Michael Thorne-Begland, VP, Chief Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Officer at Altria, attended Darden Executive Education & Lifelong Learning’s Servant Leadership: Leading with Humanity program in Spring 2022. He had been actively pursuing self-development work, but decided it was time to accelerate that journey with leadership development experts. Thorne-Begland shares how the program has since helped him lead in his role during a tumultuous time and show up in a human way for people.

Why did you choose Darden for your professional development work?

Darden has a well-earned reputation of excellence. I knew no matter what program I pursued at Darden, I was guaranteed to learn from professors that were top in their fields. It was a no brainer that Darden would deliver a high-quality experience and that I would be with others who wanted the same quality of education.

What prompted you to take the Servant Leadership program?

A colleague and I had enrolled in Financial Management for Non-Financial Executives, and at the last minute I had to step back due to a scheduling conflict. The Servant Leadership program spoke to me in a deep way in terms of work that I was doing personally already, and work that I think is critical for organizations to focus on. The timing was right, and I realized I needed to step back from what had been a self-guided approach to this area and focus on it with people that are experts in these issues. It all came together in a profound way for me.

What are some new perspectives or skills that you took away from the experience?

The work around reflected best self and the clarity around individual superpowers that program participants leave with is unbelievably valuable. I had taken many self-assessments, but I had never done something that so clarified for me what my strengths are and what I needed to be doing to leverage them.

Also, much of the coursework and the in-class discussions were an affirmation of the importance of the work. While I was in the program, I was talking to Andy (Professor Andrew Wicks) about this. In the evening, after class was done, I was writing a communication to my organization about the leaked Dobbs decision. Part of my role has become speaking to important moments like that – moments that, as corporations, we often struggle to even recognize, much less do so in a way that makes us a stronger, more unified organization. The tragedies in Buffalo and Uvalde, and too many others, are opportunities to show up in a very human way in difficult circumstances. The program helped all of us build and refine those skills that are necessary for us as leaders to have that clarity in those moments.

It seems like this was a very timely program for you.

It definitely was. Many of us have been on our own journey and so it was powerful to be with a group of other leaders focused on this work. With so many of the things that happen in the world and in our organizations, we’ve struggled with how to make a place for them, and as a result, people have been left to deal with these issues alone. I have believed for years that if our people are in fact our greatest asset, we needed to provide a different experience. That’s why this program was so helpful for me. It helped us create different models for organizations that allow us to show up with both optimism and energy, pain and anger – all of what we’re feeling, not a curated, half-story.

What would you say to someone who is considering development, but doesn’t feel like they have the time?

I would say, “I was you.” For years, I prioritized other things that were on my list that were easier or less of a time commitment. However, prioritizing an immersive program like this is probably one of the single most important things you can do for your development. The experience gets you out of the day-to-day and allows you to step far enough back from your career to think about your career and life more broadly and in a way that you couldn’t do on your own.

I would also drive home the caliber of the instructors. Laura (Professor Laura Morgan Roberts), Andy, and Greg (Professor Greg Fairchild) blew my mind. They are incredible instructors, researchers, people, and each of them was very intentional about making themselves available to us throughout the program. I would also add that the facilities themselves were fantastic as are all of the staff that make the program possible.

Since your Servant Leadership program experience, you’ve joined Darden’s Executive MBA program. Why did you pursue your MBA and what would you say about your first year in the program?

I joke that when I walked into the doors at Darden, I found myself in a church that I wanted to worship in. It’s an organization and a program that prioritizes the whole person and is predicated on the ideas that we can do good and do well, and that seeking profit as critical is an incomplete explanation for why we exist as firms. The executive education program gave me just enough of a taste of what Darden was that I knew I wanted to be a part of this community. While I had very high expectations for the program, my experience so far has far exceeded them. Every professor I have studied with has confirmed my initial experience with Laura, Andy and Greg – that we have the greatest faculty of any program in the country.  The caliber of my classmates humbles me daily and is the greatest unanticipated highlight of the program. It is hard work. I can’t say I love exams, but I’ve never once regretted the choice to walk through the door that the executive education program opened for me.

Check out Michael’s recent podcast on his learning journey and what led him to Darden’s Executive MBA program.

Learn more about Servant Leadership: Leading with Humanity and how it helps you develop the skills that are essential to lead in today’s changing world.