Fort Bragg in North Carolina has the distinction of being the largest United States army installation in the world. It’s proximity to Fayetteville makes FSU (Fayetteville State University) a popular choice for many military students who are looking to train themselves and take on new responsibilities in the business world or grow within the military.
However, the learning curve for students with a military background can be steeper than it is for other MBA students who have worked in corporate roles and are familiar with many business management concepts.
Dr. Steven Phelan, Distinguished Professor & MBA Director at FSU in conversation with Sameer Kamat offers insights into the challenges that professors tackle in teaching business and entrepreneurship in a classroom and how he uses management games in the MBA classroom (including BizMAP from MBA Crystal Ball) to facilitate the learning.
MBA Crystal Ball: Can you share a little about how you got into academia and what you do at FSU?
Dr. Phelan: Prior to becoming an academic, I worked for Australia’s largest company, Telecom Australia, primarily in strategic planning and corporate finance. I also worked for an airline buying and selling jets. Frankly, I got bored.
Being an academic allows me to work on very complex problems in business and economics. I like the challenge and I like to learn how others are trying to solve these problems.
However, over the years, I’ve always appreciated that execution and getting things done through people is perhaps the most complex problem in business, so my practical experience has always come in handy.
Just this month, I’ve been appointed as the MBA Director at FSU. I’m also a distinguished professor in entrepreneurship, where I hold an endowed chair, which means I have additional funds for research and creating student experiences in entrepreneurship.
I am also the fund administrator the local angel investment group and a visiting professor at the University of Cologne in Germany.
MBA Crystal Ball: Can you share more about the FSU MBA class profile?
Dr. Phelan: We have about 150 students in the program at various stages. The gender ratio is 53:47 male/female and the average age is 33. We are the closest UNC campus to Fort Bragg, the largest military installation in the US, so many of our students are affiliated with the military.
Our most popular concentrations are health care management and project management. Around 2% of our students are international but we would like to welcome more.
Most of our students are already working, so the MBA represents an opportunity for career advancement. For instance, the army requires all applicants for field grade ranks to hold a master’s degree. Similarly, those leaving the army are looking for opportunities in industry.
MBA Crystal Ball: How does the MBA experience vary for students who choose a smaller program (like the FSU MBA) compared to the bigger more conspicuous ones that most MBA applicants are aware of?
Dr. Phelan: I have taught on a dozen different MBA and EMBA programs over the years (including the University of Texas and Bocconi University). I am truly impressed by the caliber of our students (doctors, lawyers, West Point graduates). The faculty is also first rate.
The primary features of our program are AACSB accreditation and multi-modal teaching in every core class (face to face, remote, online synchronous and asynchronous). We are very sensitive to the needs of our military population, who are often deployed at short notice.
This has landed us in the top 100 online programs in the US for several years in a row. We were also recently rated as the most affordable AACSB accredited online course in the nation.
MBA Crystal Ball: After becoming the Director of the program, are there any new strategic initiatives that you have planned for?
Dr. Phelan: Yes, in fact I am working on a major curriculum proposal right now. This will see us moving towards a competency-based framework in the future. Students will be required to demonstrate proficiency in financial accounting, financial statement analysis, and statistics before entering the program (in lieu of pre-requisite courses).
The core courses will focus on job-ready skills such as a using Excel and SQL for reporting and analysis, digital marketing, and applied economics. We are also introducing a capstone project for every concentration that will require a consulting assignment in the area of specialization, where credit will be partially based on client satisfaction.
MBA Crystal Ball: What makes it challenging to teach entrepreneurship in an MBA class?
Dr. Phelan: Two things – the first is time. It usually takes more than 8 or 16 weeks to fully develop a business idea.
The second is motivation. About 25% of students in the average entrepreneurship class have a business idea, 50% are curious and might see themselves as entrepreneurs one day, and 25% just want an elective credit.
Thus, it is tough to push all students to develop an idea. Forming teams around those with viable ideas tends to be the way to organize.
MBA Crystal Ball: How does one balance the theoretical and practical aspects of an entrepreneurship course? Where do business simulation games fit in?
Dr. Phelan: I find that business simulations fit in well with business strategy to get a sense of the facets of the whole organization. There are a number of entrepreneurship simulations out there too, but it is often easier to get students to really start a business.
For instance, the University of Florida now runs a course called the first 100 days, which has students actually start a company by filling out all of the required paperwork. I intend to run a similar exercise in my next MBA class.
In general, entrepreneurship classes are much more ‘hands-on’ and believe in getting students out of the classroom. This can be difficult when I have online classes with students in different countries. However, I’d still like them to have a practical ‘entrepreneurial experience’ rather than read about it in a textbook.
MBA Crystal Ball: Can you share a little about how you use our business strategy game (BizMAP) in your class?
Dr. Phelan: I use your game as a warm-up for the BSG game. Students are required to earn $5m+ operating profit by the end of the BizMAP game to earn 5% of their grade.
It helps students gain an appreciation for the connection between elements in the value chain – pricing/advertising (demand), production/employees (supply), and R&D (productivity gains).
The BSG game has over 100 decision choices per round so BizMAP is a nice introduction to the issues and makes the second game much less daunting.
MBA Crystal Ball: What has been the feedback of the students who’ve used our BizMAP simulation?
Dr. Phelan: I tend to get two sorts of responses to the game. First, some students comment that it helps them to understand how the different functional areas of a business are related – this is my primary goal is using simulation for the Business Strategy class.
The second type of student has problems reaching my target of $5m in annual operating profit. This requires them to think outside the box and, after a few hints, most of them reach the target.
MBA Crystal Ball: In your role as an advisor to start-ups, what main issues do you see the fledgling teams struggle with?
Dr. Phelan: I think I could write a book about the issues with new entrepreneurs. I think the biggest issue is how casually people approach starting a business.
I’ve started to compare business to sports. If you want to be a world-class athlete that makes $1 million a year, then you need to train at an elite level every day. People tend to think they can start a business that makes $1 million a year in their spare time. This is wrong. You need to be an expert at what you do.
MBA Crystal Ball: What can entrepreneurs (who don’t have the liberty to go back to the classroom to re-skill themselves) do to learn about business principles?
Dr. Phelan: I have entrepreneur friends in the US in their 30s that never finished high school but are running successful companies. The Nike slogan “Just Do It” also applies to entrepreneurs.
They work hard but they also work smart. They approach entrepreneurship as a series of problems to be solved and work to find the best solutions. They read widely online and then they ask friends and experts about what they would do, then they act.
Perseverance is a very attractive quality in entrepreneurs – the ability to keep going until you solve the problem.
MBA Crystal Ball: Thank you, Dr. Phelan, for the insights. And good luck with the new initiatives at FSU.
Dr. Phelan: Thanks for the opportunity, Sameer.