“Things work best at Wharton when they bubble up. A lecture from a professor in a core course, a group of students interested in pursuing the concept, an administrative response that was welcoming and interested, and resources from the School to help get it started — it’s very Wharton.”

Wharton MBA students pack a lot into the days leading up to graduation. But in between picking up regalia, coordinating family travel, and fitting in one last MBA Pub, more than 60 graduating MBA students took the opportunity to pause and reflect on their personal commitments for the future at the inaugural Wharton Commitment Project (WCP) ceremony.

As they gathered with classmates on May 11, they took in panoramic views of the city on the 8th floor of 2401 Walnut St. and looked at life beyond Wharton. “The Wharton Commitment Project is really about looking at what we each stand for, and I think doing that will shape our future activities and our ideas as they relate to ourselves and our families, our work and our organizations, and our communities,” said WCP Founder Siamak Sarvari, WG’17.

Wharton Commitment Project memento

“We think it’s important, maybe now more than ever, for people to define their own values and commitments and be clear about what they want to prioritize and pursue after Wharton,” he said. Cosponsored by the Vice Dean’s Office and the McNulty Leadership Program, the initiative just launched on April 4, but the inspiration came from a classroom discussion during Siamak’s first semester at Wharton.

In a core course on “Responsibility in Business,” Prof. Richard Shell talked about how commitments can increase personal and professional success. The class discussed how professions like medicine and nursing cement their commitments by using ceremonies where students take an oath and receive a token to remind them of their professional obligations.

Siamak started thinking about what form this might take for MBA students. He worked closely on the project design with WCP Director Carol Huang, WG’17. They looked at similar initiatives at other business schools, but decided to develop something more personal for Wharton.

“People with Wharton’s MBA Program have different backgrounds, different personalities, and different career paths. We’re very diverse, so you can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach,” Siamak said. “We wanted something more organic.”

Choose Your Own Commitment

After considering multiple versions of the design, Carol and Siamak decided on an approach that would allow each student to choose their own commitments. “It’s not a set of values on a wall in the school. It’s personal to each student, and it’s adaptive. The commitments vary from one person to another, and they will likely vary from one year to the next if we look at all the responses collectively,” Siamak said.

This approach is also more likely to make a lasting impact. Research has shown that people are more likely to fulfill commitments that are voluntary, written, and public so Carol and Siamak incorporated all of those concepts into their project design. To introduce the project to classmates, they hosted a WCP kickoff workshop on April 4 with the help of Prof. Shell, the Thomas Gerrity Professor and chair of Wharton’s Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department, and Lynn Krage, senior associate director of the McNulty Leadership Program.

MBA Commitment Project Prof. Richard Shell

That evening they emailed a survey to the entire graduating MBA class with just one question: “What are your personal commitments as you think about your life beyond Wharton?” Students had one week to respond with up to five commitments of 50 characters or less.

They heard back from 35 percent of the class — quite a feat for a brand-new initiative at Wharton. In all, 301 Wharton MBA students participated, sharing a total of 1,467 commitments. “I think it speaks to the fact that there was a willingness and an eagerness in the student body to have deeper, more personal, and authentic conversations about their long-term goals,” Prof. Shell said.

MBA Wharton Commitment Project Closing Ceremony

The closing ceremony gave the students an opportunity to share their commitments with classmates and an accountability partner who will keep in touch after graduation. Each participant received a metal card engraved with their individual commitments. It’s about the size of a business card — small enough to carry in your wallet or display on your desk.

Wharton Commitment Project Closing Ceremony

“The WCP memento acts as a constant reminder of the commitments students have made at his stage in their lives,” Siamak explained. “This is something that they can literally carry with them as they move on from Wharton.”

Student-Led, School-Supported

“Things work best at Wharton when they bubble up,” Prof. Shell said. “A lecture from a professor in a core course, a group of students interested in pursuing the concept, an administrative response that was welcoming and interested, and resources from the School to help get it started — it’s very Wharton.”

But Siamak and his team also know that the secret of success at Wharton is continuity from one year to the next, especially in the first year of an initiative. That’s why they wanted WCP to be housed under part of the administration. The McNulty Leadership Program was happy to take on the task.

“We know that in order to achieve your goals, you really need to take the time to goal set and think about how you will implement ahead of time,” said Krage, who is also the director of the Wharton Executive Coaching and Feedback Program.

“That’s what the Wharton Commitment Project is helping the students to do — to reflect upon who they want to be, how they want to show up, what really matters to them, and how they’re going to implement on that before they have to go out and do it,” she said. “I’m excited we can help to provide an administrative support system and some structure to help them engage in this reflective process.”

Krage will coordinate with first-year WCP Directors Abdul-Hakeem Buhari, WG’18, Anna Portillo, WG’18, and Noah Thomas, WG’18, who are excited to carry on the tradition. Energized by the “unbelievable turnout” this year, Buhari hopes to make an even bigger splash in 2018. His goal is to reach at least 50 percent participation — maybe more.

Buhari and Prof. Richard Shell at the closing Wharton Commitment Project ceremony

“I’m interested to see what happens next year, which is why I think the first-year WCP Directors are so important,” Prof. Shell said. “This is not just about the Class of 2017; it’s about the Class of 2018, and beyond.”

“This has the potential to be culture changing for Wharton MBAs,” he said. “If you are a nurse, you get a pin; if you are a doctor, you get a white coat; and if you’re a business student participating in the Wharton Commitment Project, you get a card engraved with the pledges that you’re making to yourself.”

—Colleen Mullarkey

Posted: May 17, 2017

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