Sprint canoer Andrew Russell understands better than most the intense pressure of competition. Having represented Canada at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, he will soon draw on his honed competitive skills to rival top MBA students in business smarts, intuition and stamina.
Now a second-year MBA student at the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Mr. Russell is preparing for a tough match against some of the brightest business students at the 2014 MBA Games national competition, being held in January at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto. Last year, 22 teams of close to 650 students competed in a range of academic, sporting and spirit events at the annual competition that was started in 1988 by Queen's University in Kingston.
"Being a high-level athlete helps me in my preparation," says Mr. Russell, president of the Saint Mary's MBA Society. "I have the competitive drive to win, and have had lots of experiences in team settings where the collective group experiences high stress and there is a need to work through challenging situations and team dynamics."
Last year, he went to the MBA Games and took part in a case competition in crisis management. His four-member team was asked to come up with a strategy for a vinyl manufacturer facing environmental protests and a potential ban of their product. "It's one of those trial-by-fire experiences," Mr. Russell says. "You learn a lot about yourself. You're in a pressure situation. You need to identify your strengths and work as a group."
With about 21/2 hours and laptops, but no Internet access, they dissected the case and then did a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation before a judging panel of senior business executives, whose job it was to poke holes in their strategy.
"[A case] is the application of all the things you have learned in your MBA. In a case you have to integrate it all together," says Peggy Coady, director of graduate programs at Memorial University's faculty of business administration. "It's one of the best ways to develop experiential learning. They [the students] have to act like real-life consultants presenting to a board of directors."
Getting on a case competition team isn't easy. At Saint Mary's, the MBA Society chose just 16 students to go to the next MBA Games through a formal application process that included a review of their résumés, marks and recommendations from professors.
Since then, the students have met biweekly to work through cases. As January approaches, they will hold a mock case competition session that mimics the time and performance pressures during the actual event. Being on the team is extracurricular. It not only requires a major time commitment, but each student is expected to pay about $500 toward the cost of the competition. If the team secures corporate sponsors, that amount will decrease, Mr. Russell says.
At Memorial University's faculty of business administration, MBA students have been competing for three decades in Concordia University's John Molson MBA International Case Competition, the oldest of its kind in the world, says Prof. Coady. The competition is so entrenched in Memorial that the school has developed a course in which students learn how to read, evaluate and present cases for credit. The roughly $10,000 cost of the competition and the team's expenses during a week-long trip to Montreal are covered through donations from alumni and others.
Teams need to go through about 10 cases before they can work efficiently together, says Prof. Coady. Once a week Prof. Coady meets with her team to do a full-blown case study. To make it real, she brings in high-profile business people, such as Vic Young, who sits on Royal Bank of Canada's board of directors, to act as judges when the students present their cases.
At the Sobey School of Business, Jon Lee and his four-member team are also preparing to go to the John Molson case competition. One evening a week, Mr. Lee and his team meet with their professor for five hours."It's pretty intense," he says. "I want to go out there and make as many mistakes as possible in an artificial setting. This is all great practice."
During a practice session, they have three hours to analyze a 20-page case study and develop a 25-minute presentation, which is then critiqued on everything from presentation style to analysis. After struggling to find their team identity, Mr. Lee says they are now more cohesive and gone are the "passive aggressive fights." A naval officer and combat systems engineer who has served on HMCS Iroquois in the Arabian Sea, Mr. Lee has taken on the role of team disciplinarian. "I keep people in line," he jokes.
For business schools with more limited marketing budgets, national case competitions provide a great opportunity to get their name out and gauge how they're doing against other schools, says Dan Shaw, head of the MBA program at the Rowe School of Business at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Exposure is a key reason why the University of Fredericton, an online university that offers MBA and executive MBA degrees, is sending its first team to the MBA Games. "We want to get public recognition and show the calibre of our students," says David Large, dean of the university's Sandermoen School of Business. "Lots of business schools and businesses still don't know we exist."
The plethora of national and international case competitions give students not only the chance to network, develop problem-solving skills and sell ideas, but in a tough job market, adding a prestigious competition to a résumé can provide an added edge and make all the money, time and effort worth it. "It's training ground for the big game," Mr. Lee says.
Let the games begin
Started in 1982, the John Molson MBA International Case Competition draws 36 teams from around the globe. The world's oldest and largest case competition requires a budget of more than $250,000 and nine months of preparation by organizers. The University of Technology in Australia won the competition's first-place prize of $10,000 in 2013. Second place went to the Queensland University of Technology, also in Australia. DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University took third-place honours.
In 2012, Université Laval in Quebec won the John Molson; the second- and third-place teams were the University of Otago in New Zealand and the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary.
The MBA Games is an annual competition open to all MBA schools in Canada. Schools compete for the Queen's Cup in academic, athletic and spirit events in early January. In 2013, 22 teams attended the event. The Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto won the 2013 MBA Games, with the Ted Rogers School of Business Management at Ryerson University in second and Université Laval in third.At the 2012 MBA Games, DeGroote took first prize. Schulich was second and the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver was third.