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MBA student Keith Crozier, center, listens to Dennis Rebelo of Alex
and Ani.

What’s Your Story? MBA Course Uncovers Leaders through Storytelling

The story was seamless and enchanting. It recounted a weekend in the Northwest, a run-in with a rattlesnake, and an encounter with a man who had mystical powers.

Think that’s an unexpected way to begin an MBA course? Think again.

During the first session of the summer at Providence College, MBA students learned to tell their own stories in Leadership Storytelling in the 21st Century, a course offered for the first time.

Co-taught by Dr. Matthew Eriksen, professor of management, and Dennis Rebelo, president of Alex and Ani University Professional Development Center, the course explored styles of leadership storytelling and the power of storytelling in organizations.

The course is a product of a lengthy relationship between Eriksen and Alex and Ani University (AAU) — one which has been beneficial to AAU and PC students. AAU co-sponsored this year’s Providence College Leading with Values Conference in February, and Eriksen has been engaged in training and individual and team coaching at AAU.

Rebelo, the opening raconteur, has had an accomplished career in incorporating professional storytelling into organizations, including as president of University Business Consultants and director of corporate training and development for the Penske Automotive Group.

In this course, Rebelo said the students’ “identity-based” and “authentic” stories, which were honed throughout the session, would allow them to become more conscious of their style of leadership.

Eriksen said that having the ability to engagingly tell a cogent and interesting story is a valuable tool in today’s professional world — useful in interviews as a subordinate or as a leader.

“Everyone has a story to tell,” Eriksen said. “We all have lived experiences that can be shared. This class teaches them to find significance in their past experience and project who they are to others.”

Personal stories, professional benefits

The course culminated with each student telling a refined “Leadership Story” about a topic of their choice. The story, a personal account, was reworked and retold throughout the semester in an effort to make it as effective as possible.

The story Keith Crozier told revolved around a stressful experience he had a year ago. Three days before his wedding, Crozier, a manager of network performance for CVS Caremark, needed an emergency appendectomy, which left him unsure if he would fully be able to participate in the ceremony.

“Well, I ended up feeling 100 percent on the wedding day and felt like I never had surgery, but when I woke up the next morning, I was sick again,” Crozier said. “What that experience taught me is that when the stakes are high — and it doesn’t get much higher than my wedding day — I can always be counted on to come through and deliver.”

While personal, Crozier believes the perseverant theme of that story can be transferred to a professional setting.

“I lead a team of six individuals, and I have learned from this class that I can create motivation for my team by telling a story with the intent of creating motivation,” he said. “If I understand them and they understand me, it becomes much easier to achieve professional success even when differences of opinions arise.”

Jennifer Holland called her story a “get back on the horse” story — “a motivational story to tell if people have had a setback.”

“I chose this story because there are setbacks at work,” she explained. “Now, if a colleague comes to me feeling down, I have a new way to motivate — instead of just listening.”

Zachary Matook ’12, a PC graduate hall director, said one major takeaway from the course was learning how stories have “so much power when they are told in a manner that truly pulls the listener in.” His final story, a “who I am” story as he explained it, focused on his concern for others — traits he can use in his position at PC.

“I chose this story because it tells my ‘audience’ that I act out of compassion for others,” he explained. “Hopefully, when they are faced with a similar situation, they can be that person who doesn’t turn their back on someone.”

Alex and Ani connection pays dividends

During the spring semester, Crozier was a student in Eriksen’s Leaders on Leadership course. One of the weekly guest speakers for that class was Rebelo, who Crozier called “fascinating.” Once he learned that Rebelo and Eriksen were co-teaching this course, he called it “an easy decision” to sign up.

“By having someone from a company like Alex and Ani come into the classroom and teach theories and concepts that are being taught to Alex and Ani management has been a great experience,” Crozier said. “That company is wildly successful, and it is evident that the leadership storytelling that drives their organization is valid and highly effective.”

He added, “To me, an MBA course is most effective when theory is combined with practical experience. That is exactly what I got through this class.”

Holland furthered Crozier’s practicality theme, saying, “It was really great to learn from someone who has so much experience and specialization in business and in this particular area. Because of his business background, he understood all the questions I had about situations at work. He was an incredible asset.”

Matook also was a student in Eriksen’s Leaders on Leadership course. He said that course exposed him to theories and concept he hadn’t thought about before and added that he was “captivated” by Rebelo’s storytelling lesson.

“When I found out that they would teaching this course together, I signed up immediately,” he said. “I knew this was my chance to take what I learned in Leaders on Leadership and combine it with what this course taught. This course was nothing short of enlightening.”

— Chris Machado

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