Two weeks ago, Fox Management Consulting highlighted the trend of top MBA programs incorporating experiential learning into their curriculum. By integrating coursework with live client consulting engagements, universities train their students to take on business challenges. Students learn to navigate ambiguity and hone their skills in collaboration.
As this trend continues to grow, more and more universities look for ways to give their students experiential learning opportunities. With more than 18 years of experience leading MBA students through high-value consulting engagements, here are some things Fox MC has learned about creating successful experiential education programs.
1) Get the Scope Right
Client consulting engagements are a strange balancing act. Clients need to know that listening to and meeting their needs is a top priority. Students need to feel that both the curriculum and the consulting engagement are delivering a rich learning experience that contributes to their education. The best project outcomes are achieved when both sets of needs are balanced, and clients and students are committed to creating value for each other.
Offering value to both parties begins by getting the project scope right. “Our projects should contain a good amount of research and surround a decision of strategic importance for the company,” explains Dr. TL Hill, Fox MC’s managing director. “There’s a mutual sorting process that happens between Fox MC and the client to make sure we have a project that is a good fit for us.”
Getting the scope right ensures that students are engaged in a rich learning experience, and clients are getting a high-value return on their investment.
2) Monetize Engagements
Early in Fox MC’s history, Hill considered offering student consulting services for free. “We’re fairly rare in charging money for this,” he says. A supervisor was able to recognize the need for payment, and Hill is very glad they chose to go in that direction.
“When we make these paid consulting engagements, everyone takes it more seriously,” says Hill. He acknowledges that students and companies both have a lot of competing priorities. The initial investment in the project helps both sides to sustain the commitment needed to make these projects successful.
3) Provide Oversight
If there is a secret to the incredible success of Fox MC, both in the consistently high quality of their work and in creating significant value for their clients, it is the involvement of project executives in every project. Project executives, fondly referred to as “PEs” by their MBA charges, are industry experts who guarantee that students perform at the highest level.
PEs are “mostly semi-retired, very smart, with long careers,” says Hill. PEs commit to meet together before each class to discuss problem areas in their team, attend each class with their students, and offer industry experience and connections to help move the student projects forward. “We don’t take on a project,” says Hill, “If we can’t find the right project executive with the right expertise.”
To recruit and retain high quality PEs, Fox MC fosters an ongoing community of former and current project executives. “There aren’t that many opportunities to give back that are this intellectually engaging and concretely effective,” says Hill. Fox MC now completes more than 40 projects a year, so there is usually adequate variety to match everyone’s skills and expertise.
4) Believe Adults Learn by Doing
Creating course curriculum for Fox MC capstone projects is a challenge. Every project is unique, the obstacles faced by each client are different, and new obstacles emerge at every stage of the project. This makes teaching the courses that accompany Fox MC consulting engagements fairly complex.
One thing that grounds the curriculum is a firm belief in the philosophy of experiential learning. “We’ve known for years that adults learn better by doing,” says Hill. “In some ways, MBA curriculum is finally beginning to catch up.” Because faculty and PEs understand that the challenges are an inherent and important part of the student learning experience, they’re able to walk students through the process without getting tripped up by the inherent ambiguity of live projects.
Any MBA program hoping to integrate live consulting engagements into their curriculum should be firmly rooted in the belief that these experiences offer a uniquely valuable learning opportunity for students.
5) Pick Client Partners With Care
Client partners are an important part of making Fox MC projects successful. Fox MC has completed multiple high-value projects over their five year relationship with Aquiline Capital Partners, a New York-based private equity firm. We will examine that relationship as a case study for creating successful partnerships in experiential education in our next installment of this article series.
Since 1999, Fox MC student teams have invested, raised, or realized over $420 million in value for non-profits, SMEs, and large corporations. Reach out now to uncover incredible value with Fox MC.
Eugenie George is an expert in the quarter-life crisis. Not only has she spent hours researching it, met the major writers in the field, and started her own business to help young professionals: George herself is a quarter-life crisis survivor.
“A few years ago, I started to feel really stuck,” she says. “I had literally hit every goal I set for myself in my life, and I wasn’t happy.” Restless at work, and aimless about her career, George began talking with friends and came across the concept of the “quarter-life crisis.” Mimicking the mid-life crisis, but occurring in the second or third decade of life, the quarter-life crisis is a period of feeling lost, frustrated, and dissatisfied for no apparent reason.
As it did with George, this crisis often manifests in workplace dissatisfaction. According to one study, 71% of young professionals are not engaged in their work, and 16% are actively disengaged. A study from the Harvard Business Review found that this group was three times more likely to report leaving their job in the last year than other age groups.
George is a high achiever in everything she puts her mind to. She read everything she could on the topic, and eventually flew to London to meet Alice Stapleton, one of the primary writers and researchers on the quarter-life crisis. “We had tea, of course,” George laughs. “I was sharing how frustrated I was that I had to do so much research to get unstuck. I felt like there should be a model to help people through it.” Stapleton looked at her and said, in classic self-starter fashion, “Why don’t you create a model?”
