Interview with MIT Sloan Fellows’ Stephen Sacca

By - Aug 3, 10:15 AM Comments [0]

informative interview I had a few years ago with Stephen Sacca, Director of the MIT Sloan Fellows Program, is no longer entirely accurate because of changes that have taken place in the last four years. Mr. Sacca graciously agreed to a new interview so that readers can have the latest news about the MIT Sloan Fellows.

(Warning: This interview is looong, even longer than last time! But highly informative.)

Two of the things that are distinctive about the Sloan Fellows Program is that it's a full-time residential program and that the applicants tend to be more experienced than other programs. How much experience do Sloan Fellows typically have and what are the minimum and maximum years of experience that you would recommend for a Sloan Fellow applicant?

Experience is one of the main drivers of this program. It drives the way the program is organized, it drives the way the faculty members deliver the content of the program and, certainly I think, it drives the Fellows' experience on a peer-to-peer basis. So, we look for a minimum of 10 years of experience. The average has consistently been around 14 years for the past decade.

That being said, during the admissions process we look at the person, the person's experience level, and the quality of that experience. This year there are, as in other years, probably three or four people who have fewer than 10 years—the committee has made a decision that we don't go below nine years, but those nine years of experience are as packed with relevant experience as somebody with 10, 12, 14 years or more of experience.

What do you want to see in an applicant? What are the criteria for admitting Sloan Fellows?

We want people with demonstrated leadership skills who know they haven’t yet reached their full potential. They're pursuing a program like the MIT Sloan Fellows even though people around them may tell them, "You don't need to do this." We seek people who say, "I know I can do better. I just need the opportunity to think deeply about how I’m going to get to the next level." That kind of statement tells us that that person could really benefit from an MIT Sloan Fellows experience. This is not the program for people who are just kind of taking a year off or getting their ticket punched.

We also seek candidates who have had significant experience leading and managing people. We're really here to help talented people develop further in an incredibly vibrant, innovative and global environment. In the last several years, we have put more emphasis on personal and professional leadership development, on understanding oneself in the context of past experiences and obtaining fresh insights to help prepare for future roles of responsibility and leadership.

What are the typical educational and professional backgrounds of participants in the Sloan Fellows Program?

In terms of educational experience, about 25% of the Fellows have engineering backgrounds, 20% have business backgrounds, 20% come from either economic- or computer science-related fields, and the rest of the students have backgrounds in the social sciences, medicine, law, and the humanities.

Professionally, our students work in a wide number of industries – about 25, this year alone, of which the top 5 are technology, financial services, manufacturing, government and energy.

Do Sloan Fellows need to take the GMAT?

I'm glad you raised that, because that is a change. From this year we will require GMAT scores for applicants who haven't successfully completed one of three courses: Finance I, Microeconomics or Calculus I during their previous academic experiences.

Most MBA programs are experiencing an increase in the number of applications they receive. Is that your experience with the Sloan Fellows?

The applicant pool has been increasing significantly every year for the past five years. I think one reason why our numbers have increased is that we're communicating more, we’re traveling more, and our recent graduates are definitely communicating to people within their networks about the benefits of the program. This year's incoming class is 108 fellows, the largest and most diverse class we've ever admitted.

Because our numbers have increased, it's critical to keep the deep peer-to-peer experience as vibrant as it has always been. We have developed strategies to accomplish this and we are pleased with the success we’ve had with our initiatives. For example, right at the beginning of the year, we talk frankly to the fellows about how the challenges and opportunities before them can serve as ways to develop a cohesive, supportive and transparent environment, making the year an even more productive experience. And based on the last 3 years of classes, I don't think the camaraderie, the collegiality, and the close bonds among fellows are any different within a class of a hundred than they were in a class of fifty.

What percentage of Sloan Fellows are sponsored at this point in time? What percentage are self-sponsored or entrepreneurs?

About 50% of the MIT Sloan Fellows class is sponsored this year. Of those that are self-funding their year at MIT, about 20% are entrepreneurs and about 30% are self-sponsored.

In the past, we may have considered a candidate with sponsorship to be preferred because we thought that they had more focus than a non-sponsored applicant, but we have come to recognize that as an unfounded assumption. Ultimately we will continue to seek the most professionally accomplished people who meet our admissions criteria and are motivated to make a difference in their year at MIT Sloan and beyond.  And in doing so, we've actually freed ourselves up a little bit from some of the constraints we had. I think we've assembled a stronger cohort over the last several years as a result of this change in perspective.

Having said that, we continue to have many strong partnerships with leading organizations around the world, organizations who entrust us with their top leadership talent. And we are enjoying a broader array of sponsorship among different industries than ever before.

Sloan Fellows can pursue a Master of Science or an MBA. What's the difference between the two degrees and what percentage of the class goes through each degree?

Roughly 95% last year selected the MBA degree, mainly because that's what is most easily understood outside academia. A few Fellows go for the Master of Science, and those tend to be people who may already have an MBA or want to write a thesis, which is the sole distinguishing factor between the MBA and the Master of Science.

When we spoke four years ago there was the option of a two-year program in addition to the one-year program. There's only a one-year program now, right?

That's right. We have retired the two-year Flex option.

What is the structure of the Sloan Fellows Program?

The MIT Sloan Fellows Program is a full 12-month program, with the course of study divided into three terms. The program begins with a specialized summer term. This is a very intense period, often referred to as “boot camp.” It provides academic preparation for the year and is the foundation for the entire program. All work in the summer is done in teams of four selected by the Program Office staff who conduct the interviews—the study groups are composed of fellows from different backgrounds and professions who learn to work together. After the summer, the Fellows participate in the fall and spring terms, and other than core courses, are fully integrated into the MIT Sloan School with other students for their elective courses.

