA class at the University of Maryland on Wednesday, January 23rd:

Good evening. My name is Jonathan Sachs and I am a proud double Terp and graduate of EMBA Cohort ’17. First, I would like to recognize my school family in attendance tonight also from EMBA Cohort 17: Chris Barron, Ahmed Majumder, honorary member Allison McLeod, and Andrew Malcolm. It is so good to see you guys, especially not sitting for 12-hours a day in the same room every-other weekend.

When Shelbi asked me to speak to you tonight, I was beyond honored. The EMBA experience at Maryland changed my life in amazing ways. I started the program about the same time I was beginning my first role in business operations, switching over from government affairs and lobbying.

Our professors, coaches and classmates, encouraged me to be bold and to be the kind of leader I aspired to be, not just be the same as everyone else. The business I was given to operate needed to be turned around and quick. We were hemorrhaging money, giving bad service, and the staff was suffering.

Thanks to what I learned on Friday and Saturday, I brought cutting edge ideas and content to my team on Mondays. We accomplished the turnaround and saved the business, recording 56% more revenue, 15% improvement in net margin, 20% improvement in customer reviews, extremely low staff turnover, and a record growth rate for a service line in the company – 31.6% growth based on a budget of 5.8% year over year. We were second in our company in raw dollars beating budget to an entity that was nearly 100 times our revenue.

None of that would have been possible without this program. 2 months after I graduated, I was promoted to a more senior role at work, but I want you to know that that is not even close to the value of this experience. In fact, it dwarfs in comparison to what I received – confidence, values, direction, character, and a thirst for knowledge.

I got there in part because of the content, professors, and the cohort. But, I also got there because graduates had given out some free advice and I took it. For example, Dan Cowens gave us some advice that he “accidentally” told his employer that class met every weekend instead of every-other weekend and never corrected his error (that was before our Business Ethics class, I guess).

Just to be clear, I told my employer that class was every other weekend, but to be successful in the program, I was going to not be in the office on Fridays for a while. That full day to do school work made a big difference for me. That was great advice! Thank you, Dan, where-ever you are.

So in the same spirit, I hope you will consider these three small pieces of advice, presented humbly. If you take them, I guarantee it will help and if you don’t take them, well you will fail out of the program in disgrace. It’s really that simple and totally up to you.

Looking back during residence week where you begin your journey today, I remember feeling raw, overwhelmed, and concerned about learning how to learn again, but focused. We were given an index card to write down our commitments for the remainder of the program. I wrote down these words: “do the work”. They were the most important three words of the program for me other than “Accounting cheat sheet”, “Google hangouts call”, or “Breakfast omelette bar” (that was for you, Chris).

So, advice #1: “Do the work”. You may not believe me, but other than your family, school should be your top priority, not work. You will only get this experience for the next 17 months. That’s nothing in terms of time. Work will always be there. Jump in to this experience with both feet, it will last a lot longer than that urgent deliverable due next week at work.

Do the reading. Since most of the learning in business school is case-based, you learn more from a better discussion where everyone has done the reading. So, do the reading.

Do the assignments. The professors are (usually) not just assigning you busy work. Assignments are a great opportunity to dig deeper into your organization for “academic purposes”. You won’t believe what people will tell you when they think it’s for school. I actually have gone back and read some of my old assignments, many of which inspired posts on my new website. So, do the assignments.

Do the group work. At first, you are going to hate it. Later, you will get used to it and probably hate it a little less. But, if you come into it assuming that it won’t go well, or that the other people in your group are idiots, or if they just listened to you, you would have gotten an A instead of an A minus, you’re setting up a self fulfilling prophecy.

Additionally, don’t commit to doing something and then never do it. Show up to the calls, put your webcam on so we know you’re there, nobody looks like Beyonce on that thing so it doesn’t matter, and be present. Your classmates will be at the same time much more forgiving than your professors and also much more demanding than them. So, do the group work.

So, remember #1: do the work.

