Sometimes not paying attention in your executive MBA class can be as valuable as pounding lecture notes into your laptop.
Sitting in the back row during a strategy course at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, for instance, Harley E. Rouda Jr. wasn’t taking in much of the professor’s lecture. Rouda’s thoughts were focused mainly on the stock-purchase agreement in the three-company merger he was negotiating.
“While the teaching was going on, I was multitasking, trading E-mails with New York City regarding Realty One on valuation,” he says, referring to a real estate company acquired in the recent merger. (Realty One’s owner, investment bank Insignia Financial, is located in New York.)
Rouda, now chief executive officer of Real Living, the Columbus, Ohio-based private holding company that resulted from the merger, was also toiling over an Excel spreadsheet, trying to assign a value to part of the deal. Seated nearby was Roger Rawlins, one of the 15 percent to 20 percent of the Fisher executive MBA candidates who are finance types. He became interested in Rouda’s not very successful labors.
Rawlins, then controller of Express, a fashion brand owned by The Limited, thought that Rouda was getting too caught up in the numbers. “He said I’m not allowed to work on spreadsheets” and should leave the finance and accounting of the deal to him, recalls Rouda.
Although he missed part of the strategy lecture, the CEO gained a finance executive who could free him up to focus on strategic matters. Rawlins eventually joined Rouda’s company, Columbus-based HER Realtors, as chief administrative officer, becoming Real Living’s chief operating officer after the merger. (In the deal, HER merged with Cincinnati-based Huff Realty. The merged companies then acquired Realty One, which operates out of Cleveland and Akron. The organization now takes in about $160 million in revenues and has about 3,500 employees and agents, Rouda says.)
To be sure, Rouda, one of 43 executives slated to make up Fisher’s first graduating executive class in June, has learned some things from his professors that have helped him handle the merger and its aftermath. And the 18-month program, one of a small number of emerging “hybrid” executive-ed offerings that combine short stints on campus with much online learning, is built to accommodate busy schedules like his. Students are on campus only three days a month.
The organizers of the program, which costs $52,000, are also struggling to tie course content to executives’ most-pressing concerns. Rouda, for instance, thinks he’s been able to have a say in tilting the curriculum toward his focus on the merger. He and other students voted to make M&A a key part of one of the current class’s two customized electives, “Creating and Managing the Diversified Firm.”
In the course, students will soon do their own valuing of a real merger, Ford’s 1990 acquisition of Jaguar. Some will interview senior Ford executives onsite in Dearborn, Michigan, taping the results for the class. Before giving the deal a hypothetical thumbs-up or thumbs-down, students will also attend an on-campus Jaguar presentation.
Rouda thinks that the other customized course, the just-completed “Forming and Managing Strategic Alliances,” had “particular immediate relevance” to his postmerger activities. While taking it, he pondered the ramifications of Real Living’s recently sealed joint venture with Wells Fargo. The JV will provide mortgage services to homebuyers. The real estate company is also discussing an alliance with Chicago Title Insurance Co. to offer title insurance in one market.
Creative Curriculum Chaos
Developing classes so closely linked to student wants can be a hectic process, however, and involve some creative chaos. Fisher professors make up the curriculum for the team-taught customized courses—called “integrative electives”—on the fly. The class starts taking the elective just eight months to a year after it agrees on the topic.
Preparations begin only a few months into the first term, when professors and students swap ideas for integrative courses and decide on three other standard electives. In the first graduating class, “there was a lot of horse trading” among the students, says Anil Makhija, associate dean for executive programs and an Ohio State finance professor.
Sometimes professors have to exert Solomon-like judgment. For one standard elective, “Topics in Management,” Makhija resolved differing student demands by proposing to split the course into three subject areas: negotiations, leadership, and human resources issues. Each subject was taught by a different teacher.
Executives used to planning projects in a highly structured way may not enjoy such a freewheeling approach. But “getting a group of  executives to agree on something” was an instructive challenge, says another student, David Jakes. The overlapping of subjects within a single elective is also “much closer to reality than the silos” of academia usually are, adds Jakes, who heads the retirement consulting practice at William M. Mercer Inc. in Columbus.
The intense involvement of a particular group of students in course development might also shorten the shelf life of an elective, which might not appeal to future learners. “As the market moves, [the] course may disappear in two years,” says Makhija. But such tailoring is important to the CEOs, CFOs, and COOs who take the program.
“You don’t want to thrust [electives] down their throat,” he says. “It’s one thing to do it at the core, but at the elective level you have to address their needs.”