There are roughly 100 Fellows in each class, and they are divided into two sections of fifty each. We change the sections four times over the course of the year so that all fellows are able to participate in core courses with all other fellows. In addition to the Sloan Fellows core courses, they are able to take electives at other schools within MIT and Harvard. The program allows cross registration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School. In fact, MIT Sloan Fellows are able to take more electives than any other program like it.

Can you tell us more about your summer term?

We are really pleased with the introduction of a new and innovative element of the summer term, a module called “Leadership and Integrative Management,” which spans the entire term. The purpose of the module is to help the fellows understand the broader context of their MIT experience. In previous years, we've really just started off with the details of finance and accounting and so forth but this week-long exercise looks at a single problem, issue or opportunity in an integrative way.

More specifically, the module focuses on leadership development and decision-making delivered across several disciplines by several leading faculty at MIT Sloan, including Andrew Lo, Duncan Simester, Don Lessard, John Van Maanen, John Sterman, among others.  The goal is to provide concepts, frameworks and tools for discussing leadership, community/team building, analysis and decision-making as individuals and in groups, self-assessment and individual development, opportunities for active learning, and interaction with top-level leaders across a range of organizations through leadership speaker sessions.

The module was highly successful this year and I am certain will prove to be an essential foundation for the summer term in future years.

It looks like a lot of learning occurs off-campus during trips. Can you talk about them a little?

All Sloan Fellows take three trips a year. One is to New York City (which focuses on leadership), the second is to Silicon Valley/San Francisco (which focuses on innovation), and the third trip is international, which offers a global perspective. This year we traveled to South Africa and Brazil, examining how two economic giants on their respective continents interact with the rest of the countries on their continent and on the global stage.

Do your students take advantage of the opportunity to study at Harvard and vice versa?

The students benefit from having two world-class organizations within 10 minutes of each other. Taking courses at Harvard allows students to experience a different approach and perspective. Harvard students are also welcome to take courses at MIT Sloan. Our lab courses—an MIT Sloan distinctive feature—  are in huge demand by Harvard students.

How do the Fellows initially respond to the program?

Every year, after the first month or so of the program, Fellows stop by my office and say, "You didn't tell me how deep and impactful this program is." And I respond with, "You tell me how I can do that, and I'll do it." It is one of those life experiences that can be really challenging to describe without going through it: the development of a sense of knowledge, confidence and motivation to make change.

Every year in April, the current class hosts the incoming class and provides an orientation to the program, the MIT Sloan School, and MIT. It's all about the current class talking and giving their perspectives on the program and helping to transfer culture. A long and very valuable tradition in our program.

What role do alumni play in the recruiting process?

Alumni play an incredibly important role in helping us to identify those people fit for the program and to champion the program either within organizations or with others. We often say that “it takes a fellow to know a fellow,” referring to our past graduates’ ability to identify those individuals in their organization or network who may also possess the characteristics that we seek in successful MIT Sloan Fellows candidates.

What role do entrepreneurs play in the program?

Entrepreneurs serve as a bridge between people who have spent their lives in an established corporate environment and those people who are thinking about striking out on their own. The entrepreneurs are people who have actually done it. They offer tremendous perspectives to their classmates: "You may think you have a good idea, but it’s a competitive environment for new and innovative ideas…" In essence they're helping other fellows understand what it takes to grow an idea from inception through to execution.

What distinguishes Sloan Fellows from regular Sloan MBAs?

Our major distinguishing feature is the focus on a mid-career track record of success and exceptional leadership potential.

And we are more diverse. I mean, I think our MBA program is 70% US, 30% global. We're exactly the opposite, with 70% global.

Do you offer career placement services?

We offer career enhancement services that help fellows understand how to best leverage their MIT Sloan Fellows experience after the program concludes. We use the term “career enhancement” as a way to differentiate our offerings from other programs that provide recruiting services. Our portfolio of services excludes recruiting or job placement for fellows, assuming that the caliber of fellows is such that they are being pursued by organizations or they have their next idea already percolating in their heads.

We prepare fellows for recruiting and job search initiatives they conduct on their own by offering a range of activities, workshops, and peer and faculty coaching sessions to help individuals with salary negotiation, resume development, and understanding networking and communication.

We also offer industry briefings, which are panels of alumni and experts from specific industries who share information about their work and current business practices in those areas, and specifically within their own organizations. Again, we're not really focusing on the job, but on helping people to understand who they are and what their possibilities are within the context of the external environment.

You emphasized in our previous interview that the Sloan Fellows are very focused on the education they're getting. They value the educational experience, the classroom experience, and the Sloan experience because they're not worried about getting that next job. Do you feel that that's changed somewhat due to the current economy?

Perhaps it’s changed slightly, but not significantly. We let people know ahead of time that if they need to be working the day after graduation, this isn't the right program for them. Our program requires too much focus for Fellows to simultaneously be involved in job searching during the course of the program in any substantive way.

How would you describe the relationship between Fellows and faculty?

The Fellows are our colleagues, we're here for them, and we really want to support them to make their year at MIT Sloan a productive, enriching experience that will advance them in their personal and professional pursuits. Every few weeks we conduct lunchtime “Forums” that provide an opportunity for informal discussions about how their term is progressing. We in the MIT Sloan Fellows Program office strive to establish a supportive and collegial atmosphere to facilitate open and transparent exchange of perspectives. We feel privileged to work with such exceptional people every year!

For help with your MIT Sloan Fellows application, as well as other MBA, EMBA and Sloan Fellows applications, please see Accepted's MBA admissions consulting and MBA essay editing.

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