On a humid summer Tuesday evening, a charter bus pulls to a stop at the University of Virginia's Rotunda and Pavilions at the Academical Village, built by Thomas Jefferson 175 years ago.
The people who disembark aren't tourists, despite their casual clothes, sensible walking shoes and the cameras slung around their necks. They are the 33 members of the 2001 class of The Executive Program (TEP), a six-week intensive executive summer camp at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Darden is considered by IT executives to be one of the premier executive education programs for current and future IT leaders. This year's TEP participants come from 13 countries and represent 17 industries. Two-thirds of the students are from outside the US. Four are current IT managers.
The members of the TEP class hail from different cultural heritages, religions and races, but they share many important traits. They are achievers -- the high-potential managers within their companies, which are paying the hefty tab for their attendance. They're mostly in their 40s, successful in their various professions, ambitious and smart. Most are here on the advice of TEP graduates who have made it into the executive ranks.
"My boss attended TEP a couple of years ago and came back a different person," says Don Burns, an IT manager responsible for application development and support at New Zealand's Inland Revenue department in Wellington.
"He was more strategic, less focused on the nitty-gritty, willing to delegate and able to lead the team more effectively."
Now it's Burns' turn for radical change in his own career -- and he says he's ready for it. He's leading a 75-member team that's converting the New Zealand equivalent of the IRS from Cobol programming to e-business platforms.
"I feel privileged to be here," says Burns, a 10-year veteran of Inland Revenue. "I hope to come away from the course a better leader and to achieve a more holistic view of work and life. I am using this time at Darden to think about how I've done things before and learn new ways to lead."
Darden offers a wide variety of executive education courses, but TEP is the jewel in its crown. Participants whose companies sponsor their attendance at TEP know that they are on the fast track to the executive suite.
In 2001, the price tag for the programme was $US32,000. Companies must guarantee that employees who attend will be relieved of their regular work responsibilities so that participants can focus completely on the rigorous curriculum and demanding schedule.
Noel Hiney, a 21-year veteran of the Bank of Ireland, is the fifth employee the bank has sent to TEP. When Hiney enrolled in the program, he was director of external relations for the Bank of Ireland's e-business area, responsible for "external and customer-facing e-business." His 35-member team developed the bank's main website and pioneered internet payment applications there. (When he returned from TEP, Hiney was put in charge of leading a new business initiative.)
"We come to the US to get a different perspective," says Hiney. "You just can't beat the experience of being immersed in the US culture and learning the American management style. The great thing about TEP, however, is that it also provides valuable insight into other global cultures via case studies and participant interaction. I learned about the business and management practices of the US and many other countries."
Hiney and other participants point out that not only is TEP a chance for them to grow as executives, but their weeks-long absence also gives their staff members the chance to make decisions and manage the work on their own, which is a great development opportunity for them.
Mind and body
Wednesday morning begins with a brisk aerobics workout in the North Grounds Recreation Centre. Almost all of the TEP participants are there at 6am. Darden's emphasis on developing the whole person includes voluntary medical screenings and a personalised health plan that's put into practice from day one at TEP.
Andy Miller is one IT executive who has committed himself to the wellness program.
"They say it takes three weeks to lock in a new habit," says Miller, director of computing and network operations at Boeing Space and Communications, a division of Boeing in California. "There is a difference between knowing what I should do and doing it. I hope to build better habits for taking care of myself by eating right and putting exercise into my daily routine."
"The point of the health plan is to raise the executives' awareness of fitness and to make time for it in their schedules, not just to help them lose a few pounds while they are here," says Lou Centini, senior director of executive education at Darden.
"Darden's goal is to make TEP a transforming experience for those who attend," he says. "We touch all dimensions of the individual: Intellectual, by building functional skills and helping them to become effective leaders; physical, by learning to value their health; interpersonal, by working in teams; emotional, by dealing with ambiguity and realising that it is good to be passionate about your purpose; and spiritual, by examining core values and beliefs as they apply to the workplace. These themes are woven throughout the program to challenge people in ways they hadn't anticipated."
After a quick -- and light -- breakfast in Sponsors Hall, where TEP participants and faculty dine together, Miller and his well-exercised colleagues climb the hill to Saunders Hall, where classes are held.
Saunders Hall's domed atrium, pale yellow walls, polished wood floors and custom-made rugs in hues of blue and gold are reminiscent of the university's Rotunda.
