Executive Partners Celebrate Twenty Years

In an era in which technology seems dominant in its impact of business and education, William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business has found a global competitive advantage in a tried and true form of human connection.

In-person relationship-building and communication.

Those are the underpinnings of the school’s Executive Partners program, which pairs an executive from the business world with each of the school’s MBA candidates and many of its undergraduate business students.

The Executive Partners—EPs for short—spend hours working with students discussing projects, assignments, career planning and networking. They stay close to the students, meeting regularly in person and often developing strong relationships that last well beyond the students’ time on campus.

“Very often the connection becomes so close that the EPs get invitations to weddings and birth announcements,” said Terry Shannon, a retired food industry executive who has been an EP for six years and the director of the all-volunteer program for three years.

“Of course we also get calls and inquiries about careers,” he said. “‘Hey, I’m looking at this opportunity. What do you think of it?’ It’s really because of the strong connection you make with the students. The relationships develop and carry on well beyond their time in this building.”

This year the EPs program is celebrating its 20th anniversary. From humble roots—born of a simple desire to connect students to retired or working executive who could help them navigate studies and careers—the program has become one of the signature features of William & Mary business education.

The program has 145 Executive Partners—some retired, some still working—with experience in every major aspect of business, from finance to marketing to operations to entrepreneurship and product development. The EPs volunteer their time and meet with their students on frequencies that fit both of their schedules.

“We’re training our students to be the next generation of global business leaders, so part of their education really should be about connecting with the global business leaders of today,” said Mason School Dean Larry Pulley. “The Executive Partners program is a special part of the experience at the Mason School. It’s a connection that helps our students now as well as long after they graduate.”

Louise Sharer has volunteered as an Executive Partner for six years after retiring as a marketing executive from the professional services fields of health-care, legal and finance.

“I have a neighbor who is an EP, and he was talking about it to me,” she said. “I had been looking for a volunteer opportunity, and this one resonated. It sounded ideal, in fact. I inquired and got involved and never looked back. It is the most rewarding volunteer experience I have ever undertaken.”

Sharer said she enjoys being a resource to her students about expectations in the working world.

“The workplace can be a tough place,” she said. “If there is an opportunity to smooth that path for our students, then it is a delight to be able to do that. As I look back on my career, it would have been nice to have been alerted to something, to have had someone to talk to about various aspects of my career, the particular aspects of a position—the future. So this is a real opportunity for me to have those meaningful discussions with young bright minds.”

She added: “They keep us sharp, too. They have expectations of us. It’s definitely a win-win situation. There are hundreds of companies that are represented through the ranks of the EPs. It’s a real resource for students to go through this Rolodex of all of these people with all of these experiences. It’s unique to William & Mary. And with the competitive nature of MBA programs, students make decisions about coming here because this is available here.”

The program benefits from Williamsburg’s reputation as a retirement destination for many executives. Shannon said nearly all of the EPs are not W&M alumni, adding to the diversity of the program and the Mason School experience. But most EPs do live within a reasonable commute of campus, allowing for regular in-person meetings with students.

Rick Spatz retired at 52 after a career in advertising and marketing that took him across the country and around the world. He and his wife settled in Williamsburg because of the community and because of William & Mary.

“I told my wife that she could pick. All I wanted was a place with a college or a university,” he said. “I got involved with the Executive Partners program, and it’s not an exaggeration to say it has been a complete blessing. It has made this portion of my life much more valuable and rewarding.”

Spatz, a former director of the program, loves to see the impact he and other EPs can have on students. He recalls meeting one student, from China, at a Mason School speed networking event early in her academic career. After graduation, the young woman struggled to find the right next step. Spatz helped her make connections that led to a career in venture capital.

“She got involved in VC at a very young age, and now she is a partner in a firm run by women offering venture funds to women,” he said “Those are the most rewarding moments. It’s nice when you make a contact with someone and help them get a job. But the ultimate payoff is when that relationship goes well beyond and stays for years. I am still in contact with students I had 14 years ago. These are the moments when I feel the greatest payoff. You feel you’ve really made a difference.”

Spatz and other EPs say the program wouldn’t be as successful without the support of the Mason School’s faculty, who encourage students to reach out to their EPs, ask questions of them about material learned in class—and sometimes invite them into class as guest lecturers.

“The more the faculty get to know the EPs, they understand the backgrounds and the specific expertise they offer,” Shannon said. “The faculty reach out and bring the EPs into the classroom to share specific experiences. As Dean Pulley likes to say, it really brings business into our business school.”