International study trips have been offered as an option to Executive MBA students for many years. As the direct and indirect impact of global business on companies of every size has grown dramatically, the EMBA Program has responded by establishing this “International Immersion” experience as a required course in the curriculum. In 2014, all second year EMBA students participated in one of three study trips offered by the program, traveling to Brazil, Vietnam or Germany and the Czech Republic for an intensive week of visits to local and multinational companies, business schools, non-profit organizations and government agencies. Among the goals of the International Immersion: To offer students a firsthand experience in analyzing and understanding the business environment in these countries and stimulate insights into the potential opportunities and challenges of operating in a global context. Along the way, students broadened their cultural horizons, sampled local cuisine, and deepened their collegial bond. In this post, they share their experiences in words and images.
“I was so thankful to be taken out of my comfort zone and placed into a unique situation.” – Matt Gleason (North America 16)
“I left Vietnam with a sense of wonder about the growth potential of this small nation. While still a relatively poor country with major infrastructure issues, the population seems primed for incredible growth. I look forward to following the progress of Vietnam and its people.” – Andy Wolverton (EMBA Regional 31)
“Brazil is a land of contrasts. The vibrant culture, fast paced environment and economic growth are contrasted with extreme poverty and rampant crime. Looking back on my week in Sao Paulo and Curitiba I can honestly say that I saw the “true” Brazil. I was exposed to the culture in the form of the food (delicious) artwork (vibrant) and people (optimistic and friendly). I also learned a tremendous amount about the business of Brazil. I came away from Brazil with new connections, friendships and lifelong memories.” – James McBride (EMBA North America)
“The opportunity afforded by this cultural and business immersion was truly a unique opportunity that would never have been possible by simply visiting a country or culture on one’s own agenda.” – Charles Baer (EMBA North America 16)
The Executive MBA experience kicks off each fall with a five day residential program at Skamania Lodge on the Columbia River east of Portland. Away from the distractions of daily life, first year students immerse themselves in intensive instruction, collaborative projects and bonding with their fellow students. Here are some snapshots of this year’s residential session, with comments by students on the value of the experience, including a challenging class with the inimitable Charles Hill, Professor of Management & Organization and the faculty director of the EMBA Program.
“The rapid pace of learning at Skamania was outstanding. The professors provided ample material to read, contemplate and absorb in preparation for five consecutive days of class. During the daily sessions, students were required to recall significant portions of the assigned material to examine precepts of micro economics, finance and leadership.”
“Charles comes at you as-advertised – fast and intense – with questions requiring that you to not only read the assigned material, but also to think deeply about it. This deep thinking will get you about 60% of where you need to be. From there, you have to take a deep breath, sit on the edge of your seat and lean into it. Fortunately, the intensity of Charles’ class session is matched by his love of teaching and fair approach. It won’t hurt too badly.”
“The intensity at residency was unreal. Long days, amplified by classroom encounters with professor Charles Hill out of Scared Straight resulted in a searing educational experience. I’ve never learned more in a shorter time period. The fear of failure in the classroom quickly dissipates as everyone participates, and gets not-so-politely corrected by professor Charles Hill.”
“There were three constant thoughts that ran through my head while at Skamania and in the Charles Hill hot seat:
No matter what you do, do not criticize the text or mention that it might be a little dry because the guy standing in front of you (Charles Hill) wrote it.
If I look him directly in the eye maybe he won’t see me …. darn it, that didn’t work!
Everyone is watching so here goes nothing! Please be the correct answer, please be the correct answer….
On a serious note I remember thinking how interesting his class was and that despite being exhausted what a good job he did keeping us all engaged in the class. Additionally I recall thinking how impressed I was with the caliber of the professors and how lucky I was to be a part of such a smart and talented cohort, Skamania was a very humbling experience for me.”
“Skamania overall was a tremendous opportunity to sit through several intense days of class and brush away the mental cobwebs. More so, though, it was an opportunity to spend focused time with your new classmates and teammates. A great time to start some shared experiences and friendships of a kind that are harder to find the older you become.”
