How an executive MBA can teach you not just to manage, but also to lead Featured

9:01pm EDT October 31, 2011
How an executive MBA can teach you not just to manage, but also to lead

Gary Ryals has a successful career as a Navy SEAL, serving three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he was looking for something more, something that would, at some point, help him into a new career. He found that something in UCLA Anderson’s Executive MBA program.

“The largest thing driving me was the desire to be exposed to issues outside of the defense industry,” says Ryals, who currently serves as the Executive Officer of a San Diego-based SEAL Team. “The intent was to prepare myself for a potential career transition, and to broaden and diversify the way I think.”

Smart Business spoke with Ryals about how an executive MBA can transform your thinking and help you lead in ways that you have never imagined.

What was your experience like in the classroom?

The program excels in two dimensions. First, the professors and academics are amazing; you’re provided the opportunity to study with brilliant professors. You are learning every day from people who are world-class, internationally recognized experts. They are on such a high level and you have incredible exposure to them.

The second dimension is that you are with an older, more accomplished peer group, typically in the 37- to 40-year-old age range. Your classmates frequently are people at the director level, who have started companies, or who are or have been in C-level positions. For example when you’re talking in finance class about firms taking their stocks public and the mistakes that are made, there are students who have already made that mistake and can contribute their experience.

The depth of experience in the student body is incredible and you can learn a lot from both them and the professors. I chose UCLA because it offered a really strong brand that I knew would be helpful in advancing my career, but it was much more powerful than I expected.

How have those relationships forged in the classroom carried over into your career?

It’s a cliche that your network is your net worth, but it’s true. Especially as you transition and move into new spheres, it’s the networks established through school or other organizations that really help catapult you. I’ve had alumni call me because of my military and specials ops background.

And in the three years since I graduated, I’ve leveraged that network quite a bit. I’ve started a leadership coaching and consulting business, and, despite having no advertising, I’ve received multiple jobs through my Anderson peers.  In addition, the Executive MBA Career Services program reaches out to graduates and is always helping them to find opportunities.  I hear from someone at the school — and not just in a mass e-mail — a couple of times a quarter, saying, ‘I saw this opportunity and thought of you,’ or ‘I’d like you to come up to a leadership luncheon.’ There are a lot of opportunities and the school continues to stay really engaged with students after they graduate. The UCLA network is really very supportive.

How has your executive MBA impacted your current position?

Previously, I was very experience based. I was an instinctive leader and decision maker. I was much more anecdotal. I would visit sites and talk to people and make decisions. That’s part of leading and managing, but it’s also peering beyond the first level of perception of the problem.

As you progress into higher levels of organizational management, you get to a level where you can’t know everyone. You really have to start being a data-driven decision maker, and UCLA prepared me very well for that with a very rigorous program. It taught me how to model different decisions, how to look at decision trees, how to model economic factors, how to be metrics oriented and to really look at what the numbers show.

By teaching us how to do a deeper analysis, measuring results and failures, putting numbers to paper and trying to quantify where things are going, I became a data-driven thinker. The program changed the way I think.

How did the program help you differentiate between leadership and management?

One of the things that the program is really good at, in addition to technical skills, is leadership development. A lot of people are seeking that transition from being a technical manager to a broader leadership and management role. Managing is about managing systems, being very focused on controlling a system to produce a consistent product and meeting specific goals.

UCLA provides this, but the program also stresses a leadership development side that is very solid. Leadership is about anticipating changes, seeing opportunities and leading your people and your organization through that change. It’s not just about having those technical functional management skills, but also really being able to lead a group of people across an organization and across different units within that organization to achieve an outcome. UCLA is really at the forefront of trying to develop these additional skills. The school offers 360 reviews, executive coaching and frequent lectures and mentoring with senior business leaders. The Anderson EMBA program prepares people to lead as well as manage an organization.

Gary Ryals, MBA, is the Executive Officer for a San Diego-based SEAL Team. He can be reached at