The Executive Alternative

William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business has been in the life of Geoffrey Cole, EMBA ’19 for as long as he can remember. His parents, Gary Cole, EMBA ’88 and Ruth Cole, EMBA ’87, graduated with the inaugural Executive MBA cohorts and are enthusiastic supporters of the university. So, decades later, when their son began looking at graduate business programs, it was only natural for Cole to consider enrolling at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business.

“We’ve always been big fans of William & Mary,” he says. “It’s a great school and it’s right down the road. The faculty and staff there are phenomenal and the program was right for me at the time. It all sort of clicked and made sense.”

A Virginia Beach native, Cole attended Norfolk Academy before earning his Bachelor of Science degree in Business Management from Virginia Tech’s Pamplin School of Business. Following graduation, Cole spent six years working for Norfolk Southern Corporation. Several years into his tenure as a Market Manager in the Chemical Marketing department, he consulted his mentors on going back to school. They agreed that the move to pursue an MBA was a smart one.

“I was starting to feel too comfortable at work. William & Mary seemed like the right move, so I figured it was as good a time as any,” he explains. “I like how dynamic an MBA is - it provides broader opportunity and flexibility.”

An Executive Education

While Cole looked at several MBA programs in the region, he wasn’t looking to attend a full-time program. He was building a successful career at Norfolk Southern Corporation and did not want to disrupt his momentum by going back to school to earn a degree. Obviously, he had known about William & Mary’s Executive MBA program through his parents. However, it was the flexible alternating weekend schedule of classes and the proximity of the campus to his home in Virginia Beach that drove him to apply.

“If you already have a successful career going and you don’t want to drop it to go back to school full-time for two years, the Executive MBA program is a great alternative,” says Lawrence J. “Larry” Ring who is responsible for establishing the program at the Mason School.

In addition to recruiting the first three Executive MBA cohorts, Ring taught marketing courses in the first and third semesters until his retirement in 2019. He taught Cole, both of his parents, and students in every single cohort since the program’s inception.

Cole says while it may seem odd to some people that he was taught by the same instructor as his parents, he sees the opportunity as a unique one that he was able to derive value from.

“There’s something to be said if [the professors have been] there for that long,” he says. “They’re still teaching the fundamentals of business. I think it just speaks to their credibility and how well they know the material.”

Ring agrees.

“I taught everything by the case method,” he explains. “The content and the topics haven’t changed at all; just the cases are new. But I think the true value comes from the experience that’s in the room. You’re going to learn as much from your classmates and your teammates as you will from whoever is teaching in the classroom.”

Like Cole, Ring says over the years he’s encountered a handful of Executive MBA students who have one or more parents who also graduated from the program.

“I think for the ones whose parents were in the program, they look at the experience their parents had,” Ring says. “In the case of Geoff, I think he saw the strong bonds his parents had with their teams and how closely they’ve all kept in touch throughout the years, and he wanted that for himself.”

Cole says he did, in fact, make “life-long friends” in the Executive MBA program. He cites the generational spread and diverse backgrounds of his cohort as a primary reason he was attracted to the program. 

“Having classmates and teammates, some who have been in business longer than I’ve been alive, and learning from their experiences and perspectives was something I couldn’t pull from a textbook,” he explains.

Another key takeaway for Cole was his relationships with the faculty members who instructed courses, facilitated the global immersion excursions, and interacted with students at various events.

“The program’s structure helped the professors and students get to know each other on a personal level. It didn’t even feel like they were professors by the end of the program,” Cole says. “Those bonds, coupled with each professor’s ability to tailor the material to the student, is what made the experience. They were fountains of knowledge sharing all of these real-world situations. It was like drinking from a firehose. But those are some of the best relationships I’ll ever have.”

Charting a New Course

As Cole headed into his last semester of the program, Norfolk Southern Corporation announced that its headquarters was moving to Atlanta, Georgia, after doing business in the region for over 36 years. The company offered Cole the opportunity to relocate south as well, but after careful consideration he declined and opted to stay in Virginia.

“I liked my job at Norfolk Southern a lot,” he explains. “But Virginia Beach is my hometown, and a move wasn’t something that interested me.”

Cole underwent a regional job search and eventually accepted an opportunity with Vantage Consulting Group, a financial firm in Virginia Beach that specializes in providing comprehensive investment strategies for institutions, endowments, foundations, and family offices. Cole is responsible for overseeing the organization’s corporate finance efforts as Controller. He attributes his success in securing the position to his Executive MBA.

“I think having the William & Mary name behind it holds a tremendous amount of clout and weight. People know the school and respect it,” he says.

Eventually, Cole says he may return to school and work towards another degree – he’s eyeing a Master of Accounting or possibly one related to finance. But in the short term, he is enjoying more time with his family and professionally, he is focused on applying all that he learned in the Executive MBA program in his new role to bring value to his team.

“The William & Mary Executive MBA program opened my eyes to how to think about things differently. I understood the basics and the fundamentals of business before, but now I can apply them to issues in the real world from a holistic perspective,” he says.