And that’s exactly what George did. Initially reaching out to young professionals directly, she worked with the Fox School’s Fox Management Consulting last fall to tailor her offerings to the needs of companies hiring young professionals. “U.S. companies lose $30 billion every year on millennial turnover,” she says. Many of the strategies for reversing that trend come down to companies simply using their resources better.
Now in her second year running The Quarter Design, George shares a few simple tips for companies looking to keep their young professionals engaged.
1) Put Your Employee Data to Work
Years ago, George worked with a multi-billion dollar company. In her first weeks there, she noticed personality profiles on several of her coworkers’ walls. “The company had taken time during a meeting for everyone to fill it out,” George recalls. “Then simply told them to post it on their walls, and that was it! They never did anything else with that data.”
While it is increasingly common for large companies to invest time in personality profiles, many companies simply don’t know what to do with that data once they have it. This, as George points out, is a big waste of time and data.
“Let’s say you’re planning a meeting,” she says, “and you know many of your employees are detailed-oriented. Before the meeting, send out a detailed email with the agenda.” These employees will feel more engaged with the meeting, and are likely to come better prepared, saving time and increasing the quality of their input.
While many companies don’t capitalize on their employee data, George notes that top companies have been incorporating it into their decisions for years. “Marie Forleo, an entrepreneur and multi-million dollar business owner, asks all of her employees about their love languages,” George says. “If someone’s love language is words of affirmation, it’s easy. But even if someone’s love language is physical touch, you can make your meetings interactive to help them feel connected and engaged.”
Whatever the data, leveraging the knowledge you have about your employees can inform the way you lead and manage, leading to happier, more productive employees and a stronger company culture.
2) Provide Impactful (and Fun) Benefits
Years ago, George recalls hearing someone say that when they gave their employees “free taco Tuesdays,” they stayed an average of four months longer. While she’s never tested that particular claim, George does know that company culture impacts employee turnover.
The problem comes when companies assume their benefits are meeting employee needs without verifying with their staff. “Start with asking your employees what they want, and be specific with your questions,” says George. Simply adding yoga day, or spending money on another free lunch may not make your workforce feel more engaged.
Once you implement a benefit, track data to determine if your benefit is actually having an impact. “If it doesn’t increase employee satisfaction, and ultimately increase your retention, then that’s not the right benefit,” George says.
As with any investment, time and energy should be directed toward employee resources that have a measurable impact, improving company culture and reducing turnover.
3) Ask the Right Questions
While measuring impact matters, how you measure is just as important. “We often ask the questions that we want to get the ‘correct’ responses,” George says. Instead, George recommends asking questions that invite diverse feedback. “Ask, ‘What do you think would be a good use of company time?’ Then list options you’re considering, and have employees rank them in terms of what would be most useful for them.”
As with any survey, George says you have to be careful that you don’t skew the question. If you’re serious about making changes that will impact employees, create space for them to tell you what they really think, and listen to what they say.
Companies suffering the financial and cultural impacts of high employee turnover may fear the cycle is too entrenched to fix. The great news is that simply creating a few new habits in employee engagement can go a long way towards keeping quality employees around.
Fox MC helps professionals like Eugenie George move their businesses forward. For actionable insights, and research-driven recommendations, hire a Fox MC consulting team today.
Education is a bridge—it equips students for the workforce, puts a promotion within reach, or paves the way to a new career. For employers, this bridge ensures a steady supply of committed individuals with the skills necessary to create value for a company.
Lately, that bridge has been looking a little rickety.
Today’s competitive landscape is changing at an increasingly rapid pace. Business students must be adaptable and entrepreneurial enough to spot and capitalize on opportunities no matter what tomorrow (or the next day) bring.
Enter experiential education. If traditional education is a bridge, experiential education is more like Parkour. After years of relying on the case study method, a rhetorical analysis of issues faced by businesses, universities are shifting their approach to challenge MBA students with complex problems in real time. Through working on live projects that compliment their coursework, students blend theory and practice and gain invaluable experience.
The Fox School has incorporated experiential education into its curriculum for over two decades—13 years before the Kellogg school rolled out new coursework and Harvard introduced “Field Immersion Experiences,” Fox students put their MBAs to the test in live client consulting engagements through Fox Management Consulting.
“I went through the Executive MBA in the late 90’s,” Dr. TL Hill recalls. “At that time, all but two of our courses included live projects. It was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since.”
This experience is part of what prompted Hill, now the Managing Director of Fox MC, to seek consulting opportunities for students. Beginning with only a few projects, the program quickly spread across the Fox School, today manifesting as the capstone course for every MBA graduate.
Here are three ways Fox School MBA students benefit from experiential learning, creating a direct path between them and the companies whose jobs they seek.
1) Embracing Ambiguity
The Fox School makes a point of regularly checking in with industry experts about the skills they want from graduates. At the top of the list for many employers is proficiency in ambiguity. The problems facing modern businesses aren’t clear cut, and the most innovative answers often come from outside the business sector. Top leaders have to be able to cut through the fog to determine what steps to take and where to begin looking for answers.
