Wharton’s Commitment Project – a Window into Wharton [Episode 210]
Today we’re doing something a little different: a deep dive into a specific program at Wharton. It’s a program that reveals a lot about Wharton’s culture, which also gives us insight into what the Wharton admissions committee is looking for.
Commitment. Purpose. Meaning. These are all terms that are bandied about amidst the fake news, leaks, tweets and headlines that take up so much of our attention. And let’s face it on a personal level, we all have made New Year’s Resolutions that lasted until January 2. However, we’ve also made other commitments, deeper commitments that we stick to. Benjamin Franklin wrote down four resolutions at the age of 20 and they became his “Plan of Conduct” throughout his long life. Franklin also founded the University of Pennsylvania, which is home to the Wharton School and its innovative Commitment Project. And that’s what we’re going to learn about in this show.
Project founder Siamak Sarvari. Professor Shell began his professorial career at Wharton in 1986 and became the Thomas Gerrity Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics and Management in 2001. He’s written five books on negotiations, persuasion and personal success and won many, many teaching awards during his career.
Siamak Sarvari earned his bachelors and masters degrees in EE, the latter from the U of Toronto in 2010. He then worked as an engineer and project manager until coming to Wharton in 2015. In winter 2017, he found himself in Prof Shell’s class, and we’re going to learn what followed in just a second.
Professor Shell and Siamak, welcome to Admissions Straight Talk!
Siamak, what is the Wharton Commitment Project? [3:00]
WCP is a student-led initiative to encourage Wharton MBA students to reflect on their personal values, life goals, priorities, and commitments as they complete their graduate education and get ready for their post-MBA life. It’s a simple process: we ask what are your personal commitments as you think about your life beyond Wharton? We invite students to write down up to five commitments (up to 50 characters each). It concludes with a final ceremony where students share their commitments with a partner. WCP also awards a memento to each participant – a metal business card with their commitment inscribed on the back.
Do you have the card? [4:30]
Yes, I have it in my wallet. We also give them a certificate. But the card is a useful reminder.
Professor Shell, from your perspective, what is the WCP? [5:00]
It’s a great initiative, coming out of an evolving Wharton student culture.
Wharton’s famous for being a pathway to Wall St. But the financial crisis created a tectonic shirt – there’s now more of a multifaceted range of aspirations. So I think this part of that evolving student experience.
It’s a bottom-up experience: something students created as a way to highlight their values and goals. And it’s a values-based experience. So it’s addressing a larger interest in having careers be meaningful and finding work-life balance.
I think it’s something really distinctive about Wharton.
How did it come about, Siamak? [8:25]
The idea came to my mind during one of Prof. Shell’s classes – Responsibility in Business. Prof. Shell was talking about commitments and values in business, and mentioned the white coat ceremony, etc. I thought the idea could be applied in business. Many business students will be leaders in various fields, and having something like this that they will remember could be valuable. So I started working on it.
Considering the diverse paths of MBA students, we thought a one-size-fits-all approach wouldn’t work, so we focused on personalization.
The administration at Wharton seems supportive in facilitating student initiatives. Was that your experience? [12:05]
Prof. Shell: Wharton has two distinctive features. One is it’s big – 825 students in a class is a big program. The students who come here knowing it’s a big program tend to take initiative – they’re entrepreneurial in the student culture sense. They’re bubbling with things they want to do.
The impressive thing is the partnership between students, faculty, and staff to create initiatives. This initiative is a classic example of that.
How did this grow out of a course on Responsibility in Business and “success”? [15:50]
Prof. Shell: Faculty at Wharton have a lot of freedom within each course. In my class, I try to use things I use otherwise to reflect on the question of responsibility. So for example I draw in negotiation and use it as a basis to talk about ethics in negotiation.
The part about making value judgments (where WCP comes from) comes from self-judgment and self-control. I’m trying to help them have good judgment and be self-aware, to prepare them for situations when they may be faced with a challenge or pressure to behave badly – to help them understand what their non-negotiable values are.
