On December 3rd, 370 first-year students showed up for the final exam for Strategic Leadership, one of our core classes. But unlike most testing situations, everyone was wearing a suit. At the same time across campus, more than 160 senior level alumni and executives were being drilled on how to judge student performance. The all-day test is not a written exam, but is something called the Executive Challenge, and while it does count as a final exam for the class, it also serves as a unique opportunity to gain real-world learning from some of the most influential global leaders today.
The judges included current and former CEOs from multiple Fortune 500 companies and high-profile startups, managing partners of well known VC firms, and senior executives in finance, consulting and a myriad of other industries. Most flew in for the day - many from international destinations - excited to engage with students one-on-one and participate in a uniquely Stanford experience.
Working in teams of eight, students had to complete four experiential leadership challenges throughout the day, each simulating a typical situation faced by senior executives. One challenge required students to play the role of Chairman and CEO, working to convince reluctant board members to pursue an acquisition. A successful effort required both good business analysis and strong interpersonal skills. Alumni judges played the board members, each of whom had objectives and personalities that could have derailed the meeting if mishandled. One of the judges, Stu Francis, an alum from 1977 and Vice Chairman of Barclays Capital, told us, "It is very interesting to watch the students deal with things that come up in a day-to-day context in business. You do not learn it until you do it, except at Stanford. You learn it here."
The student response was overwhelmingly positive. One explained, "The Executive Challenge was terrific, particularly as it put learning in a real-world context where we were graded not on specific frameworks but on actual efficacy." It also served as a vehicle for connecting students with the deep alumni network. Many students and the alumni they met have since exchanged emails, or arranged to get together for coffee or dinner. Most students were floored to see how many high-profile alums made the time to stay connected to the school, making themselves accessible and providing valuable feedback.
The final exam ended as uniquely as it started, with a party-like atmosphere, as hundreds of students, alumni, faculty and GSB staff packed in an auditorium to honor the day's winners. But the biggest winner was clearly the Stanford GSB community as a whole, and everybody there feeling like a real part of it.
Congratulations on a job well done!
Mike Hochleutner, MBA '01
Center for Leadership Development & Research