Some researchers observe that young workers particularly struggle with ambiguity, showing a strong preference for structure. Traditional education caters to this desire, but experiential education challenges students to look beyond their comfort zone. “Students are shifting from mastering content in a course to addressing an unfamiliar topic with an unpredictable client,” says assistant professor of strategic management Marilyn Anthony.
Consulting projects do not have a right answer. Much like the problems facing industries today, success is not just reaching the finish line, it is redefining the race.
2) Thriving in Collaboration
While working with others has always been part of the business world, modern technology has embedded collaboration even deeper in the workplace. With teams regularly integrating diverse cultures, skills sets, and time zones, MBA graduates need to be self-aware and collaboratively adept.
Fox MC consulting engagements put students together in cross-functional teams with pressures similar to those they will face in their careers. “It’s a huge responsibility to deliver high quality work in a short period of time,” Anthony says. In addition to being graded, teams work for paying clients, and are well aware that the quality of their work could create an open door or a dead end to future employment opportunities.
Students are also balancing new relationships and working styles. “We had some pretty dynamic personalities on our team,” one former student remembers. “I knew one person on my team, but the other three I had never seen before.” Just like the work world, diverse personalities and working styles can’t get in the way of delivering high quality work for the client.
With more than 350 projects under their belts, through a combination of student dedication and program supports, every Fox MC team finds their way through.
3) Earning Executive-level Experience
An ambitious MBA student will complete their degree and enter the workforce in a mid-level management position. It will take them several more years to work their way into a role where they get to make major strategic decisions.
The Fox MC program pushes the fast-forward button on that timeline. “It can give students an experience 5 to 10 years ahead of where they are career wise,” says Hill. “It allows them to do work that would be beyond their ability on their own.”
Past Fox MC teams have selected acquisition targets for top investment firms, designed new product launches for Fortune 100 companies, and created an investment strategy for a large agricultural cooperative.
One reason this level of work is possible is that Fox MC teams have a robust support network. Each team is led by a project executive with years of professional experience relevant to the project they lead. The professors are industry veterans, curating course content to match industry standards. Teams also meet with advisors who critique their projects to ensure the best product possible reaches the client.
For businesses, experiential education delivers MBA graduates who are ready to lead. For MBA students, it sharpens their skills and prepares them for success. And for business schools, whose product is the leaders of tomorrow, it ensures graduates who are ready for the real world. After all, they have already proven what they can do.
Next year, Fox MC students will graduate and become leaders in the community. This year, for a limited time, you can access their experience, knowledge and hard work for a discounted price. To get their help for your nonprofit or business, leave your contact information.
This post is part one of a three part series. Return next week to learn five tips for making experiential education a success.
Bert Verhoeven is a university professor of the best course you never got to take—students in his courses spend their time writing TV commercials, designing wallets, and interviewing Muffin Break customers.
Verhoeven is part of a recent partnership between Flinders University, in Adelaide, Australia, and the Fox School to teach innovation and enterprise (INNO) curriculum to help Flinders students thrive in today’s competitive landscape.
Pulling from a variety of methodologies, including design thinking and lean start-up, the INNO curriculum challenges students to learn experientially. “Businesses struggle to teach theory,” Verhoeven explains. “Universities struggle to teach tacit learning. The goal of the INNO courses is to bridge the gap between the two.”
The curriculum design team for INNO includes several longtime entrepreneurs like Verhoeven, who has 25 years of experience creating and leading new enterprises. The team also recently welcomed Michelle Histand, director of innovation at Independence Blue Cross, as the new associate director of the Flinders project at the Fox School. Unwilling to let learning stop with the students, the INNO contributors push themselves to think like entrepreneurs throughout the curriculum design process.
Below, faculty from Flinders and the Fox School share five lessons they’ve learned for any institution hoping to apply an entrepreneurial orientation to collaborative course design.
1) Practice Opportunity Recognition
Every entrepreneurial journey begins as an insight. In the case of the INNO partnership, inspiration struck when TL Hill, managing director of Fox Management Consulting, learned that Flinders was instilling innovation as a backbone of curriculum across their university. Hill saw an opportunity to help build an inventive new program while simultaneously honing the Fox School’s skills as a leader in entrepreneurship education.
Recognizing opportunities can begin with some basic questions: What are the pain points in your courses and programs? How do things look and feel from your customer’s perspective? Who is doing it better? Where can you glean insight outside of the academic world?
Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop, advises hopeful entrepreneurs to be “opportunistic collectors,” taking inspiration from poems, lyrics, or snippets of conversation. Whatever your sources, practicing opportunity recognition begins with believing that new and better curriculum opportunities exist—and staying on the lookout.
2) Create Shorter Learning Cycles
Thomas Watson Jr., of IBM, famously advised, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.” This saying was born out in the well-known Marshmallow Challenge, a group exercise where teams were asked to build towers of spaghetti and masking tape with a marshmallow on the top.