In a comfortable, well-appointed classroom, TEP participants assemble to hear professor Alec Horniman deliver a lecture entitled "An Ethical Values Perspective". Horniman presents scenarios that require the students to make decisions about behaviour and actions based on their own ethical standards. The class discussion produces good-natured laughs as well as serious contemplation.
"I earned my MBA degree 16 years ago, but the world has changed a lot since then," Miller says. "I want to become stronger in the quantitative aspects of business.
However, the part of my job that fascinates me is developing people, learning new aspects of leadership and bringing about change."
Next, professor Bob Conroy presents a session on "Growth, Capital Structure & Cost of Capital".
After that, professor Mark Parry leads a multimedia session on "Expanding the Meaning of a Brand."
"Future CIOs don't need more training in technology, and they don't need more courses in project management. They need this leadership training," says Brandt Allen, associate dean of Darden's executive education program, whose own background includes teaching at Harvard University and working at IBM as a consultant to CIOs.
Allen contends that CIOs have notoriously short tenures in that position because they're not properly prepared to be executives. While most have adequate IT experience, few have a strategic understanding of all of the aspects of running a business.
Darden seeks to change that for all TEP participants -- no matter which executive track they're on -- by bombarding them with course work in finance, accounting, marketing, sales, forecasting, logistics, supply chain, human resources, ethics and more.
For the remainder of the day, the TEP participants do their homework, reading the case studies assigned for the next day's lectures.
"Darden's programme is based on three learning experiences: individual study, teamwork and class participation," says Louise Van Der Bank, the divisional manager of IT at Iscor, a metals company in South Africa. "To make sure I get the most from my Darden experience, I need to ensure that I get the [most] out of each. That's why I spend time reading and reviewing the course material. I need to understand the points so that I can contribute in class and to my team and learn from them."
In the evening, the group gathers for dinner at Sponsors Hall. Afterward, many end up at the Pub, a recreation room where they engage in friendly but fierce games of billiards and ping-pong. The lone TV sits idle and dark.
A wise exercise
On Thursday morning, professor Dick Brownlee meets with the TEP participants in Saunders Hall to prepare them for Wise, a computer-based exercise in multinational corporate management.
In the Wise simulation, the students act as members of general management teams, running hypothetical companies for several quarters.
The class is divided into small teams representing competing companies. The teams must complete a series of tasks and make operating decisions by specific deadlines.
The group that runs its company most profitably and successfully will be declared the winner of the Wise simulation.
Van Der Bank says she's looking forward to the Wise project. She has just been tapped as Iscor's first female general manager. When she returns from Darden, she'll be running a steel mill in Pretoria.
"I've been responsible for continuous improvement, revising business processes and driving change," says Van Der Bank. "From Darden, I want to learn how to extend the value chain, improve interaction with suppliers and customers, and support globalisation through IT."
Like many in this year's TEP class, Van Der Bank and Iscor colleague Erich Heine are legacy students.
"Iscor's CEO has been through the Darden training, and this gives us a good common language and understanding," says Van Der Bank.
Working day and night
The Wise teams work day and night starting Thursday afternoon. At first, they work quietly in their breakout rooms in Sponsors Hall.
By Friday evening, a few of them are pacing the brick walkway outside of Sponsors Hall, smoking cigarettes and arguing. Others stand toe-to-toe in the corridor, negotiating terms of ad hoc agreements.
After dinner, Miller returns to the breakout room. He settles in front of the computer and heaves a sigh. Burns looks up and smiles sympathetically.
Down the hall, Van Der Bank reconvenes with her group, sips from her water bottle and flips through a binder of papers.
The Wise teams settle in for a long night -- a familiar feeling the IT professionals know well.
"This is a privilege for me," says Miller, who explains that he chose Darden over Harvard, Duke University and other business schools for several reasons. "The content of the courses appealed to me, the highly rated faculty was a draw, and the international emphasis is important to me in my work for Boeing," he says.
During the following four weeks, the TEP participants will continue to work hard and experience all the programme offers, including a trip to Washington to meet government officials -- a facet of the program particularly prized by the foreign students.
In the sixth week, the students' spouses and children can join them for activities such as a private visit to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home.
After that, they return to their homes and jobs, uniquely prepared for the chance to lead.
Vitiello is a freelance writer in New Jersey.