How an Executive MBA keeps leaders innovative in a changing market Featured

8:01pm EDT November 30, 2011
How an Executive MBA keeps leaders innovative in a changing market

When Edward Leamer arrived to teach in UCLA’s Executive MBA program, he had previously taught Ph.D. students in economics, but was unsure how to approach teaching at a business school.

While researching what approach to take, he hit upon the idea of using macroeconomics — which was not his field of study — and set out to learn as much as he could in order to apply it to the classroom.

“In macroeconomics, there are no clear answers and there is no science to exploit to determine what will and will not work,” says Leamer, professor of management, economics and statistics at UCLA and director of the UCLA Anderson Forecast. “Instead, you need to look at the data in order to form an opinion.”

Leamer is a also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and of the Econometric Society; a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research; and a visiting scholar at the International Monetary Fund and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Smart Business spoke with Leamer about how Anderson’s Executive MBA program can change the way you see the world and help you invent solutions you never thought possible.

How does the Executive MBA program differ from an MBA program?

In the EMBA program, there is a small group of 60 to 70 students. These students are typically 35 to 45 years old, and they are really going back to school to learn. They bring with them a lot of information and a lot of knowledge. The EMBA really creates a different kind of class environment.

In a regular MBA program, the students are younger and mostly coming directly from years in the classroom. They are still finding it difficult to speak out because they are afraid to fail. The EMBA students have more confidence about their own experiences, and they are much more willing to speak out and take that risk of failing.

I try to teach students how to learn, how to create knowledge on their own, and that requires them to go outside of their comfort zones. It’s all about looking at data and telling stories. I don’t tell them the answers; instead, we look at the data together and work out answers. For example, can we determine if another economic dip is coming? How do we form that opinion? And how do we persuade ourselves and other people that those conclusions are correct?

Anyone can participate in that conversation. The students come to the program with a lot of background and spheres of substantial expertise, and the goal is to put them in a setting in which they are out of their comfort zone.

How does the program try to change the way students view the world?

Students need to recapture their inner child. Children who are 4 or 5 years old are the best analytical thinkers in the world. They are constantly exploring the world around them. There is an enormous amount of learning going on, and they are not worried about failing. They are not looking around to see if the other kids are smarter than they are. They are just enjoying their surroundings and learning.

Students in the EMBA program need to do the same. They’ve already taken the first big step by going back to school, because that opens the possibility that they are going to fail. That step needs to be leveraged, and the professors need to take advantage of that to make sure they are pushing the students into areas that are uncomfortable for them.

I try to rekindle their inquisitive spirits, because I think the job market of the future needs individuals who can solve new problems, not those who know a lot about the solutions of the past. The market wants people who can figure out problems that haven’t been solved yet; the best education teaches people to solve problems.

What is the interaction between professors and students?

The best students are really here to learn. They don’t simply accept everything that the professor has to say. They ask questions and are a pleasure to work with. That really is the way of the classroom. The professor should be learning right along with the students, with the professor and students learning from each other. I tell them, ‘Don’t expect to learn just from me, but from the whole community.’ It is very important to be having those conversations.

There is so much untapped potential in each one of us, bottled up, and we just never give ourselves a chance to release it. There are physical, emotional and intellectual things that we are afraid to do. But it’s in all of us. A student on paper may not look so good, but it is the job of the faculty in the EMBA program to unlock that potential in each student.

How do relationships formed in the classroom benefit students outside of it?

I don’t think you can get an education without participating, both inside and outside of the classroom. So we create work groups of seven or eight students to work on problems together outside the classroom, and when they return to class, they are very participatory. After graduation, they continue to have lifetime relationships with one another that they’ve built up in their study groups, where they really bond, and they follow each other throughout their lives, supporting one another both in business and personal matters.

Edward Leamer is professor of management, economics and statistics at UCLA and director of the UCLA Anderson Forecast. Reach him at (310) 206 -1452 Edward.Leamer@anderson.ucla.edu.