The challenge gained attention when kindergartners were found to significantly outperform adults, creating taller and more inventive structures in less time. The key to the kid’s success was jabbing the sticky sweet on top immediately. While adults plotted and planned, the tots were busy trying and failing and learning. By shortening their learning cycles, the kids allowed more opportunities for failure and success.
The instructors creating INNO courses are practicing this process in real time. Their initial course curriculum was laid out only a year ago, and is already undergoing its third overhaul. While this pace can be exhausting, it is leading to courses that are quickly becoming some of the best attended at Flinders.
In addition to investing in curriculum adjustment, universities can create shorter learning cycles by sharing projects and ideas earlier. Welcoming feedback into a partially planned course, giving a presentation on a young project, or planning Skype conversations early in a partnership allows course designers to fail quickly and adjust accordingly.
“We keep asking ourselves, ‘How do we learn faster?'” says Verhoeven. The answer? Create shorter learning cycles.
3) Prioritize Reflection
Much like resting your muscles after a hard workout, reflection is necessary to ensure learning cycles lead to genuine improvement and growth. One of the most common ways universities practice reflection is soliciting student feedback. The Fox School has made a practice of broadening that approach to collect feedback from all stakeholders.
The first design of the INNO curriculum was based on the Fox School’s past experience, and on brief conversations with Australian business leaders early last fall. In October, the Fox School sent a team to Adelaide to conduct focus groups and extensive interviews; the next summer, Verhoeven traveled to Philadelphia to reflect after the first full semester of courses launched.
All of this conversation fueled the curriculum rewrites of the last year. Like a cat chasing its own tail, reflection generates new learning cycles which create fodder for more reflection.
4) Cultivate Your Culture
Creating the right culture is essential for new businesses, as Hill explains, “because they’re fighting so hard against the tide. They don’t have time to disagree about everything.” The same can be said for collaborative curriculum designers hoping to push the envelope.
Cultivating culture starts by articulating a clear vision. The INNO team is challenging students and faculty to relearn how to learn. Their motto is “differently think.” Paying attention to that vision, clearly communicating it, helps them stay on track.
A strong vision becomes a helpful litmus test for building a team. “There are many different ways of teaching entrepreneurship,” Hill says. By understanding their vision, and hiring to match that vision, the INNO team is developing a strong culture and paving the way for an effective team.
While culture can feel amorphous and hard to pin down, it is the secret sauce that every successful enterprise has to master. Universities practicing collaborative course design must tend their culture well or risk developing mediocre curriculum or short-lived partnerships.
5) Facilitate Conflict
Once a team is fully formed, it’s time to start storming. The INNO team has some unique challenges, working across universities, continents, and cultures, but any team will have differences. As Verhoeven puts it, “There’s always friction; that’s entrepreneurship.”
One way to ensure that conflicts remain productive is to designate a conflict facilitator. For the INNO team, the facilitator is tasked with paying special attention to all communications, and responding quickly to any concerns that arise.
Appointing one person to monitor group dynamics ensures that all parties feel heard, and nothing has time to fester. This frees up the group’s energy to move curriculum design forward.
Designing courses collaboratively while integrating an entrepreneurial lens is a messy process. Treasured ideas get thrown out, failure becomes routine, and there isn’t time to get comfortable.
Yet somewhere, at the end of all the frustration and pain, is a new idea, a better course, a fresh way of helping students grow their potential. Like a fluffy marshmallow suspended on a tower of noodles, the goal is to leave students with skills and insights that will stand the test of time.
Learn more about Fox Management Consulting.
Jason Entezari did not always want to be a small business consultant—four years ago, when he entered the Fox School’s part-time MBA program, he wanted to run a charter school.
“I was working as an accounting clerk at a local charter school,” he recounts, “and I started realizing that to manage a school I was going to need an MBA.” After looking around at various schools, he chose Temple University because it was “nitty gritty,” involving students from diverse backgrounds with robust experience, and focusing on real world application of the MBA. “I still tell friends that,” he says with a smile, “if they’re considering an MBA, I say ‘Go to Temple. It’s nitty gritty.’”
It was while working on his MBA that Entezari ran smack dab into experiential education, a movement across universities to get students out of the classroom and working on live projects. Fox Management Consulting is the cornerstone of experiential education at the Fox School, pairing teams of students with professional coaches to complete strategy and marketing consulting projects for organizations across the region and around the globe. For actionable, research-based solutions to meet your company’s needs, reach out to our team today.
For students, the capstone is an opportunity to blend theory and practice. Entezari compares it to a sports tournament. “When you’re actually working on a live project, it’s different. You have to manage expectations from the client, and you take things a lot more seriously. When you practice on the field, you might horse around, but when you step into the game, things change.”
For clients, the consulting engagements provide a unique value too. “The students you work with are super motivated,” says Entezari. “They’ve already chosen to invest in an MBA. Plus, you have five people on a team with experience in accounting, media, logistics—they’re all coming with their own sets of stories.” That diversity of perspectives gives the teams access to solutions from multiple industries.
