Understanding & navigating trade-offs during your EMBA experience
There’s no perfect timing to start anything. But understanding how to prioritize life’s responsibilities can help create space for a major undertaking. Lara Leniton Liss ’23, group vice president and global chief privacy officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance, shares how she’s been able to navigate her Executive MBA experience. She sat down with us to discuss the importance of time management and the role strategy plays in her personal, academic and professional life.
Returning to Evanston for my MBA
As a Northwestern undergraduate alumna, I had aspired for a long time to come back and do an MBA degree at Kellogg. Its reputation for world-class management training is second to none, and my life-changing four years as an undergraduate on the Evanston campus have made this a special place for me. As I was in my mid-40s, I felt that coming back to Kellogg was the right place for a second phase of growth and investment in my future, and the Kellogg mantra of high-impact, low-ego resonates deeply with my personal leadership style and life.
Strategic planning led me to choose the Evanston campus
As a Chicago resident, I chose the Evanston campus for its proximity and the ability to avoid additional plane travel. I also felt that the schedule of needing to take four hours every other week rather than a full two days off work once a month would more seamlessly integrate with my personal work schedule while minimizing burden on my team.
I find that Friday afternoons are light on conference calls and meetings anyway, and I typically spend Friday afternoons crossing items off my work follow up list and planning for the week to come. The schedule of the Evanston campus meant that I would just need to shift this work to Thursday evening and/or an earlier start to my workday on Fridays. I will say that during orientation in Miami, I talked to a member of the Miami cohort who shared that she was coming from Houston and so had to plan travel to either campus. In that scenario, I personally might have chosen Miami as well, as it meant only one weekend a month away from her family. Plus, as I type this, we are getting ready to head into winter quarter in Evanston in January, and I’ve got to admit that Miami sounds appealing this time of year. Everyone has their own unique set of factors they will be evaluating.
Direct applications of Kellogg learning to work
One of the best things about Kellogg is how quickly I can apply what I am learning in the classroom into the business world. Our orientation to the program included reading Professor Harry Kraemer’s book "Your 168," about how we spend our time each week. I took this learning back to my team to talk about how we prioritize our workdays to enable better work-life balance. Similarly, the work we did in statistics is directly tied into work that Walgreens does with de-identifying health data within set confidence intervals to be able to use the insights in a privacy-protective manner to advance understanding of better health. I also was able to take learnings from our leadership course with Professor Brian Uzzi and use them to understand how to advocate for off-cycle funding more effectively for a critical project.
Organizing my personal life as an EMBA student
As an executive who is also a wife and mom of three kids ages 15, 14 and 12, I am often asked how I balance life outside of Kellogg with being a full-time EMBA student. I carefully considered when it would be the best time for me to do the program. I was initially admitted to the Kellogg EMBA program five years ago and decided to wait to pursue this dream because I had just started a new job with international travel and my kids at that time were all in elementary school and needed me in a different way than they do now.
Depending on what is going on in your life — caring for an aging parent, starting a significant new job, or the current needs of children or other family members (just to name a few), you will have different factors to assess. I am a big believer that individuals are best positioned to know when it is the right time for them to do the program. Talk to important people in your life and then trust your gut about when it is the right time for you knowing that there is no perfect time.
My biggest tip for how to make it work when you are on campus is to invest in your study group. Kellogg will match you with a group of four to five other members of your cohort who you will work with for the entire two years you are in the program. Our study group divided up the assignments where we were allowed to do group work, and we would then come back and teach the others the material. This allowed us to all learn the material while relying on our team structure to enhance our productivity — much like you would do in an optimal work environment. I say this often because it is true: I could not do Kellogg without my study group.
In terms of strategies for how I make it work at home, on the weekends when I am not at the program, I volunteer to drive my kids’ friends around or host them at our house hoping that friends will return the favor on the weekends that I am not around. My youngest child and I like to prepare soup or something similar that can go into the freezer for the weekends when I have class. It lets us cook together and do some prep for those away weekends.
We have also been intentional about scheduling Sunday night family dinners during the weekends I have been at class to have time to reconnect as a family before starting another busy week. In addition, I have been thoughtful about saying no to some requests for time commitment, as this means I will have more time to do other things. Kellogg has all new EMBA students read Professor Harry Kramer’s “Your 168,” which is a book about how you spend the 168 hours we each have in a week. This was a brilliant orientation to the program. I remind myself that a ‘no’ to something now is not a no forever, just a no during this season of life.
I also want to acknowledge the truth in the old saying that “it takes a village.” Before the school year started, I sat down with my parents and my in-laws and mapped out who would cover which weekends that I would be in class. We are also incredibly fortunate to have an amazing nanny who has been with us since our kids were babies and evolved into our home manager as the kids have been getting older, and her work also enables me to do more in my professional life including this program. She handles everything from taking our cars for oil changes and grocery shopping to walking the dog and school transportation and much more.
Maximizing travel time for intentional networking & knowing when to delegate
In my work life, I focus on a strategy I call stacking travel which means if I am going to take a trip, I try to combine work travel with connecting with outside counsel, trade associations or other key stakeholders.
For example, in the spring I go to Washington, D.C. to attend an important privacy conference, and while I am there, I meet with other chief privacy officers. This can mean having dinner with outside counsel I work with frequently, meeting with trade associations and advocacy groups, grabbing coffee with a vendor to address an issue we have been trying to resolve, and if privacy legislation is being considered, meeting with Congressional staffers working on the legislation in partnership with our government relations team to provide our perspective on how the legislation will impact the health care or retail sector.
This makes for a packed week with meetings from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., but this allows me to travel once rather than multiple times. In addition, the long-term benefit of the shift to videoconferencing during the pandemic has been a sustainable culture shift in which some meetings that used to require a transatlantic flight can now be handled via Teams. This has helped tremendously as well with work-life balance. I previously was scheduled to do ten long-haul trips a year and now find that I can limit these types of significant trips to once a quarter.
I would emphasize the importance of delegating at work. Look at what tasks you have on your plate and what your team can take on. This has the win-win of giving your team growth and development opportunities while freeing up time to focus on strategic tasks and clearing those four hours every other week that EMBA students need for class.
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