Brad Tilden knew it was a long shot. As a young finance executive at Alaska Air Group in the mid-1990s, Tilden made the case to his CFO that sending him to the Foster School’s Executive MBA Program would be a sound investment. “The company wasn’t flush in those days, and we had always taken a conservative view on costs,” he recalls. “So I didn’t expect the answer to be quick or positive.”
But after conferring briefly with then-CEO John Kelly, Tilden’s boss came back and simply wrote “OK” on his proposal. “I was thrilled,” says Tilden, Alaska’s current chairman and CEO.
So began a long and symbiotic partnership between Alaska and Foster that goes far beyond the company’s significant philanthropic investment in the school.
The EMBA Program has become a de facto executive training academy for Alaska leadership. To date, 22 of its most promising executives have graduated from the program. Many now serve in senior roles at the company, including Tilden (EMBA 1997); Ann Ardizzone (EMBA 2008), vice president, strategic sourcing and supply chain; Karen Gruen (EMBA 2010), vice president, corporate real estate; Kris Kutchera (EMBA 2009), vice president, information technology; Andy Schneider (EMBA 2009), vice president, inflight services; Joseph Sprague (EMBA 2007), senior vice president, communications and external relations; Shane Tackett (EMBA 2011), vice president, labor relations; Shannon Alberts (EMBA 2005), corporate secretary; and Diana Shaw (EMBA 2013), vice president, customer service.
And though former CEO Bill Ayer’s (MBA 1978) MBA came from Foster’s full-time program, he has brought his formidable expertise and insight to teaching the EMBA’s powerful “CEO and the Board” course for nearly a decade.
Tilden says the impact of this cohort of Foster-educated leaders is evident throughout the firm: “Having a critical mass of people with a common education and disciplined approach helps us frame issues and execute solutions more quickly.”
“The EMBA Program has played an important role in developing high-performance leaders at Alaska,” adds Ayer. “The classes, the teamwork, and the networking opportunities add up to a unique learning experience. In a business where people are the only sustainable competitive advantage, a Foster EMBA provides a critical edge.”
Keeping the customer as its lodestar, Alaska Air Group navigated a turbulent decade to emerge as one of the marquee companies in the Pacific Northwest
Alaska Air Group recently moved into to the Fortune 500, that ultimate collection of the nation’s elite businesses, that manifest marker of size and success.
It was no small feat for a comparatively small, independent carrier to join the big boys in an industry marked by brutal competition, rampant consolidation, and chronic crisis. And it was even more remarkable that Alaska sustained its growth through a decade of Herculean trials.
So you might expect this momentous milestone would call for some serious celebration at the company’s south Seattle headquarters. Some bottles of champagne, perhaps. A press release, at least. Did they even pause to savor the achievement?
“We celebrate a lot of things,” says Brad Tilden (EMBA 1997), the chairman and CEO of Alaska Air Group. “But we didn’t really celebrate joining the Fortune 500.”
The understatement adds up when you consider it comes from a man possessed of a pilot’s cool and an accountant’s good sense leading a company with roots in the Last Frontier.
“It’s like compound interest,” Tilden adds. “Somebody had a really good idea 82 years ago, and we’ve been working at it year after year.”
Alaskan roots, American dream
That somebody was Linious McGee, who began flying passengers and cargo in his three-seat Stinson between Anchorage and Bristol Bay back in 1932. A merger, two years later, with Star Air Service created Alaska’s largest airline, eventually renamed after the state.
At the industry’s deregulation in 1978, Alaska was the 24th largest airline in the US. And it was just beginning expansion into the Lower 48. By the end of the 1980s, Alaska Air Group had added regional carriers Horizon Air and Jet America. It had enjoyed nearly two decades of profitability and sustained growth. And it had earned a reputation for superior customer service.
Economic prosperity and low fuel costs kept Alaska growing through the 1990s.
But Tilden, who joined the company from Price Waterhouse in 1991, says that Alaska Airlines was growing almost despite itself. Friendly service masked a declining efficiency of operations. Complacency had crept in, a culture of good enough, not great.
