How the MBA Curriculum Develops Stronger Leaders
Research shows that soft skills can be learned and bring a substantial return on investment to employers while benefiting employees. The SMU Cox Online MBA curriculum emphasizes leadership development – one of the school’s three Foundational Pillars. Students learn leadership practices and theories and then put those theories into practice through an experiential learning model.
In the course Managing and Leading People – Experiential Learning, students develop their leadership brands, create competency plans, reflect on effective decision-making strategies, discuss the challenges of diverse workforces, analyze motivational theories and practice delivering feedback and dealing with conflict resolution. Hands-on exercises, incorporated into the curriculum, help produce better leaders.
Additionally, students at SMU Cox can participate in several in-person MBA immersions offered abroad and in the U.S. During these immersions, students spend four days working alongside corporate executives, networking and applying their methodologies to address actual business problems. These immersions help students see classroom theory in action in the real world – a vitally important part of the modern MBA curriculum.
Through leadership-focused coursework, immersions and experiential learning, MBA programs like the SMU Cox Online MBA pathway develop leaders by:
Enhancing Communication Skills
In the workplace and elsewhere, conflicts arise when people who don’t understand each other refuse to communicate or don’t know how to communicate effectively. Research conducted by Instructure and The Harris Poll found that workers quit when managers can’t effectively communicate with their employees or help them accomplish their career goals. In addition to affecting employee retention, poor communication can also bog down productivity.
“Miscommunication and misunderstanding can create delays and added expenses as well as frustration and stress,” Jonathan Prichard, CEO of MattressInsider, told Forbes. “When I’m clear and get buy-in at the beginning, outcomes improve.”
MBA programs provide students with experience working in teams, and effective communication is one driver of academic success. In an online MBA program, students also learn practical virtual communication skills, which are essential in today’s remote and hybrid workplaces.
Promoting Adaptability and Agility
Technology and globalization are forcing rapid transformation in virtually every industry, so business leaders must know how to adapt. Since the pandemic-driven shift to remote work, many businesses have either stayed completely remote or adopted a hybrid model. At the same time, leaders are adapting to shifting employee expectations and the consequences of new technological innovations, such as AI and automation. In PwC’s 2022 Executive Views on Business survey, 56 percent of C-suite executives said “increasing agility to better operate in a turbulent business environment” was critical to organizational growth.
MBA programs that integrate current trends and future projects into the curriculum provide aspiring leaders with the tools to adjust to market fluctuations and shifting employee expectations. Faculty members in the SMU Cox School of Business bring their own experiences to the curriculum, drawing on the turbulence they have withstood as business leaders. They teach students how to lead in times of uncertainty.
The webinar “Adapting & Prospering in a New Virtual World” featured a panel of SMU professors discussing the shift to asynchronous work. During the webinar, panelist Arjan Singh, lead professor of online MBA immersions at SMU Cox, noted that adaptation should also be part of leaders’ internal processes. For example, leaders must now adjust to working across multiple time zones and prioritize check-ins with remote employees.
“How can you adjust what you’re doing to get close to your key productivity?” Singh asked webinar listeners to consider. Because SMU Cox’s Online MBA programs have asynchronous components, students complete some work at their own pace, figuring out early how to align their adaptive strategies with those of others.
Teaching Critical Thinking for Decision-making and Problem-solving
Effective leaders understand their actions have cascading effects. When faced with tough decisions, they listen to input from their teams; examine research and data; consult with mentors or executives and think critically before coming to a conclusion.
While trusting your intuition is a valuable part of leadership, it also helps to tap into the power of complex data. The SMU Cox Online MBA program “has a reputation for developing data-driven leaders,” said alum Bobby Panchisin. The program features several data analytics courses that teach aspiring leaders to integrate findings from data into business solutions.
In Data Analytics II, for example, Cox MBA candidates learn decision-modeling techniques, including nonlinear and linear programming and integer programming and simulation. Students build models for monitoring mutual fund managers, managing portfolios, scoring credit, stocking retail inventory and more. “The first class I took was Data Analytics, and we’re sitting there, working on algorithms and other topics that have relevance to me in real time,” said Panchisin.
