Take 42 undergraduates on spring break. Put them in the bustling Big Apple. And, ask one student to design the trip, company visits and all.
It might sound like the perfect way for a group of college friends to relax. But for Mays’ Business Fellows, New York this spring break was ripe with opportunities to learn, to lead, to create and to be inspired. Relaxationâ€”unless you count the group of fascinated students who met Broadway actresses back stage as they planned for summer internships in show businessâ€”was the last priority for these students.
Now in its 25th year, Mays Fellows demonstrate strengths as team players and team leaders, have a proven foundation of student leadership, and are committed to school work and community service. In an intensive spring semester, they meet in weekly class sessions, attend leadership retreats, engage company executives with their ideas and questions, and launch substantial community impact projects.
And each year, they have a golden ticket to the boardrooms of New York’s top recruiting companies.
Key among the group members’ foundational values are the commitment, integrity and excellent performance that earns them the right to join other Fellows in the interior deliberative spaces of New York business. But also true to the Fellows’ core principles are the relationships, teamwork and fulfillment values that allow these students to build bonds, celebrate successes and encourage one another’s development.
“Leadership is one of those things you have to practice in front of the very people you want to inspire,” Fellows Director Tim O. Peterson told his gathered students on the first day of company visits. “Will you choose to do itâ€”to lead and inspire? I think you’ve already started to.”
The New York trip is a learning laboratory for all these things, and more. Read on for key stories in the web of experiences that marked Fellows Group 25’s packed weeklong visit to Manhattan and Brooklyn businesses.
Fellows teach executives “leadership is everybody’s business’
On the seventh floor of a converted industrial building not far from New York’s Lincoln Tunnel, four young women in smart business suits address a room of Teach for America executives sitting around them horseshoe-style at gleaming metal tables.
It’s 10 a.m. on a Monday morning, and for the first time in a long time, staff leaders from scattered company divisions are coming together to think about their roles in fulfilling Teach for America’s educational mission. And for the first time ever, Mays Fellows are coaching the executives’ leadership development with a workshop they spent months tailoring to the educational nonprofit’s needs.
“Ask yourself, what actions can I take that will make this corporation’s values real to me?” says Erika Schmidt, a sophomore management major who is one of the youngest in this year’s Fellows group. “These values are real, they make a difference, and they should be obvious to everyone. You can inspire other people.”
The sound of jackhammers, air brakes and car horns echoing into the meeting room’s bank of sunny windows doesn’t disturb the dialog. Senior management major Lauren Cummins helps Schmidt wrap up the first half of the two-hour session with an exercise on storytelling. The 20 Teach for America staff leadersâ€”several of whom are meeting for the first time todayâ€”talk in clumps, laughing and sharing stories of employees who embody the goals of the 17-year-old inner-city teaching corps.
The Fellows team leads staffers to laminated placards with single words (“ambitious,” “caring,” “loyal”) lining the walls behind them. By vote of red-dot stickers, Teach for America leaders decide what they think are the most important qualities in a team leader. In similar exercises, they ponder reactions to tough scenarios and unusual incentives and rewards for engaging employees. Above all, the Fellows stress the importance of communicating Teach for America’s values to its fast-paced young workers and teachers.
“When you start with these core values as your credo, things start to align,” says senior management major Savannah Evans, who partners with junior finance major Emily Knippel to close out the formal training session. “Things tend to fall into place when you know, and remind others, what you stand for. Leadership is everybody’s business.”
A year ago, the Fellows came to Teach for America to learn what the nonprofit does to make a difference in the world, with its 4,400 teaching corps members in 25 urban and rural school districts. It was a typical company visitâ€”until 2006 Fellow Laura Reher grabbed Fellows Director Tim O. Peterson’s arm on the way out the door. “They told us they could use some management training,” Reher said then. “We can do that for them.”
With Reher’s help and some of Peterson’s past leadership development workshops as a starting point, they did.
The conversation at Teach for America didn’t end with the Fellows’ presentation. Kirsten Busch, vice president of Teach for America’s learning and development wing, took that as a springboard to discussion: “So, how can we make employees feel more valued? What can we do to make sure we’re not stagnant, but moving forward?” she asks.
Staff leaders, already primed and thinking about company strengths and weaknesses, pipe up with questions and comments. We should address employee turnover, one offers. What about communication challenges between divisions? How can we help people develop their competencies?
That was the Fellows’ entire goal: to give management and staff leaders a place to start talking, really communicating about the direction the organization needs to take to reach its goals. Leaving the training after lunch, the four women break into celebratory high-fives. “They took everything we said and really related it back to the company,” Cummins says. “That they thought it was worthy enough to keep the conversation goingâ€¦ is amazing.”