As the century turned, Alaska’s internal vulnerabilities were about to be mortally tested.
The century’s first decade began in tragedy. The January 2000 crash of Alaska Airlines flight 261—half of its 88 victims being employees, family members or friends—sent the tight-knit company into mourning.
It was only the first of a litany of trials to challenge both airline and industry. Shortly after the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, the attacks of 9/11 altered air travel forever. The SARS scare of 2003 followed. Then oil prices spiked just as the financial crisis shook the foundations of the global economy.
Amid the external pressures, Alaska Airlines faced a litany of contentious labor contract negotiations beginning in 2003. Strained morale brought a dip in performance. There were simply too many late flights and mishandled bags.
“Alaska was burning through the goodwill it had earned over many decades,” says Bruce Avolio, director of the Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.
A new case study by Avolio, Chelley Paterson and Bradford Baker chronicles Alaska’s decade of dilemma. Survival would require absolute transformation—modernizing operations and slashing costs—without sacrificing the legendary customer service experience that had made Alaska Alaska.
“There was an increasing recognition among the leadership,” says Avolio, “that the course they were on could not continue.”
Crossing the Rubicon
The situation demanded decisive action. And fortunately, Bill Ayer (MBA 1978) had risen up the ranks to become CEO in 2002.
“At a time when this business required a person of tremendous courage,” says Tilden, “Bill was the perfect leader.”
Ayer never wavered from hard—and sometimes heartbreaking—decisions. The first set the tone for the company’s transformation. Amid an epidemic of default that swept the major carriers, Ayer declared that Alaska would not seek bankruptcy protection.
“We figured out what our costs needed to be for us to be viable and said to ourselves that we simply have to get there,” recalls Tilden, then CFO.
Among the difficult moves to ensure the company’s survival were a painful round of layoffs, the outsourcing of some ground operations, and some pragmatic dealing for concessions from the unions.
“The choice to stay out of bankruptcy helped the company downstream,” Avolio says. “By not destroying people’s pensions and protecting this covenant with their employees, Alaska’s management salvaged a degree of trust.”
That trust would prove vital.
Fix Seattle, then the company
If cost cutting took toughness, improving performance took smarts. There was a lot to fix, but Ayer and Tilden chose, wisely, to first fix Seattle, Alaska’s largest hub.
“We identified the basic things we needed to improve upon to be successful—safe operations, on-time performance, low fares and great customer service,” says Tilden. “And we focused relentlessly on them.”
Applying lean methodology and measuring every task, performance began improving immediately, first in Seattle and then throughout the network.
“Once they fixed Seattle, Alaska demonstrated what can be accomplished in its other cities,” says Avolio.
The dramatic transformation has been widely confirmed. Alaska has been rated highest in customer satisfaction (among traditional network carriers) by J.D. Power seven years in a row. It’s been number one in on-time performance four years running according to FlightStats.com. Outside dubbed Alaska its “Best Airline” in 2014.
Alaska has earned highest marks in just about every category awarded: air cargo handling, delivery and logistics, technology, maintenance, sustainability, philanthropy, loyalty program, employee satisfaction—even friendliness to pets.
And aggressive expansion to the East Coast, Midwest and Hawaii when others retreated has made Alaska one of the fastest growing companies in the industry.
The importance of being Alaska
That growth has lifted Alaska into the Fortune 500. The company may barely have noted the milestone. But Seattle should.
Alaska’s ascendancy adds another industry leader to the region’s increasingly diversified economy, according to Suresh Kotha, the Olesen/Battelle Excellence Chair in Entrepreneurship at the Foster School.
“Having another service-based company like Alaska become a dominant player in its industry creates jobs, broadens our economy and buffers us against the kind of cyclical downturns we used to face.”