Emphasizing the Importance of Teamwork
No one works alone in business environments. Good leaders recognize the importance of motivating from within rather than above. A two-year study on team performance by Google found that out of the five fundamental dynamics that set successful teams apart, psychological safety is the most important. An employee who feels psychologically safe feels comfortable taking risks and being vulnerable, knowing they won’t be punished or ridiculed for asking clarifying questions. The onus for maintaining this safe and supportive work environment falls on leaders.
Because MBA cohorts include professionals from various industries and backgrounds, students learn from each other’s experiences as much as they learn from faculty members. Because MBA degree programs are generally industry-neutral, an engineer may study alongside tech entrepreneurs, people interested in nonprofit management and human resources professionals. These diversified classroom settings help leaders develop their communication skills and better understand how to work with various contributors and stakeholders.
SMU Cox’s online student body includes learners representing many academic, professional, social and cultural backgrounds. While many have undergraduate business degrees, others hold bachelor’s degrees in cyber security, communications, economics or engineering. Thirty percent of the student body belongs to minority groups and 42 percent of online MBA students are women. Students participate in engaging and creative team-building exercises in the program, including the school’s successful War Games exercise. Students work in teams that represent real companies to outmaneuver their competitors using business strategies.
Sarah D’Souza, SMU Cox alum, told Forbes that the War Games competition encouraged thinking from different perspectives. “My team had three students from SMU, two students from Madrid and two students from Germany,” she said. “We all had different ideas on how to respond.” When D’Souza got a job as a senior consultant after graduation, she drew on what she had learned in that exercise about teamwork and creative problem-solving.
Teaching Advanced Strategic Leadership Skills
MBA students learn to distinguish between key leadership theories or styles, including transformational leadership, situational leadership, servant leadership, transactional leadership and invitational leadership. The best MBA programs blend theory with practice by providing students with opportunities to apply what they learn in the classroom in the field. In SMU Cox’s Executive Leadership course, students learn to recognize how complex organizational systems function and use that knowledge to move their teams toward success. The class uses an evidence-based approach, taking social processes and structural characteristics beyond the workplace into account, making learnings applicable in real-world business settings.
Providing Beneficial Networking Opportunities
Strong leaders have strong networks to turn to for support and advice. A widely cited 2007 Harvard Business Review article cited three types of networks beneficial to leadership: operational, personal and strategic. This three-pronged networking format is still useful today. The best MBA programs help students build more robust, broader networks by providing opportunities for connection with peers, faculty, alums and business management thought leaders.
The SMU Cox’s small class sizes let students build one-on-one relationships with faculty who have worked as consultants for Fortune 500 companies and are leaders in their fields. Students also build relationships with each other, often forming life-long connections and partnerships across industries as different as finance, military and energy. After graduation, leaders feel more confident knowing they aren’t alone because they have a range of contacts to turn to for advice.
Why Pursuing an MBA for Leadership Training Is a Smart Move
Juan Pablo Sanchez, director of inclusive business strategies with the Greater Des Moines Partnership, said leaders should now exist in a “constant rethinking mode.”
“This ability to move quickly must go beyond the organization’s core business and also try to understand the purpose and contribution in the community,” he told Business Record. “In a broader respect, a mindset for innovation and sustainability will remain critical for leaders to prevail through uncertain times.”
A master’s degree in business administration helps aspiring leaders think in the way Pablo Sanchez describes: on their feet and with a broad perspective. For professionals already working in the business arena, pursuing SMU Cox’s Online MBA is a way to refresh their ability to innovate and recognize their purpose while developing new leadership competencies. For recent college graduates or career changers, the MBA Direct program provides the resources needed to jump-start a career in management. And for professionals in both camps, taking two years off or relocating to enroll in an on-campus, full-time MBA often isn’t an option. Part-time, online MBA programs let students study from wherever they are while maintaining full-time employment. Students do not have to uproot their lives, quit their jobs or factor in additional costs to attend, strengthening the ROI of online MBA programs.
Additionally, pursuing leadership training online helps students develop the flexibility required to excel in modern working environments. SMU Cox’s Online MBA and MBA Direct programs are virtual by design because they enhance business leadership skills in the digital age, providing students with leadership strategies that support remote collaboration and digital innovation.
“The future of work is going to be virtual,” added Singh. “If you don’t know what the future is going to look like, you build scenarios around the possibilities.  is a perfect example of a scenario that no one knew was coming, but the companies that are thriving are the ones that prepared for the unknown.”