Students air their big ideas before Ad Council
He walks briskly with a group of Mays Fellows along a packed street in New York’s West 30s, lugging his video camera and recording equipment along with his briefcase. Greg Kwedar isn’t your typical marketing studentâ€”he wants to be a film directorâ€”but then again, not many Mays Fellows fit a typical profile.
This crisp Tuesday morning in March, Kwedar is headed to the Ad Council’s Madison Avenue headquarters to pitch a drunk driving prevention commercial. He and his Fellows team filmed it two nights before in Times Square, spending hours of what might have been free time on the town to brainstorm, film and edit their commercial.
For the first time in the Fellows’ annual New York company visits, teams of Mays students took their big ideas to the Ad Council, creators of such memorable ad characters as Smokey the Bear and McGruff the Crime Dog. Students had a week to craft ideas for the same social issues the 60-year-old nonprofit ad firm focused on over the past year. Five teams of 20 students spent precious spring break hours plotting and designing ideas late into the night for TV and print campaigns on childhood obesity, cyber bullying, drunk driving and blood donation.
The results were impressiveâ€”and not far off from the Ad Council campaigns that eventually made it to air.
No one was more surprised at what a group of business students could do in a week of brainstorming than execs at the ad firm. “Our public service announcements are so similar to what you all came up with,” said Leith El-Hassan, vice president of media marketing for the Ad Council. “In fact, they are very similar to what I get paid for everyday.”
But it’s not everyday that an aspiring director like Kwedar has the chance to vet his work before the nation’s top creative advertising minds. “It’s funny how the skills I learn as a business student already fit so well with my creative side,” Kwedar says. “I had always ruled out a career in film because I wasn’t in film school. But there’s so much opportunity there, if you know where to find itâ€”that’s my business side talking.”
In Kwedar’s documentary-style commercial, a young man in Times Square turns to the camera with a gleam in his eye: “Drunk driving?” he says. “I do it all the time, and I’m good at it.”
That, El-Hassan noted during his critique of the student projects, is the irony the Ad Council likewise focused on in its new campaign. “Buzzed driving is drunk driving,” the campaign’s slogan goes.
Accounting majors witness FASB policy-making in action
Senior accounting major Grace Taylor leans forward in her seat. The wood-paneled public meeting room is spacious, and at its center the top minds in accounting regulation are deliberating a potential study. Should inventory items like corn, oil and maybe even electricity be recorded at cost or at fair market value in a company’s accounting statements?
Members of the Financial Accounting Standards Board decide to OK the study, noting that they may be opening a can of worms. “I don’t envision we’re going to have an easy task with this,” says Board Member Michael Crooch, a former representative of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. “But we’ve got to know if we’re correctly recognizing revenue on oil and other commodities.”
“That was just fascinating,” Taylor says after the session, her awe evident as she turns through the pages of notes she took.
And the best part? The study was introduced by Brad McGrath ’05, a former Mays Fellow and accounting graduate finishing a year-long technical assistantship with FASB this summer. As fate would have it, McGrath was making his first pitch to the board on the same Wednesday morning he invited the Fellows to FASB’s Connecticut headquarters.
For accounting students, a chance to see FASB regulators in action is akin to a law students’ trip to the Supreme Court. FASB is a public group that establishes and improves standards of financial accounting and reporting for the guidance and education of the publicâ€”including issuers, auditors and users of financial information. The SEC relies on those standards for all publicly traded companies’ accounting statements, which gives FASB regulations the force of law.
For the past dozen years, Mays has sent at least one, if not two, accounting graduates to work at FASB in postgraduate technical assistantships like McGrath’s. Though the study McGrath sought approval for will continue past his tenure with the standards-setting groupâ€”he’ll soon head to KPMG’s New York office in an advanced role in advisory servicesâ€”he tells the Fellows such work has potentially huge ramifications.
“This is a very different perspective from your textbooks; it’s not black and white at all,” he says. “A single standard change affects every major corporation and makes the papers. What I just presented in there, this could change the accounting for some of the most basic inventory items.”
For students like Taylor, who’ll earn her BBA in accounting and her master’s in finance, that’s all she needs to hear. She’ll return to Mays to seek nomination to the FASB assistantship as soon as spring break is over. “It’s really exciting to see some of the thinking behind all that we do as accountants,” she says, “and to know that there’s so many options for my career.”
(Header photo of bull by Nick Schaden)
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