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MBA Students Exercise Teamwork, Leadership with New York City Firefighters

A group of about 40 Penn State Smeal MBA students spent a day at the Fire Department of the City of New York Fire Academy on Randall's Island, N.Y., last month to participate in the Firefighter for a Day Challenge, a teambuilding and leadership development program through the FDNY Foundation.
May 1, 2014

Penn State Smeal MBA Students at the Firefighter for a Day Challenge in New York
At the Firefighter for a Day Challenge in New York, Penn State Smeal MBAs encountered several training simulations used for real firefighter training. Here, they're using fire hoses to put out a small fire in one of the training facility buildings.

“Everything we’re going to expose you to are things that happen in a real fire.”

That was one of the first things a group of Penn State Smeal MBA and Executive MBA students heard upon arriving at the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) Fire Academy on Randall’s Island, N.Y., last month to participate in the Firefighter for a Day Challenge, a teambuilding and leadership development program through the FDNY Foundation.

“Leadership is one of the most important skills for new MBA graduates,” said Carrie Marcinkevage, managing director of the Penn State Smeal MBA Program. “We wanted to provide our students with an experience that removed them from their typical environments and offered some very daunting leadership challenges.”

“Everything we’re going to expose you to are things that happen in a real fire.”

As part of the college’s new leadership immersion experience, about 40 students spent the day learning to work together in disorienting circumstances, communicate under pressure, and adapt to uncertain situations. This year, a smaller group of students also had the opportunity to experience a military simulation at the U.S. Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va.

“The FDNY Firefighter for a Day Challenge put students in unique situations that stretched their conception of effective communication, what it means to work as a team, and how to lead amidst chaos and stress,” said Marcinkevage.

The 27-acre Fire Academy looks like a slice of the city: buildings with fire escapes and simulated storefronts dot the landscape, mixed in with other stations where probationary firefighters practice controlling fire hoses and dealing with other city emergencies such as subway derailments.

MBA students were sent into some of these stations, or evolutions, with little to no direction, giving teams an opportunity to stretch their critical thinking and teamwork skills. After each evolution, facilitators on scene—members of the FDNY who help train incoming firefighters—walked the students through lessons learned and how they could have more effectively approached each problem.

Penn State Smeal MBA Students Complete a Bus Bomb Simulation at the FDNY Training Facility
In the Bus Bomb simulation, teams of students were tasked with approaching the scene of a bomb attack to rescue survivors--all while looking out for more possible devices. The task required extensive teamwork and communication with very little planning time.

“The importance of planning and preparation was really driven home,” said Elizabeth Guiley, first-year MBA student. “Throughout the day, my team became better at working together because we became more effective planners. That made the execution so much more seamless.”

Guiley also reflected how important communication was to execution of the challenges.

“You have to effectively communicate your expectations,” she said. “This is so applicable to business school. If communication isn’t clear, team deliverables suffer.”

"[W]e learned how important every role on the team is—including how to support the leader.”

Ravindar Bose, also a first-year student in the Penn State Smeal MBA Program, said that the experience reinforced a number of lessons about leadership and teamwork that he will carry with him back to the classroom and into his future career.

“In learning to control the fire hose, for instance, we learned how important every role on the team is—including how to support the leader. Even as a supporter, you play a key role; whatever your role, you have to support your team.”

A Penn state Smeal MBA Student Learns How to Control the Firehose
Learning how to use a fire hose might be the quintessential firefighter task. Here, a team facilitator coaches a student through the process.

After completing all six evolutions, students and facilitators gathered together for a discussion led by Battalion Chief John Regan. One of the main points that resonated with students was about the use of schemas—which, of course, they’d already heard a lot about in their MBA classes.

“When you approach a new situation, you build a schema. The next time you approach a similar situation, you tend to use that existing schema,” explained Bose.

But, Bose continued, you can’t get so fixated on your goal that you overlook important information. In a firefighting situation, this might mean looking out for game-changing situations like unexpected victims; in business, it could be a new disruptive technology that might change the course of a product development.

Students said they came away from the Firefighter for a Day Challenge with not only some great lessons about leading and collaboration but also an opportunity for personal growth.

"I know some people walked away having done things they never thought they would do.”

“The experience took a lot of people out of their comfort zones, and I know some people walked away having done things they never thought they would do,” said Guiley.

The MBA students’ participation in the FDNY Firefighter for a Day Challenge was sponsored by Air Products.

About the Penn State Smeal MBA Program
The internationally ranked residential Penn State Smeal MBA Program positions students from around the world for their future careers. The two-year program, based on the University Park campus, begins with a focus on business fundamentals. Through summer internships with top companies and concentration opportunities in areas such as finance, marketing, and supply chain management, students then personalize their Smeal MBA experiences to align with their career aspirations. Learn more at www.smeal.psu.edu/mba.

About the Penn State Smeal Executive MBA Program
The Penn State Smeal Executive MBA Program provides working professionals with the learning, connections, resources, and experiences to accelerate their careers. The 21-month program features personalized executive coaching, intensive communication training, a weeklong international residency experience, and coursework focused on the unique challenges of the students’ firms. Classes are held on alternating weekends at the ACE Conference Center in suburban Philadelphia. Learn more at www.smeal.psu.edu/execmba.

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