Entezari first encountered Fox MC while in the Fox Board Fellows program, a partner program to Fox MC that pairs students with non-profit boards. As they complete coursework in board governance, students work with the non-profit to complete a project of their choice.
During his fellowship, Entezari partnered with Gearing Up, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that leverages cycling to help women move through histories of abuse, addiction and incarceration. With his years of experience in accounting and finance, and his education at Fox, Entezari had a rich knowledge-base to offer the organization. “I realized that what I was doing for them-helping them improve their finances and financial stability-was something I could do in the marketplace.”
Entezari’s experience serving as a Fox Board Fellow led him to create Ocean Mint Consulting, a small business consulting service, in 2013. He took on his first clients while studying at Fox, and has since completed multiple projects across a variety of industries, including education, healthcare, and caretaker services.
Shortly after completing his fellowship, Entezari entered his MBA capstone with Fox MC. It was here that he learned several valuable lessons that he still applies across his consulting engagements.
1) Stay open minded
“The ability to imagine is really the starting point for any project,” Entezari says. “You can regurgitate accounting or economics, but to take that and apply it requires an open mind.”
In his project with Fox MC, Entezari’s team worked with the Willistown Conservation Trust, a non-profit land trust located outside of Willistown, PA. The team was engaged to develop a strategy for offering trainings on the trust’s unique sustainable growing method.
Entezari’s project executive, Marilyn Anthony, pushed the team to keep turning over rocks, even when they thought they were done searching. “It was uncomfortable,” Entezari recalls, “but she steered us in directions we never knew existed.”
In his consulting practice now, Entezari sees this drive for better ideas as critical for success. “Sometimes the best solution for a client might be something that they don’t even know-maybe it’s something that no one has tried yet. As a consultant, your job is to help the client learn what they don’t already know.”
2) Use your data to understand new sectors
When Entezari started the Willistown project, neither he nor his teammates were familiar with urban agriculture. In the absence of experience, the team looked to data. Though Entezari has always been a numbers guy, this project was the first time he saw data serving as a universal language.
“We had to immerse ourselves in the data,” he recalls. “It forced my brain to look at things I wasn’t familiar with, and that process in itself has paid dividends.” Now, when Entezari finds himself working in foreign industries, he can use the data to start mapping out the landscape.
Entezari recalls a recent consulting engagement that highlighted the importance of data. By examining when customers used one of his client’s services, and the time they spent in each engagement, Entezari helped the client understand their significant cost drivers.
“Sometimes, the data that seems unimportant may actually be the ‘golden nugget,’” Entezari says. He compares this approach with data to Moneyball- sometimes using data in unconventional ways can help businesses discover hidden value.
3) Packaging matters
The bulk of the course work for the Fox consulting project is creating the client deliverables: a research report and presentation at the midpoint, and a final strategic report and accompanying presentation at the end. The quality and professionalism demanded by professors, project executives and clients is high.
“This project set a bar for expectations of how a project should look from start to finish.” Entezari explains that he was recently asked to help craft a report as part of a team working with a charter school in Detroit. Some of his teammates were blown away by the professionalism and detail of the report. “After going through the consulting capstone,” he says, “that level of quality felt basic to me.”
When Entezari graduated, all of his experience with Fox MC, his coursework and starting his own business did help him land a job as Director of Operations and Finance for a local charter school. He isn’t one to stay still, and after eight years working in various charter schools, just this month he accepted a position as the Controller of Indego, Philadelphia’s bike sharing program.
Though this new role will keep him busy, Entezari says there’s no question that he will keep consulting. “It provides a way for me to get outside my comfort zone.” For Entezari, experiential learning will go on with the classroom or without it.
If you are looking for a diverse team of professionals to offer data-driven solutions for your business, reach out to the Fox MC team now.
The next generation of farmers is here. From vibrant gold tomatoes at ACME to bundles of fragrant garlic scapes at the farmers’ market, today’s consumer wants fresh, local produce and young farmers everywhere are springing up to give it to them. These farmers face a whole host of unique challenges.
Fox MC has worked with various agricultural organizations to support this segment. From economic development corporations to land trusts, non-profits to cooperatives, any organization hoping to support next generation farmers should be aware of the unique challenges and opportunities they face.
The Opacity of Risk
A few years ago, Fox MC consulted for the Mid-Atlantic Farm Credit (MAFC). This cooperative that offers credit and financial services to farmers in the mid-atlantic region has recently struggled to meet the needs of the new wave of agriculturalists.
The challenge for MAFC hinged on risk assessment. In the past, farmers bought large tracts of land, passed down through generations, as collateral to bear on their loans. Today, many young farmers are the first in their families to pick up the spade, renting land or farming on smaller plots that don’t offset the value of the loans they seek.
Risk assessment gets further complicated by the business model used by young farmers. Traditional farmers grew their product and sold it off to a distributor; as long as their potatoes made it on the truck, they got their money, with no further risk involved.
