“Students create an amazingly tight-knit community over two years. Orientation jumpstarts that process of getting to know classmates,” says Wharton Management Prof. Nicolaj Siggelkow.

Wharton EMBA students start the program with an intensive one-week Orientation where they meet their classmates and dive into classes. They also meet Strategy Prof. Nicolaj Siggelkow, who leads learning teams through a Social Identity Session to learn about each other’s backgrounds and form the foundation for teamwork. We asked Prof. Siggelkow, the recipient of multiple MBA and Undergraduate Excellence in Teaching Awards, to tell us more about Orientation, his EMBA class, and current research topics.

What is the focus of your sessions during Orientation?

I help introduce students to their learning teams and share the faculty perspective about the importance of these teams. I also lead a Social Identity Session to help learning teams get to know each other on a deeper level. The goal is to help them recognize that each of us carries multiple identities, but when you interact with people, they typically see only one of those identities. For example, students may see me as a professor who teaches EMBA students. However, I have many other identities: I am a father and researcher, I was born in Germany and am an only child, etc. I ask students to think about their identities and then they go into breakout rooms to talk about those identities with their teams. This is a powerful session because, within an hour, you really do get to know your teammates, which helps each team gel.

Why is understanding social identities important for EMBA students?

Students come to this program in part for the diversity of the cohorts. When they get here, it may appear on the surface that they have nothing in common except for being driven and ambitious. However, they also share a lot of similarities and understanding social identities helps them see those similarities. For example, many students have overcome struggles to be here although those struggles are different for each person.

By understanding their differences and similarities, they can start to build trust. Trust is valuable because EMBA students have complicated lives – just look at how many social identities they have developed by this point in their lives. They need to understand each other so that they can support each other in the program. If someone has a particular challenge going on, the other team members step up to help out that student. This type of support requires trust and understanding.

How does Orientation set the stage for the EMBA program?

Wharton’s EMBA classes are large enough for diversity, but small enough that you can get to know everyone in your cohort. Students create an amazingly tight-knit community over two years. Orientation jumpstarts that process of getting to know your classmates. These are people who can support you throughout your career. You also learn a lot from your classmates. EMBA students have rich backgrounds and are further along in their careers. They have a lot of experiences and perspectives to share and students learn from each other.

Orientation is also a time for sense-making among students. They often arrive wondering if the program will be overly competitive and what kind of students will be in the program. They find that their classmates are nice, caring, and interesting people. They are seasoned executives who are used to managing and mentoring roles – and now they can help each other. The realization quickly kicks in during Orientation that everyone has made a conscious choice to come here to learn. This creates a supportive environment that continues throughout the program.

What do you want EMBA students to get out of your first-year Management class?

I teach the Strategy module in the first-year Management class for both coasts. I want students to take three things away from the class:

  • What does it mean to have a strategy? The fundamental point of strategy is that we make choices about what to do and what not to do. There are some underlying tradeoffs and we could have done things differently, but we used strategy to make choices.
  • There is a difference between strategy and operational effectiveness or best practices. Being efficient and using best practices are universally good and everyone should be doing them. Those aren’t choices, so they aren’t strategy.
  • Many of the strategic choices you make are interdependent on other strategic choices. You need to appreciate those interdependencies and think about how to map them out and manage them.

How is teaching remotely going during the pandemic?

It’s going surprisingly well. I’ve been trying to recreate the teaching experience as closely as I can. I built a small studio in my house, where I have two huge monitors so I can see every student. I’ve propped up my laptop so I can stand and walk around like I would in the classroom. And students raise their hands and I also cold call on them. To compensate for not being there in person to chat during breaks, I’ve scheduled some meetings to get to know students better. The feedback from students is that online is working very well.

What do you like about teaching EMBA students?

I really enjoy that students are absorbing the material in class with the perspective of how they will use it in their job the next week. They are processing concepts and frameworks that we talk about in an immediate way. That is fun and gratifying as a professor. It also holds us to a different standard because the students will let us know if it worked or not the following class weekend.

What are your current research areas?

I’m focusing on the topic of connected strategy, and I published a book on it last year. The idea is that a lot of organizations are fundamentally reshaping the way they interact with customers. Rather than waiting for customers to come to them with a particular need, they try to be continuously connected to anticipate customer needs and help them find the right solutions to those needs – and even help them become aware of their needs. In order to do that efficiently, companies may need to reshape their connections with other companies and create what we call “connection architectures.” I’ve incorporated this research into my Strategy course for both EMBA and full-time MBA students.

Read more about how Prof. Siggelkow emphasizes practical application of classroom knowledge.

Read more about Prof. Siggelkow’s Strategy course.

— By Meghan Laska

Posted: November 5, 2020

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