The Darden Advantage: Musings of a Summer Intern

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Last December, Forbes magazine uncovered an interesting insight about the Darden School

… The second most satisfied b-school alumni are at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Darden grads ranked their school tops in terms of M.B.A. education and preparedness …

Quite expectedly, the Forbes story created a buzz on Grounds. Many of us saw it supporting the widely-held view that Darden has THE best faculty among B-schools globally. Naturally, I was pleased too – the news seemed to validate one of my main reasons for choosing to come to Darden.

But in midst of all the euphoria I remained skeptical. And I had my reasons:

  • My general suspicion of opinion polls  / surveys
  • Alumni loyalty: Darden alumni network is one of the most fiercely loyal of any MBA program. This is why each past graduate batch tries to outdo the others in donating back to Darden enabling the school to raise record funds year after year. Maybe alumni’s extraordinary affinity to school skewed results in Darden’s favor?

Make no mistake, I was sure I was sharpening my business skills under teachers of unmatched pedigree but was that enough to stand out in an unrelenting corporate environment? I decided to reserve my judgment until I saw evidence of this “Darden Advantage” myself.

Which brings me to today. I’m exactly halfway through my summer job and perhaps in a better position to offer my 2 cents on how Darden prepares one for the “real world”. So, what do Darden students/grads do that really differentiates them at workplace?

Conquer ambiguity

Ambiguity is unsettling. But at Darden, its the way of life. Every single day, we vigorously analyze and debate three ambiguous business problems – synthesizing information from many sources, questioning prevailing assumptions and ultimately developing a solid viewpoints. As a result of this constant practice and repetition, Darden produces leaders who not only are comfortable with ambiguous business problems, but often thrive in such situations. So when others see ambiguous problems, Darden grads see opportunities to shine.

Persuade people

Sitting in a Darden classroom and listening to classmates make and defend their arguments, one develops an ear for discerning good arguments from bad ones. In other words, you start appreciating what ingredients of an argument – quality of reasons to back it up, way of presenting etc. – persuade and shape other people’s perception. In my opinion, this is a very advanced leadership insight that business executives take years to perfect. In Darden, this learning is greatly expedited.

Size up a situation

Having strong opinions and arguments is only one side of a coin. Knowing when and how to make these opinions, so as to optimize their impact is just as critical. Imagine this: You’re in a business meeting and a high-level executive makes a remark that you know is incorrect or inaccurate. Is it appropriate to interject him and make your point? In my Darden classroom, I have seen best of the arguments fizzle out because they were made with little consideration of the “temperature of the room”. In that sense, Darden is a training ground to help you size up a situation and mold your actions to not only “do the right thing” but do it the right way.

Succeed with teams

People have their preferences. Some do their best work alone, and some feed off energy of teams. For better or for worse, the corporate structures is heavily skewed towards team. Consequently, doing well in teams is critical for one’s success. At Darden, there are:

  • structures (Sections, Learning Teams, Project Teams)
  • events (Darden Cup, Case Competitions), and
  • incentives  (joint project team grades, participation points at Darden Cup)

to help students learn (sometimes the hard way) what makes team successful and what makes them fail. Having this exposure, Darden grads are (more often than not) smart about managing delicate team dynamics and to help teams succeed.

I’d conclude that Darden Advantage is no myth. Interestingly though, the source of this advantage is not in the critical competencies in areas of Finance, Marketing, Strategy, Operations etc. – something a top MBA program is anyways expected to help build. Instead it lies in product of some of the more subtle day-to-day experiences that a Darden student has on Grounds.

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