Many newer farmers are selling directly to consumers through Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), farm stands, and other avenues. They assume 100% of their risk, from crop failure to product spoilage, logistics issues to low product demand. With so many more opportunities for something to go wrong, lenders like the MAFC have a hard time determining the viability of a loan, which limits the capital available to young farmers.
Thankfully, MAFC is committed to serving young farmers and, ” target=”_blank”>with the help of Fox MC, implemented an adapted credit model to better address their needs. But for those small farmers without access to a proactive lender, capital remains a significant barrier to growth.
The 24/7 Straw Hat
Marilyn Anthony, an assistant professor of Strategic Management at Fox, has served as project executive for several Fox MC projects within the agriculture industry. She notes that farming is a uniquely comprehensive vocation. “Every small business person wears a lot of hats,” Anthony says, “but they don’t necessarily wear them 24-7. The farmer does.”
Part of the difference for farmers is their set cycle of production. If a baker burns their boule, they make a new one. If a farmer’s crop fails, they may have to wait an entire year to try again. This increases the pressure on farmers during the growing season, and concentrates all their needed resources into a few-month-period each year.
Farming also requires a unique mix of skills. Every small business owner is part accountant, lawyer, handyman, and marketer. But, as Anthony explains, “For small farmers, production itself requires such extensive skill that it leaves very little space and time for all the other business skills.” The challenge for next generation farmers is to either gain business skills themselves or outsource them, leaving them free to focus on farming.
Think Like A Business
For all the things that make small farms unique as small business enterprises, many of their challenges come from not focusing enough on the business piece.
Bill Kitsch is the vice president and agricultural lending manager at Ephrata National Bank. He has spent his whole career in the agriculture industry working with financing.
His story of becoming a passionate supporter of alternative farming methods began not with concerns for the earth or fears about GMOs, but from an ardent desire to see farmers capture more of the value of their produce.
“I was watching farmers invest in the newest technologies,” Kitsch explains. “They’d see an incremental increase in their yield, but no increase in their profits. They were just sending the extra money out to the technology companies. I was watching farm families deteriorate because of it.”
When organics began to take hold in the early 2000s, Kitsch saw an opportunity for farmers to finally capture more food dollars for all of their hard work. “If the consumer is willing to pay more for organic,” he says, “then that’s fine by me.’”
Many green farmers dive into farming, purchasing equipment on credit and choosing a business model that appeals to them. Instead, Kitsch recommends farmers begin like any other small business: assess the need, critically think through strategic steps for addressing it, and only begin investing resources once a business plan is in place.
“A lot of this comes down to record keeping,” says Kitsch. Farmers should know what their expenses are, where they intend to sell their product, and what ROI they can expect.
Farmers also need to think about diversification of revenues. The most successful farmers are selling through a number of different avenues, whether wholesale, to restaurants, through a CSA, or at their own markets.
The takeaway for organizations trying to support next generation farmers is to facilitate access to business skills and resources. Many farmers will benefit from training on the basics of running a small business, and can translate that knowledge into better marketing, planning, and record keeping.
Some farmers do not want to become accountants, or don’t have the skillset to be successful marketers, and even the most entrepreneurial farmer will have limitations. Organizations can offer support services for these farmers, centralizing record keeping, offering consultation in business models or web expansion, and facilitating connection with other business professionals who are knowledgeable in working with and supporting this segment.
Whatever the combination of resources offered, finding ways to help small farmers think more like small business owners is a big step in ensuring their success.
In addition to his work funding young farmers, Kitsch served as a project executive last fall with Fox MC for a team working with the Chester County Economic Development Council (CCEDC) to evaluate the viability of CSAs as a business model. What they learned flew in the face of common farming practices.
Many young farmers kick off their business by starting a CSA. While CSA’s are viable “long-term financial vehicles,” according to Kitsch, they are about the worst initial venture for farmers just starting out.
CSAs are highly complex. They involve 30 to 40 different products, depend on strong marketing skills for creating demand, and have uncertain financial returns. As Anthony puts it, “Why would you start your business at a place with the highest demand for all of these skills?”
Kitsch recommends that new farmers instead begin with a high degree of wholesale and a low degree of marketing. “Over time you’ll reverse that ratio,” he explains, “but the key to every farm is to utilize 100% of your assets, every inch of your farm in revenue generation.”
New farmers running an operation as complex as a CSA simply don’t have time to ensure they’re hitting their capacity, and as Kitsch points out, that’s a critical oversight. “In farming, your return on your assets is only 1% to 1.5%,” says Kitsch. “If you decrease your utilization by even 5%, it’s fatal.”
The most successful farms Kitsch has seen often begin their efforts by focusing on one or two products. They can sell to a few restaurants or at a farm stand, and move up the learning curve at a lower risk level.
This method not only simplifies growing and marketing for the farmer, it also makes financing easier. “If a farmer knows who their market is, I can find a way to finance it,” Kitsch says. Finding a market for a single product is much easier than managing an unpredictable CSA membership base.
For organizations trying to support next generation farmers, helping them determine the best use of their resources and even steering them away from a CSA to start can be a big support.
