University of Southern California

USC Marshall Partners with US Marine Corps in Challenge
MBA Candidates Learn Value of Teambuilding, Strategy from Military Experts
March 9, 2009 • by Jeremy Deutchman

MBA students looking for an edge in today's tight job market got a leg up on the competition with this year's MBA Leadership Challenge on Feb. 27-28, an innovative program focused on honing valuable – and marketable – leadership skills inspired by US military training. Fifty-two USC Marshall students traveled to the Marine Corps base in Twentynine Palms, California for the event, a rare, behind-the-scenes look at military life and a unique opportunity to broaden their understanding of effective business strategy.

A joint project of the Marshall Military Veterans Association and the United States Marine Corps, the event connected Marshall students with Marines and Marine Corp instructors in a unique, 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," says 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 Marshall students much more than what Wilson identifies as the "cool" factor – It was also a chance 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 observes. As an example, he cites 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 points 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 clearly resonated with students. "Since it started, there's been about a 30 percent increase in participation," Hernandez says. 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 Marshall student and a two-time participant in the Leadership Challenge, said this year's event was the best one 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 Marshall and enter a management training program at GE is the military's emphasis on preparation. "They train like they fight," he says. "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 Leadership Challenge was skills building, organizer Ryan Wilson points 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. Participant Julian Timmerman points out that, "After meeting these guys and understanding what they go through and their training and level of professionalism, it puts everything in perspective. It really contrasts with what you see on the news." And the respect, says Wilson, is mutual: "Last year, the Marines were so excited about how well everything went and the bonds that were made," that they were eager to collaborate again this year.

In the future, Wilson hopes the Leadership Challenge will "become a staple of the Marshall experience." It's a worthy goal for an event that many students rate as the most rewarding part of their MBA program - and one that continues to distinguish the Marshall School as a leader in graduate business education.

About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.