The Problem

In the Spring of 2014, the Mason School of Business at the College of William & Mary partnered with Joe Smith to revamp the signature Leadership Development Experience of its first-year MBA curriculum. Most MBA programs are struggling to distinguish themselves while meeting employer expectations. Joe Smith designed and taught a curriculum that helped W&M address those challenges.

While the Mason School’s leadership course has long been a first-year hallmark, the legacy curriculum was built upon a theory-focused, largely lecture and case-drive model that included some confined practicum experiences.

The Mason School Leadership Competency Model, researched and formulated upon key marketplace needs, was yet to be applied within the context of real-world business challenges as part of instruction. Students were learning about leadership in a void, and because today’s business landscape is ambiguous and constantly changing, they were unaware of and unprepared for many of the challenges they would face upon graduation.


Our Solution

To evolve course, we turned the more traditional approach on its head and developed a program grounded in contemporary leadership behaviors and problem solving skills that requires small, dynamic teams to identify existing wicked business problems and work to solve them. Teams practiced proven leadership methods, design thinking techniques, and innovation skills all within the context and pressures of a burning challenge that no one had figured out. Students learned to ask better questions, conduct empathetic stakeholders analysis and prioritization, research expansively for inspiration and opportunities before crafting and vetting solutions, and finally use strategic storytelling to communicate their results and engage belief.

Along the way, students identified their own leadership strengths and gaps in the context of what employers want and then wrote leadership development plans with their teams and executive mentors. They applied and experienced working on their development plans with real-time feedback from their team and mentors within business contexts. By the course end, students were armed with an approach to problem solving that could be used in the real world, had gained insight into their unique leadership styles and competencies, and were ready (and excited) to articulate the value they will bring to a future employer.