Posted: Mar 1st, 2010

When Bill Simpson was recently tapped for the executive vice president and chief operating officer's role at Pennsylvania's Hershey Entertainment & Resorts, the job came with the kind of request most business executives dream about. He was told by his board of directors to find any executive program that would benefit him personally and professionally.

Simpson took the opportunity to search out one that would help him become, as he puts it, "the best me I could be" and be both rigorous and well-rounded. "To be honest, I looked at all of the top programs," he says, "and I kept coming back to Tuck"—that is, the Tuck Executive Program (TEP), a senior-level executive development experience that emphasizes a strategic leadership perspective.

Strategy is key for Simpson's company, which in addition to its flagship Hershey Park, boasts a diverse business portfolio that includes wildlife parks, stadiums, and hotels—even a professional hockey team. Because it's a privately held company, it has the luxury of planning farther into the future without pressure from Wall Street. At the same time, Hershey is dealing with the obvious challenge of falling discretionary spending during a down economy—and the difficulty of having one of the largest companies in the world as its closest competitor.

"When times are tough and people are spending their precious dollars on a convention or a vacation, they want to have one heck of a time," he says. "We have to be very nimble in our thinking and spend the amount of capital dollars wisely so people say, 'This is as good as Disney.' We get there by emphasizing service and by providing a more intimate, family-friendly experience."

Simpson first heard about Tuck's flagship executive program from alum Scott Newkam, former president, CEO, and chairman of Hershey, who attended TEP earlier in his career as his leadership responsibilities with the company were ramping up. "I did the research and determined that a continuous program was the only thing that would work," says Newkam.

Simpson valued the breadth of Tuck's curriculum, which features three one-week modules designed to expand participants' general management knowledge. Week 1 focuses on management in action, with topics ranging from finance to successful supply-chain strategies. Week 2 centers on managing change and growth and includes sessions on mergers and acquisitions and innovation, while TEP's third week centers on leadership and personal change.

Tuck's faculty expertise in these areas was well known to Simpson, who several years ago attended the school's weeklong Leadership and Strategic Impact program. It was there that he first experienced the school's personal approach to learning, which is in many ways similar to Hershey's own philosophy of providing an intimate, individually centered experience. "TEP focuses on the best practices that lead many types of enterprises to increased organizational efficiency and growth says Sydney Finkelstein, program faculty director and an expert in strategy and leadership. "But with a small number of participants, a deeply involved faculty, and three weeks of diversion-free instruction, individualized learning happens."

That intimacy also extends to TEP's peer-learning environment, where participants of different functional backgrounds work closely together in study groups, associations Simpson found as valuable as the instruction. His study group included several finance executives with backgrounds in mergers and acquisitions, company valuation, and stock prices—areas that had been "blind spots" for Simpson at privately held Hershey. "Our TEP group included a Ph.D., an MD, presidents of companies in manufacturing, banking, pharma," adds Simpson. "You cannot associate with your group and not learn.