Deven Bhatt, vice president and chief information security officer at a Southern Maine credit card company Wright Express and graduate of the Master of Science of Information Assurance program.

Inaugural Leadership Summit pairs graduate students with business organizations to address critical challenges

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Cybersecurity, recruitment and retention, transparency and the clash of old and new cultures: these are problems organizations everywhere face.

How can students from a wide swath of professional expertise, including leadership, information assurance, business, nursing and history, contribute?

In June 2013, 36 graduate students from Norwich University’s online College of Graduate and Continuing Studies (CGCS) spent six hours working on these and other tough leadership challenges with representatives from a variety of organizations. It was an exercise called the Leadership Summit.

The concept replicates the think-tank methodology of Norwich's master’s programs. More than 500 students from around the world had come to Norwich’s Northfield, Vt., campus for residency conferences. Each student was finishing course work in or graduating from one of nine different master’s degree programs or the bachelor’s degree completion program. For the 36 selected students, the Leadership Summit was part of the experience.

“Who’s important? It’s the customer,” said Lowell Doringo, of Orlando, Fla., a student in the Master of Science in Organizational Leadership (MSOL) program who works for the Walt Disney Company. He was addressing an issue that stemmed from clashing cultures in an organization. “At the enterprise level you need to come to agreement. Put aside egos and take care of your people.”

Stacie Morgan, PhD, a strategy consultant and adjunct faculty member, designed and led the day’s event. Each of six tables included graduate students, business leaders and guest participants there to listen, learn and contribute.

In a four-step process, groups worked to expand clients’ thinking by offering divergent perspectives, then narrowing the focus toward actionable solutions.

“The quality of an organization is not based on whether it has or hasn’t issues. It’s how they meet those challenges and defeat them,” said Morgan, an instructor in CGCS’s business administration and organizational leadership programs.

Participating organizations included Fletcher Allen Partners, Pitney Bowes, Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), Vermont League of Cities and Towns, Fletcher Allen Health Care and Norwich itself. Guests included top leaders from Seventh Generation, UTC Aerospace Systems, Boy Scouts of America, Vermont Electric Power Company and the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

Morgan said that CGCS’s online learning environment and the summit promote accountability -  each person plays a critical role.

“You can’t hide in the back of the classroom, and there’s no skimping on teacher attention,” she said.

The groups wasted no time attacking problems.

“You need to educate your people to get buy-in to combat resistance about the importance of security protocols,” said Deven Bhatt, Vice President and Chief Information Security Officer at credit card processor Wright Express, and student in the Master of Science of Information Assurance (MSIA) program.

Bhatt’s table was discussing how to integrate new technologies that balance usability with digital information security. A variety of solutions were discussed, including the idea of shifting security responsibility to the vendor and organizing peer organizations to demand better security protocols.

Other issues included techniques to attract employees who stay long enough to make training worthwhile, clarifying a company’s vision, generating “buy-in”, and holding management accountable.

“I’m taking some ideas back with me,” said Fletcher Allen Health Care’s Heather Roszkowski.

“Organizations came here today to see what we can do,” said Morgan. “We want you to leave understanding you are not alone with your leadership challenges.” The summit was organized in the spirit of “showing outsiders what Norwich and its students can do,” she added: “Our students are leaders right now. They solve problems anywhere, anytime, across the world.”

Bill Flinter, who was graduating from the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program, works for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., and spent 27 years in the Marine Corps. He said the exercise opened him up to the value of personal experiences when it comes to meeting professional challenges.

“It gave me an appreciation for people who are not government or military and the experience they brought to the table … they’re bringing their life experiences with them,” Flinter said. “There are 35 people on my watch team – law enforcement, emergency management, intelligence – there’s more to them than what they do at work. This has got me thinking about them and developing them beyond what they were hired for.”