He’s referring to the not-so-distant past when a slowdown at Boeing threatened to shut down the city. But today Seattle enjoys a far healthier balance of manufacturing, service and retail. The region is home to nine of the Fortune 500 plus other powers in a wide array of industries including aerospace (Boeing’s continued strong presence, plus a galaxy of suppliers), software (Microsoft, RealNetworks), retail (Amazon, Starbucks, Costco, Nordstrom, REI, Eddie Bauer), truck manufacturing (PACCAR), trade (Expeditors International), forestry products (Weyerhaeuser), and clusters in telecommunications, biosciences and gaming.
A successful airline adds to the economic diversity. “It’s making Seattle one of the nation’s best places to do business,” Kotha says.
Avolio adds that other companies could learn a great deal from Alaska’s customer focus and level-headed navigation of crisis “with discipline and focus.”
The other lesson of Alaska, he says, “is that the essence of great leadership is building a sense of ownership in employees and customers.”
Ayer asked a lot of Alaska Air Group’s employees to save the company in its darkest hour. And those employees stepped up.
“We are the only legacy airline not to have filed for bankruptcy, thanks to the determination of our people,” he says. “What we learned by doing the hard work ourselves bodes well for our future.”
In 2012 Ayer passed the controls to Tilden, a new kind of leader for a new chapter in Alaska’s story. His focus today is on fine tuning the customer experience.
Tilden is continuing to foster Alaska’s celebrated culture of innovation that delivered the industry’s first online ticket sales and check-in kiosks, and is now developing apps to remove the anxiety from travel. “The goal today is to be the easiest airline in the world to fly by 2017,” he says.
Of course, technology can only do so much. People make the difference. While continuing to cultivate top management prospects in the Foster Executive MBA Program (see sidebar), he’s really trying to push the airline’s leadership to the front lines.
“The big opportunities going forward will come from consistent execution and delivery of service across every airport and every employee,” says Tilden.
To that end, he has initiated two company-wide programs to engage every employee and empower them to lead. It helps that they have a vested interest. As the profit-sharing program that Ayer and Tilden started during the lean days of the mid-2000s begins to pay handsomely, the link between airline performance and personal prosperity is easy to follow. That’s good for everyone’s bottom line.
“If the employees want us to be a great airline, we’ll be a great airline,” Tilden says.
The airline industry seems to have stabilized, and Alaska is all systems go, elevating both its standards and goals. An exemplar of corporate responsibility, it’s also a pillar of philanthropy in the larger community—and especially at the University of Washington.
“There is a really special culture at Alaska,” Tilden says. “A real sense of mission, that what we do for the communities we serve—the infrastructure we provide businesses, the connections we provide families—is important.”
“What makes me proudest is the company’s outstanding performance since I retired,” says Ayer. “The team is executing better than ever and, as always, there’s no shortage of challenges. The reality is that there are a lot of factors that are not controllable, so those that are must be very well managed.”
Tilden is ever vigilant. Or, as they like to say in Alaska’s HQ, “Brad’s never happy.”
He’s seen the perils of complacency, especially when most of the challenges ahead are yet unseen.
“In some ways, the challenge was simpler ten years ago,” notes Avolio. “You knew all of the things that were broken; you just had to fix them. Today, you don’t know where the market is going. There are a lot of question marks.”
One certainty is that fierce competition will come from smaller airlines and the big ones (which keep getting bigger through consolidation). Most immediately, Delta is making a significant incursion on Alaska’s prime West Coast territory.
But Tilden believes that Alaska Air Group has found the secret. And it’s not at all sexy. “What’s going to help us succeed over the long run is continuing to do the basics well,” he says. “We need to be safe. We need to be on-time. We need to offer low fares. We need to provide great service. Those things are 100 percent in our control. And I think if we get them right, we’re going to win.”
The UW Foster Executive MBA student experience actually begins with 36 hours of “summer workshops” held mid-July through mid-August. Designed to prepare incoming students for the many quantitative classes of their first year, the 3 hour workshop sessions cover basic math through calculus, excel and accounting. Students attend the workshops in-person on the Seattle campus, participate virtually or subsequently view recordings of the sessions.
Following the Summer Workshops, students are welcomed “back-to-school” at the end of August for an all day program orientation. At the back-to-school day, students meet their study team and larger cohort, receive fall quarter materials and hear from program alumni. Spouses and significant others are welcomed too. Below are a few photos from the 2014 workshops.