Siamak, how did it come across to you? [20:20]
The same values we have that guide us to make the right decisions in situations where we could go wrong are the values that guide healthy personal decision making. Value-driven, purposeful living can serve us in many ways.
Professor Shell: I give an assignment where they have to submit (in writing) a statement of something that requires self-control/self-discipline. And then they need to report on how they handle it.
Self-discipline is a muscle – it’s something you need every day. If you’re a good person every day, the ethical challenge is less of an exceptional moment when it comes.
Siamak, can you share some of the popular commitments people made? [24:30]
Everyone uses their own phrasing, but there are common themes:
1. Care for family
Half are focused on the self, and half on others. Is there anything you attribute the different foci to? [25:50]
I think people did a good job thinking through the process – some items focused on family, career, etc. Almost everyone had a mix of their own internal needs and other people.
Prof Shell: I think it’s not surprising to see that balance. The only thing you don’t see in the top five is spiritual commitment.
You’ll face situations in your life when your commitments are in tension or conflict, and thinking about your values ahead of time helps you be ready to make decisions.
How does WCP reflect the culture at Wharton? [32:50]
Siamak: Both in how it came together and the commitments/results, it reflects the culture.
Wharton has a very entrepreneurial and student-driven culture. Everyone is so supportive of what you want to do as a student – whether you want to learn about a new industry or start a new initiative.
The commitments also reflect the culture. Wharton is diverse, collegial, and supportive. I’ve seen how students interviewing for the same job support each other during recruiting. They go out of their way to pay it forward when supporting the incoming class. So I wasn’t surprised to see those values reflected in the commitments.
Prof. Shell: At any business school, there’s always been some people who are there basically to stamp their passports, and others who take the experience more seriously. Since the financial crisis, the number of people taking it really seriously is on the rise.
What is the “lifetime partner” component of the WCP program? [38:38]
Each participant shares their commitment with another person, and commits to checking in each year whether they’ve followed through. It’s an accountability provision.
Where does WCP go from here? [40:00]
Siamak: Hopefully it will continue to grow and be something every class of Wharton MBAs does before graduation.
It’s supported by the administration. It’s now officially part of the McNulty Leadership Program, but will be run by students each year. We have three enthusiastic first years who will lead it next year.
I hope I will look back in 10-20 years and see it has grown and made a positive impact in people’s lives.
Thirty-five percent of the class participated in year one, which is great.
Aside from being bright, what are the common threads you see in the student body? [43:30]
Prof. Shell: Other than the change that we’ve been getting a broader range of interests – the level of maturity has gone up. Students are bringing a lot of responsibility with them. And interest in entrepreneurship has really increased.
This podcast is geared to applicants. For each of you what would you like applicants to take away from this show about Wharton’s Commitment Project? [46:10]
Siamak: Life is short, so focus on how you want to live it.
Wharton will provide the platform to facilitate the decision process, but you have to do it on your own. Wharton will provide the springboard.
Prof. Shell: We’re looking for students who know who we are.
We’re looking for students who see the opportunity to be at Wharton as transformative. If all they’re going to do is party for two years to put a gold star in their passport, they don’t need an MBA. But if they want the responsibility that comes with being at Wharton and being a Wharton MBA, serious people go, have a good time, and have amazing opportunities to learn and grow.
Any advice for applicants? [50:05]
Siamak: Take your essays very seriously. Take the time to think deeply about your short and long-term goals. That will help you in meaningful ways for years to come. That introspection will help you when you get to campus. I can’t emphasize that enough!
Have a list of priorities before you get to campus – what you want to get out of your MBA. There are endless opportunities at a school like Wharton.
Prof. Shell: Don’t limit yourself to thinking there are only two to three schools worth going to. Pick a school that’s going to fit you – not just on its brand identity.
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