Advice #2: Set up cohort norms. You are going to be together in a big group in that same room for a long time. All told over the duration of program, it’s close to 34 complete 24 hour days in that room. Trust me, it’s a lot of sitting, I have the chiropractor bills to prove it.

Despite getting the advice from the alumni speaker at our residence week to put together norms, our cohort never did it. Not pushing for us to follow through on developing our norms is my biggest regret in the program.

Norms define the way a group conducts itself. Norms are important so that everyone can get the best learning. This is done by establishing at the on-set what is acceptable and unacceptable to the group. Some may seem silly like what’s the protocol if you’re running late to class, do we keep same seats, or how to engage in the class discussion when it is obvious to everyone that you haven’t done the reading, but you still want to talk.

Others will be incredibly sensitive, but far more important like how to engage respectfully on subjects that come up in discussion such as race, gender, ethnicity, politics and religion. Norms can also protect the learning outcomes of the group by preserving the voice of the less dominant and more accommodating members, who may often have the best ideas to help the group learn.

Not only will cohort norms make school more enjoyable, but it’s important to get the skill for creating them. The best leaders help create the ground rules for their teams and make sure they are followed.

Don’t woos out from the norms conversation. Often the ones who will make the biggest fuss about it are the ones who need the norms the most. Nobody is going to want to stay late on a Friday or Saturday to have the conversation, but it’s critical.

So, remember, Advice #2: Establish cohort norms.

Advice #3: Struggle. I know what you’re thinking right now. Done! Yeah, that one was easy. You should have seen what it was like getting out of bed this morning.

That’s not what I am talking about.

What I mean is that you’re in school, so you are not expected to have all the answers. For example, you’re going to work with an executive coach. The first thing they are going to do is show you a mirror, through the assessments. That mirror reveals how you perceive yourself versus how you are perceived by others. For some of us, that was an eye opening conversation and it can bring up many feelings. Please advance into that conversation, don’t retreat from it. Struggle with this learning, don’t brush it aside. It’s really important.

Trust me in that the harder something is not only in this experience, but in life, the more important it tends to be, especially in the realm of self-reflection. Struggle in this area will build your character and core values.

In the book, The Road to Character by David Brooks, a repeated theme, which was a comfort to me in my own pursuit of developing a strong character, was struggle.

Personally, I often struggle with decisions, practices and questions that show my character. In my own reflection on these moments, I am extremely self-critical. Why am I struggling? Why isn’t this obvious to me? The leaders and change makers that I look up to and read about seem to have an innate inner-compass. Where is mine? I have one but why is it failing me here?

The book taught me, if nothing else, to embrace this struggle. The same people who I look up to had to go through situations and events that built their character. The people Brooks describes fell down frequently in their pursuit of a character to serve others. They made lots of mis-steps, had their own vices, and often made the same mistakes repeatedly. It isn’t easy to develop character. You have to struggle, learn, and make mistakes.

As Brooks writes in the introduction to the book, “It was a cultural and intellectual tradition, the “crooked timber” tradition, that emphasized our own brokenness. It was a tradition that demanded humility in the face of our own limitations. But it was also a tradition that held that each of us has the power to confront our own weaknesses, tackle our own sins, and that in the course of this confrontation with ourselves we build character” (Brooks, 2015).

You’re not going to always be correct or in the right during this experience. Sometimes, you are going to fall down. Own it and struggle with it. The next 17 months can build your character as much as it can your knowledge of business. While most of us try to run away from struggle or unpleasantness, you’re going to jump right into it and be better for it. Right?

So remember, Advice #3: Struggle.

So in conclusion, if you “do the work”, create cohort norms, and struggle, you are going to get every drop out of this program. While you are in school, life will go on (I married the love of my life, Sheryl, last March), so don’t miss out on those experiences too. The EMBA at Maryland has been life changing for me and I am eternally grateful for it. I look forward to learning about all the great that you will do.

Thank you, happy learning and GO TERPS!