Classes for first year students begin in late September at the fall Residential.
Three Foster Executive MBA alumni and one current student, all of whom are CEOs at mid-career, shared their experiences on the challenges and rewards of leadership with an attentive audience of students, prospective students and alumni on January 29.
The four came to their leadership roles in different ways. Kevin Conroy (EMBA 2004), president and founder of Blue Rooster, has been self-employed since 1990 and has started several companies. René Ancinas (EMBA 2009), president and CEO at Port Blakely Companies, and Christy Bermensolo (EMBA 2015), CEO at Engineered Software, Inc., assumed leadership of family-owned companies fairly recently–Christy just last year. Vetri Vellore (EMBA 2006), CEO and co-founder at Chronus Corporation, started his company in 2007 after a successful 14-year career at Microsoft.
René and Christy found getting comfortable in the leadership role especially challenging. Both said the advice and guidance they received from mentors inside and outside their organizations, including EMBA classmates, had been tremendously helpful. They both quickly realized their responsibilities required the ability to manage change. For René, the challenge was growth–unusual for a family business, he said. For Christy, it was the need to adopt a style of management different from her parents’ intensely hands-on approach.
All the panelists said finding mentors who offer sound advice and counsel was a key priority, no matter how long they had been in the lead. Kevin spoke about his recent experience recruiting a board of directors, and how much he had learned in the process of preparing to take his business to the next level. René looked to his board, experienced staff members and colleagues in the Young Presidents Organization. Velore sought out executives who he considered 3-5 years ahead of him in their development.
Christy offered some insight into the reason all these leaders had chosen to enroll in Foster’s Executive MBA Program. Preparing to assume her new role, Christy–an engineer by training and analytical by nature–developed a spreadsheet listing expertise that she figured she would need in order to handle the CEO job effectively. She quickly realized her list closely matched the curriculum of the Executive MBA Program. That made one of her first big decisions an easy one.
For the experienced professionals who graduate from Foster’s Executive MBA Program, career challenges come in many shapes and sizes. For one professional, the smooth climb up a career ladder was suddenly blocked. For another, finding a suitable match for specialized background and skills proved unexpectedly difficult. A third reached the end of one career path and had to find her way to another. A fourth moved halfway around the world and had to start over in a city with an unfamiliar culture where she had few connections in the business community. Each of these four EMBA alumni faced one of these challenges. Each triumphed over adversity with new knowledge and skills, a new network of contacts and assistance from the EMBA program’s career coach. Here are their stories.
Executive MBA students typically think about getting an MBA for months, sometimes years, prior to applying for admission to a program. Most carefully weigh the financial investment, the time commitment, and other opportunity costs against the ROI of personal and professional growth offered by the EMBA experience. We asked three Foster EMBA students to explain how they decided to make a leap forward in their careers.
If you’re a mid-career professional, what type of MBA program is right for you? Many Executive MBA students find that learning with others who bring a similar depth of background and experience to the classroom is the key. As demanding as their weekly schedules can be, Executive MBA students are well-positioned to apply what they’re learning and bring the results back to their classmates for discussion. In this video, Executive MBA students Martin Fichter, Britt East and Lala Somma describe what makes an Executive MBA different from other MBA programs. Learn more about the Executive MBA program at the Foster School of Business.
Without exception, Executive MBA students already lead very busy and demanding lives when they come into the program. Earning a graduate degree offers intellectual challenge and career advancement, but students have to adjust their personal and professional relationships in order to make room for the commitment required by their studies. For all, time becomes a more precious commodity, and an increased ability to manage it effectively becomes both a necessity and a benefit of the Executive MBA experience. Students Lala Somma, Britt East and Martin Fichter describe how they balanced the requirements of pursuing an EMBA with their personal and professional lives. Learn more about the Executive MBA program at the Foster School of Business.
- Faculty perspectives, alumni happenings, student experiences, Seattle and Pacific Northwest community connections, and a taste of life around the Foster School.