A final support organizations can offer to next generation farmers is the development of infrastructure. Kitsch gives the example of the mushroom cluster in southeastern Pennsylvania. Several mushroom farmers there realized that their fresh mushrooms were an imitable advantage, and banded together to create a factory for canning, diversifying their revenues and insulating them against risk.
Infrastructure that helps farmers deal with their “seconds,” produce that is not pretty enough for sale as is, helps farmers capture more of their food dollars and get closer to 100% capacity utilization.
Support infrastructure can come in the form of factories, farmers markets, and networks of local restaurants that purchase regional produce, or collaboratives that help centralize distribution. Needs vary depending on the farmer and the region. Organizations should look for the collective benefit farmers in their particular region need and coordinate to provide it.
Next generation farmers have a dynamite product. Kitsch himself regularly benefits from locally raised hogs, sweet silver queen corn, and pesticide free strawberries.
The key for organizations stepping up to support these farmers is helping them get out their product in a way that not only leaves the consumer sticky and smiling, but also fills the farmers pockets to fund delicious edibles for many years to come.
Walker Tompkins knows corporate financial management. With more than 35 years of experience in banking, marketing, liability, and money management, he’s learned a lot about the ins and outs of making it in the industry. He brings that expertise when leading MBA students in client consulting engagements through the Fox Management Consulting (Fox MC) capstone course at the Fox School. Since Tompkins retired as President and CEO of American Express Credit Corporation (AECC), he has been a project executive for the course, providing 150+ hours of oversight to each Fox MC project team and ensuring that the consultants deliver top quality work.
Tompkins did not earn the title of President and CEO overnight. It took years of learning, listening, working with multiple bosses, and taking on challenges. That is why he’s a fan of the Fox Management Consulting program. “There’s nothing like a real-world problem to show you how the stuff in the textbook really works.” Tompkins described Fox MC as an excellent way for business students to learn to present, expand their skill sets, and take on projects outside of their comfort zones to become effective entrepreneurs and business leaders.
Tompkins recently distilled his luminous career into five tips that shaped his success as a leader in corporate financial management. In addition to offering great industry advice, he has a penchant for creative idioms that help his lessons stick.
1. Know Your Product (Eat the Cake You Bake)
Success begins with a strong knowledge of your products and the regulatory environment in which you operate. Managers who immerse themselves in their products make stronger financial decisions, increasing their company’s profits, reducing their financial risks, and improving their return on capital. Part of becoming a subject matter expert (SME) is understanding things from a client perspective. As CEO at American Express Credit Corporation, Tompkins intentionally spent time in customer service, personally taking trades from customers. Seeing your business from a customer perspective is akin to “eating the cake you bake,” he says. Tompkins attributes much of his success to his willingness to get his hands dirty.
2. Deliver a Quality Product (Be Error Free)
One of Tompkins key objectives was to produce a quality product for which customers were willing to pay a premium. Often, adding value begins by prioritizing seamless services that are error free. Customers should find it easy to make transactions, and easier still to reach you when something isn’t working. Tompkins once advocated a three ring rule, where every customer call had to be answered before the fourth ring. Over time, Tompkins recounts, his product and service were known for their quality and customers weren’t hindered by the cost.
3. Guard Your Assets (Don’t Be A Pig!)
Tompkins described a manager as the “keeper of the business,” tasked with the privilege and responsibility of tending the company’s assets. Diversifying your portfolio, though a somewhat tired axiom in financial management, is nonetheless paramount. Whether working with investments or products, diversifying prepares you for the unexpected. “Leave some cushion,” Tompkins admonished, “So that if the Black Swan appears, you will not be the first to self destruct.”
Tompkins also advised financial professionals to maintain a healthy respect for regulations. This safeguards you against scrutiny from regulators, and keeps you ahead of competitors who many not be as scrupulous. As Tompkins put it,“Bulls make money, bears make money, and pigs get eaten.” The best strategy is to make sure your business is healthy, sound and firmly within the bounds of regulation.
4. Understand Key Metrics (Take Your Temperature)
Even the best leaders can’t keep their eyes on everything at once. Developing accurate benchmarks to track company performance internally and against industry standards can flag problem areas and opportunities before they’ve grown wings. “If you construct them properly, drifting in or out of a metric will alert you to a shift in the business.” Tompkins equates it to “checking the temperature of the company.” Monitoring these metrics keeps leaders ahead of problems and aware of opportunities.
5. Up Your Automation (Make a Smaller Haystack)
Tompkins advises that you seize opportunities for automation. Automation can make it easier to find problems. “You’re making the haystack smaller, so you can find the needle,” Tompkins says. It also reduces errors and inefficiencies, and frees employee time up for more pressing business. “Even a system generated dashboard at the end of each day can be very telling,” he said.
To work with Tompkins as a business mentor with Fox Management Consulting, or learn more about hiring our consulting teams, connect with Tyra Ford at firstname.lastname@example.org or complete our online form by clicking here.
