January 20, 2008 6:14 pm

Skills beyond the home run

Nicole Adrien admits she originally went to business school to give herself “an insurance policy”.

“I knew I eventually wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, but I figured that if something ever happened to my husband, having an MBA would help me get back in the workforce,” she says.

Once she arrived at UCLA Anderson School of Management, however, she started to feel differently. Ms Adrien, who had worked at an investment bank in New York City before business school, immersed herself in classes, joined a variety of clubs and groups and was even voted in as student body president.

Emboldened by this perspective, she enrolled in a new course being offered in her second year: The pursuit of leadership: a female perspective. The class focused on the “personal challenges that women must manage in order to become effective leaders” and strove to “teach students skills so they can achieve work and life balance”.

“When I saw this class, I thought, ‘This is exactly what I need’,” she says.

Ms Adrien, who now works in finance in Los Angeles, calls the class “life-changing”. “It was the one time in business school that gave me the chance to reflect on my life and my career,” she says. “I now know that if I were to drop out of the workforce, I would be wasting my leadership and professional skills.”

This revelation is exactly what her instructor, Jamie McCourt, vice chairman and president of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, had hoped for.

Ms McCourt says she designed the class to help young women understand and appreciate that their “voices matter”. “I feel like there are a lot of voices that need to be counted,” she says. “There’s a tendency [among women] to defer a lot and I wanted this class to be a reminder to women themselves that they can make a difference.”

Ms McCourt had long wanted to teach a graduate level course on leadership for women. A few years ago, she became serious about the idea: she read all the current literature, attended seminars and conferences, wrote a syllabus and brought it to Anderson’s dean. By the following winter, she was on the faculty.

The seminar-style course includes units on how female stereotypes have evolved, how women communicate in the office and examines ways in which US businesses might stem the female brain drain. It also includes units on female entrepreneurs, female sports executives and female politicians.

In addition, Ms McCourt brings in guest speakers in different fields and industries. Past speakers have included Gloria Steinem, the noted feminist writer, Sherry Lansing, former chairman and chief executive of Paramount, as well as film producers and local politicians.

“These guests talk about decision points in their lives, what propelled them, what held them back, and what they wished they’d done differently,” says Ms McCourt. “It becomes a very personal class. The rule of the day is: what’s said here, stays here.”

Ms McCourt says her goal is to “to teach women to leverage their skill set, and not to try and be someone else”.

“I try to get my students to reflect on what it is they do well naturally. Yes, it’s important to be well-rounded and to learn about things you don’t necessarily excel at, but you will be a better leader doing what you do naturally.”

Ms McCourt knows all too well that this discovery might not be immediate. She joined the business world after 15 years as an attorney. She began her career in 1979 practising international and securities law in New York City. She moved to Boston and opened a practice, focusing on corporate, real estate and family law.

Yet she found that the thing she loved most about her job was not necessarily the law: it was bringing in the business, and so she enrolled in MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Stereotypes

At Sloan there were only six other women in her graduating class; she had been in a similar situation years before at the University of Maryland School of Law. But Ms McCourt – the mother of four sons, and sister of two brothers – says she’s accustomed to being one of a handful of women wherever she ends up.

One of the recurring themes of the course is navigating the “constant conflict of creating work-life balance”. Ms McCourt says that while she originally designed the class with only women in mind, she has discovered that the men who take her class struggle with the same conflicts. (Last year’s class had 10 men out of 74 students.)

“I am the president of the Dodgers so the men who take my class think that I am going to talk about baseball. But I think it gives them permission to take the class because they’re dealing with the same issues,” she says.

Responsibility

Perhaps the greatest lesson she hopes to instill in her students is that they have a responsibility to be strong leaders, whether they’re in the workforce or out of it. “They are an elite group of students at an elite institution,” she says. “With that privilege comes the responsibility to do good things. It’s not okay to quit. If you decide you want to put your career on the back burner and be a stay-at-home mom, well, then be the president of the PTA. That’s your responsibility.”

Her message appears to be getting through. Former student, Carissa Phelps, who received her JD/MBA from Anderson last spring, describes the course as “one of the most real classes [she] took at business school”.

Ms Phelps, who is now a social entrepreneur, working on a project to redevelop Motel Drive, a poor neighbourhood in Fresno, California, says Ms McCourt’s class helped give her “confidence and motivation” to take on such a large-scale project.

“I always come back to her statement to us: ‘You have a seat at one of the finest schools, you are going to be leaders, you have a responsibility to be a leader,’” she says. “Leadership isn’t about being a man or a woman, it’s about how we reach our potential in business and society.”

And as for Ms Adrian, she is putting her “insurance policy” to good use and no longer plans to leave the workforce once she has children. She attributes her change of heart largely to Ms McCourt. “I realised that there are a lot of things that make it harder to be a woman in business – how to incorporate a family into my life, how to meld that with my career and ambitions,” she says.

“But I also realise that if I were to say goodbye to this professional part of my life it would make me a bad mother and a bad wife. I do want to start a family, and I understand there will be challenges, but I absolutely have no intention of dropping out.”

Programme’s dual degrees of difficulty

The MBA/JD degree at UCLA is a four-year programme sponsored by the university’s Anderson School of Management and the School of Law.

The programme runs concurrently and allows participants who have an interest in developing careers in which law and management overlap to acquire knowledge of both fields. The combined programme gives students a broad leadership and managerial training as well as an interdisciplinary legal education. It appeals to those students who are considering careers in, for example, public service/politics/government, industrial relations or business development.

UCLA students in their first year of the MBA, or their first or second year of the JD programme can switch to the combined programme. Participants on the MBA/JD programme receive both degrees simultaneously.

There are currently 18 students enrolled on the UCLA MBA/JD programme.

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