How do you convince Washington, D.C., area residents to make Metro their preferred transit provider when safety and service reliability issues regularly dominate the news? And how do you convince them that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) should be their employer of choice, too?
That was the challenge facing all second-year MBA students this year as part of a redesigned core course, Managing the Enterprise. Students studied WMATA’s real-life business challenges and proposed solutions in a seven-week-long consulting project that the MBA program dubbed the Metro Challenge. The project — known as an active learning partnership — culminated in finalist pitches to nine members of the WMATA senior leadership team, including general manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld, who chose two winning approaches.
A New Partnership
The project marked the first collaboration between WMATA and the McDonough School of Business and provided an opportunity for Full-time and Evening MBAs to work with one of the region’s highest profile companies. WMATA operates a $3.2 billion annual budget and employs about 13,000 people.
“The fact that they’re on the cusp of the public and private sectors means the issues they face are classic Washington issues,” said Nick Lovegrove, professor of the practice in management, about WMATA, which operates Metro trains, buses, and other regional transit services. “In management courses, which tend to be a bit abstract, it really helps students to collaborate with an organization to provide a sense of reality.”
Students received details directly from WMATA leadership on the organization’s challenges and progress since Wiedefeld came on board in 2015. Committed to regaining the public’s trust and restoring service, WMATA has focused on improving rail infrastructure and creating a culture of safety, along with working internally to improve financial stability and create pride among new and existing employees.
The Winning Approaches
The two winning teams – one comprising Full-time MBAs, the other Evening MBAs — offered both an optimistic vision of the future and a well-structured framework to achieve it.
One presentation focused on telling the stories of two fictitious characters, a customer and an employee, and how a cultural overhaul that focuses on the customer experience and embraces technology — such as a smart app — can create a better company. “How can [WMATA] integrate technology into the way the employee was doing his job? How has technology also impacted the way passengers feel when they’re riding the train?” said Anjelique Parnell (MBA’20) of her group’s approach. “We were showing that parallel journey.”
The other presentation took inspiration from successful organizations like Google and Netflix and proposed ways WMATA can improve accountability, workforce development, and innovation. Ideas included developing mentorship and employee exchange programs and instituting a Shark Tank-style competition to untap and reward new ideas.
In announcing the winners, Wiedefeld lauded the quality of work from all student teams, noting that the presentations were “as good as, if not better than a lot of what we see” from highly paid consultants.
For Parnell, the most interesting part of the challenge was that there was no obvious solution for the complicated problems facing WMATA. “This project was a good capstone for the course because there’s no right or wrong answer for how WMATA can be the mobility carrier of choice or the employer of choice,” she said.
Solving complicated problems – and working to improve the company as a whole — was at the heart of the Managing the Enterprise course, which addressed a central question of management: What do I need to do in order to build, motivate, and manage a high-performing organization? The class looked at how organizations work, at various stages of organizational maturity, through a focus on the most critical aspect of many enterprises — the people.
Georgetown MBAs will go on to help enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the enterprises they work for, as well as shape and guide the enterprises of the future, Lovegrove said.
“Understanding what constitutes good and effective management isn’t only a matter of importance for current and future managers,” Lovegrove added. “It’s also a prime consideration for financial investors who need to evaluate the management capabilities of CEOs and their teams, in order to maximize the return on their invested capital.”