Charlie Scott is a seasoned veteran of the consulting world, and he shares that expertise with students at the Fox School. For the last five years, he has served as a project executive with Fox Management Consulting (Fox MC), leading teams of MBA students through client consulting engagements.
Fox MC offers an applied learning experience in which teams of students provide comprehensive research, analysis, and strategic recommendations to fee-paying clients across the globe. Scott’s rich consulting background makes him ideal to instruct and mentor these teams.
Scott’s career as a consultant began over 35 years ago as an entry level analyst with a regional consulting firm. He had a big opportunity when Mercer, now the world’s largest human resource consulting firm, bought his employer. He grew with the company, serving as head of Mercer’s Philadelphia office in the 1990s and later leading the Human Resources Consulting Division in North America. Scott ended his Mercer career as the Global President of Human Resources consulting, managing 2,500 professionals in 26 countries. In 2012, he opened CTS Consulting Group, advising employers on enhancing their executive and broad-based talent and reward strategies.
Scott’s connection with Fox MC came through one of his Mercer mentors, Bob Aglira. “I had a career as a teacher before I became a consultant,” Scott says. “The Fox MC role is attractive because I get the opportunity to mentor very smart students.”
Scott joined Fox MC in 2012 and thus far has worked on seven projects so far. As a project executive, Scott guides MBA student consulting teams through client engagements, from developing the initial game plan to the final presentation. He analogizes his role as a mentor to that of a “player-coach who spends more time in the dugout than on the field.”
Scott believes the work of these student teams is on par with full-time consultants. “When you hire Fox MC, you are getting about 80% of what you would get if you hired one of the major consulting firms,” he says. “The quality of work is very strong; students work hard and deliver a robust product. All this at a really attractive price, too.”
To all future consultants, Scott’s advice is to understand what it takes to succeed in a consulting practice and measure it against your personal strengths.
To learn more about the services Fox Management Consulting offers, contact us here.
On Wednesday, May 17, Fox MC convened area business leaders to talk about data and share best practices for using it to drive business strategy.
Co-moderated by Becca Zinn, Director of Marketing at Fox Management Consulting, and Andrew Richardson, Senior Director of Analytics at Delphic Digital, panelists represented a diverse set of industries:
- Steve Boucher, Project Manager, Research, The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia
- Gerard Gober, Corporate Director, Digital Strategy & User Experience, UHS
- Erik Johanson, Director of Innovation, SEPTA
- Ravi Kandikonda, Vice President Marketing Strategy, Analytics & Operations, Comcast
- Kathleen Leeds Senavitis, Sr. Commercial Excellence Manager, The Dow Chemical Company
If you’d like to learn more the ways Fox might help your organization with data analytics, get in touch with us here.
On April 26, nonprofit executives and MBA students from Temple University’s Fox School of Business gathered for breakfast to celebrate a successful year of contribution to the regional nonprofit community. A partnership between Fox Net Impact and the Fox Management Consulting (Fox MC), the Fox Board Fellows (FBF) program places MBA students (Fellows) on the boards of local nonprofit organizations as non-voting members for an academic year through an elective course in nonprofit governance. The program is designed to give business students the opportunity to work with and learn from nonprofit leaders while contributing their time and business skills to benefit local nonprofit boards and committees. A final deliverable for the course is a professional quality, strategic project for the local nonprofit. At the closing breakfast, outgoing Fellows, incoming Fellows, and nonprofit Partners came together to discuss lessons learned from the past year and offer best practices for future partnerships.
“This program is a unique opportunity for students to behave like a board member, become immersed in an organization, and exchange something of value,” said Maureen Cannon, Program Director of Fox Board Fellows and Senior Associate Director of Fox MC.
Julie Agee, a second-year MBA student participating in the FBF program, was paired with the Mazzoni Center, which provides health and wellness services to the LGBTQ communities. “The FBF program was the reason I decided to enroll in Temple’s MBA program,” she said. “Working with the Mazzoni Center gave me a unique opportunity to help the organization move from traditional fundraising to a major gifts campaign, and helped me understand how to communicate with donors,” Agee said.
Hayley Boyle, Vice President of Programs at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, was one of the nonprofit partners to participate in the FBF program this past year. Through the program, she and her colleagues developed documents and expectations, such as organizational bylaws, a process that Boyle admitted was sometimes painful, but dramatically improved the organization. Going through the process, according to Boyle, helped her understand the key questions board members need to know to keep the board and organization on mission.
“There’s tremendous value in participating in a nonprofit board to expand one’s horizons and gain a different perspective,” said Meredith Okenquist, Associate Director of Graduate Professional Development at the Fox School. “Many professionals want to engage with a board as they move through their career, and this gives them great experience,” she said.
“I was really happy with both the learning outcomes that the students reportedly achieved, and the organizations were extremely impressed with the students’ ability to come in, join the board, and make a lasting impact on the organization,” Cannon said.
This past year, MBA students partnered with 21 nonprofits in the area, and next year the program will include 24 organizations.
To learn more about the Fox Board Fellows program, contact Maureen Cannon at email@example.com.