Jim Norris, WG’97, managing director of Vanguard International, had a unique career path at Vanguard before coming to Wharton with full sponsorship. Joining the firm in 1987, a month after the stock market crashed, he started as an entry-level fund accountant before becoming the assistant to the founder, then-CEO and Chair John Bogle.
Jim’s responsibilities as assistant ranged from answering client correspondence to writing annual fund reports and conducting research for Bogle’s increasingly frequent publications. “I had the opportunity to do a lot of PhD-level work in that role, but I was self-taught,” he said.
At one point, Jim began a part-time Master’s program in economics at a local school, but soon realized that it lacked rigor. “I was in class one evening and the professor was just going over the homework instead of teaching anything new. I felt like wasn’t maximizing my learning, so I never went back,” he said.
However, he still wanted to pursue a business education, so he decided he would leave Vanguard for a full-time MBA program. When he told then-president Jack Brennan of his plans, Brennan suggested that he instead look at Wharton’s EMBA program so that he could continue working. “That’s how I ended up in this program with full sponsorship,” noted Jim.
Jim’s sponsorship started a long history of financial sponsorship of Vanguard employees in the Wharton EMBA program. Today, the company sponsors two or three employees in every class.
“Vanguard is a great company to work at, and the reality is that our best people will want to continue their education. They won’t defer school just because you won’t pay the tuition. It’s better to sponsor your high-potential employees, so that they can stay connected to the company. Sponsorship generates an incredible amount of loyalty,” he added, noting that Vanguard’s retention rate for sponsored employees is consistently around 95%.
Jim credits the high retention rate with the company’s awareness that employees don’t go through this program to return to their same roles. “When I graduated, I got my first ‘real job’ running a business with more leadership and operating responsibility. The company recognized that I needed to put my MBA to work and I launched a new part of my career at Vanguard.”
He said, “When employees graduate, they have a new toolkit of skills, but they also have a different set of expectations about themselves, new levels of confidence, and diverse networks of incredibly talented people. It’s similar to sending someone on an ex-pat assignment. When they return, they aren’t the same person as they were before, and you need to recognize and leverage that personal and professional growth to keep them at the company.”
A “growth mindset and continuous learning” are part of the culture at Vanguard. Jim explained, “When executives stall in their careers, it is usually because they get to a point where they stop learning and asking questions. We are a very different company than we were 20 years ago. Going back to school is a great way for our leaders to keep up with those changes and continue their personal growth and learning.”
Advice for Sponsors
Jim recently returned to Wharton’s Philadelphia campus for Sponsors’ Day, an annual event where sponsors are invited to attend class with their employees. Jim spoke to students and sponsors about the value of sponsorship and shared a few tips for getting the most out of it.
1. Know that the program will transform your employee.
“Understand that the program will be successful in transforming the employee professionally and personally. Be prepared for that,” he said. “They will likely graduate with a new set of aspirations.”
2. Think about next steps after graduation.
Jim advised considering, “What is the catalyst for why that person came to Wharton? How can you prepare in advance to move them into a more impactful role when they have completed the program?”
3. Give employees space to immerse themselves in the program.
“This is not the time to assign an employee to a huge new project. You need to give them time for school so they can dig into the experience. And the experience isn’t just classwork. There is a social aspect to interacting with the brilliant people around you,” he said, noting that two of his classmates went on to work at Vanguard.
Tips for Employees Seeking Sponsorship
Jim also shared a few tips for employees seeking sponsorship.
1. Find a senior-level advocate.
“Decisions about sponsorship are usually made higher up in an organization. Obviously, having an advocate who supports you is helpful,” he said.
2. Establish a track record at the company.
Jim explained, “If you’re only at the company for a year then you won’t be a good candidate. This is sometimes a challenge when people frequently change jobs because you need to be at the same company for a period of years to establish a track record and show what you have accomplished and also to show your potential.”
3. Build the case about your level of commitment to the organization, the EMBA program, and your capabilities.
“There are a lot of people who would like to be sponsored, so make sure you show what sets you apart. This program isn’t about checking the box to get your MBA. Students go to Wharton’s EMBA program to substantively learn and develop as leaders.”
— Meghan Laska
Posted: December 10, 2019