Sean FlynnSoftware Business Unit ExecutiveIBMUniversity of Virginia Darden School of Business MBA for Executives (EMBA) Class of 2009Why did you decide to sponsor a Darden EMBA student?Sponsoring high potential employees to Darden is one of the most powerful investments that our business can make. I was fortunate enough to be sponsored by IBM to attend the Darden EMBA program. During my 21 months in the program, I developed a deep appreciation for the program’s ability to prepare leaders to succeed in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous business climate.With trademark rigor, Darden’s case-method curriculum exposed me to a myriad of industries and functional areas outside of my area of expertise. The process is transformative leaving our class with a deeply ingrained enterprise perspective. Teaching executive students to evaluate business in parts and wholes is one of the distinctive elements of what we refer to as Darden DNA.The Darden case method is also effective at helping students understand nuance, identify relevant information and prioritize activities that deliver tangible business outcomes.Simply put, Darden helps students become more effective problem solvers. When students share with colleagues what they learned and how it is helping them thrive, their teams want to learn it too. I found this to be particularly true in a high-performance environment like IBM.What benefits does your company gain from sponsoring Darden students?At this point, we have been fortunate to have a number of high potential employees go through the program. While these high potential graduates form a strong core for the business, the lessons, creativity and ideas they bring impact my team and adjacent units.I am referring to pragmatic, immediately applicable ideas.We have seen folks we invested in come back and lead complex, enterprise level negotiations with the very real intention of creating value versus claiming value.In one recent example that would make Professor Sherwood Frey proud, we saw an employee find a creative way to add value to a deal that built the commitment from a 7-figure deal to an 8-figure deal. And both parties were pleased with the outcome.What changes do you see in the individuals your company has sponsored?In our experience, the individuals we sponsored demonstrated remarkable growth as business leaders. High potentials in the program matured and showed increased comfort with complex financial situations and communicating with varied audiences. To be certain, it is an investment we reserve for individuals with the potential to attain senior leadership positions in the business.I also saw quite a few of my peers take on higher levels of responsibility while I was a student. I was honored to receive a significant promotion during my time at Darden, and we recently announced the promotion of another EMBA student.What criteria do you use when evaluating employees for sponsorship and financial support?Companies will have criteria and processes for sponsorship that are as varied as the industries they compete in.On my team, I look for a high-potential employee with a minimum of four years of service, a consistent track record of success at increasing levels of responsibility and the genuine desire to grow inside IBM. I also ask our applicants to provide a detailed business case. The ability and desire to grow in and contribute to the company are essential elements.There are different levels of sponsorship. At a minimum, Darden requires that a sponsor support the time commitment (20 hours per week for 21 months) and attendance at on-Grounds academic sessions (typically 3 days a month, plus 2 weeks per year). There are also options for financial sponsorship which include full or partial tuition.On my team, we generally commit to a student’s level of financial sponsorship after they’ve been accepted.What are your views on EMBA sponsorship, retention and loyalty?The question often comes up on what to require of a sponsored student after graduation. For my team, it’s a minimum two year commitment after graduation. In my personal business case for sponsorship, I was specific in defining ways I would contribute to IBM during and after the program. I believe that commitment has helped the employees I’ve sponsored as well. We’ve been able to point out that the employees we sponsored to attend Darden have stayed with and are growing in the company.In general, I would say that if a candidate demonstrates an interest in pursuing a MBA, encourage it wholeheartedly. It is absolutely normal to be concerned about retention after graduation. In my experience, it has been the opposite. Once a high potential sees us investing in them and in their future, it has a positive impact on loyalty.