It sounds like one of those ordeals that only a type-A young executive on the rise could fully enjoy, and even then, maybe only in hindsight.

Every year or so, Graybar Electric Co., St. Louis, selects 20 people from among its most promising and talented managers and invites them into a 15-month training program designed to expand and deepen their understanding of supply-chain management and what it takes to lead one of the largest distribution companies in North America. More importantly for the company, it teaches them to do it the Graybar way.

Developed and presented in partnership with Rutgers University, the Rutgers-Graybar Supply Chain Management Program is a rigorous review of all aspects of business management and supply-chain practices, and has evolved to serve as an in-house think-tank geared to helping Graybar's top executives research difficult problems.

The idea for the program came to Kathleen Mazzarella while she was completing a Master's program at Webster University. With more than 15 years of experience at Graybar, during which she's risen to her current position as senior vice president of human resources and strategic planning, she found her perspective on the course work was very different from that of the students fresh out of undergraduate studies. She was able to take what she learned back to the workplace with her and apply it immediately.

Mazzarella and her team began looking for a recognized university that could help them build on this insight to develop a dynamic and collaborative leadership development program geared specifically to giving Graybar's managers an intensive education in all aspects of supply chain management, and then having them apply what they've learned within the real world of Graybar's operations.

“The program's unique blend of rigorous academics and real-world industry application provides our managers with a solid educational foundation that will help them drive Graybar's long-term success,” says Mazzarella.

The team chose Rutgers because of its willingness to truly customize the program. “Most schools have an off-the-shelf product,” she says. “They vary from a full-blown MBA to a cursory online offering. They say they do customized training, but they don't take the actual documents of the company and the actual transactions into the classroom. Rutgers has worked with us to constantly evolve the program based on what we learn each time through.”

Graybar's agreement with the university is kept deliberately flexible to respond to the company's changing needs as they emerge. It pays Rutgers on a per-student basis and works with the business school to select the instructors.

Competition among Graybar's managers who want to get into the program is intense. From between 100 and 120 applicants, 20 are chosen. In selecting candidates for the program, the team looks for “a strong first-lieutenant.” “Someone with two years of college and 10 years with the company, or four years of college and fewer years of experience,” says Tim Perlick, senior associate, work force development and corporate training in the supply chain management program at the Rutgers University School of Business. He leads the academic side of the program.

Candidates must submit letters of recommendation from a superior in the company and from a vendor or a customer, and an application describing their goals in entering the program.

The 20 people selected for each session — called a cohort — are divided into four teams of five to work together on projects designed to encourage cooperation, teamwork and healthy competition. The teams are carefully composed to draw together expertise across functions. A typical team might include someone from finance, sales, operations and business development.

The total time commitment for the students — clocking in at just under 500 hours over the 15 months — is significant, but that's part of the plan. It works out to about eight hours per week of outside travel, reading and assignments. “That's a core part of leadership — how do you balance your time?” says Perlick.

The first half of the program is “somewhere between a continuing education course and an MBA program” in intensity, says Patrick Davis, director of electrical sales in Graybar's Boston region and a recent graduate of the program.

It covers a broad range of fundamental management topics, from ethics, organizational development and leadership principles to operations, accounting, finance, human resources and information technology.

The training format is a mix of online training modules and discussion forums and a handful of classroom sessions, backed by a substantial reading list. Team members coordinate using conference calls, Webex meetings, multi-media technologies and a constant flow of e-mail.

The subject matter and the order in which it's presented is deliberately kept flexible so the instructors can respond to what's going on in the company, the industry and the outside world. For example, around the time of the 2006 mid-term Congressional elections, stories of employers curtailing pensions were widespread. The instructors quickly turned it into a “teaching moment” about Graybar's fully funded pension plan, human resources strategies, corporate governance and ethics against the backdrop of the news.

The second half of the program raises the intensity level considerably. Each team is given a “Capstone” project — an intensive research assignment that addresses a topic of concern to the Graybar executive board. These projects are not simply academic. At the end of the program, each team goes before the executive board and presents their research and conclusions. In the course of the presentation, the team is grilled by the company's top executives, their data and results challenged the same way the board members challenge each other when facing a difficult strategic decision.

“The officers are critiquing them live, in front of their peers, and hitting them like they would if they were coming to an executive team to get funding,” Mazzarella says.

The research projects have proven so effective that Graybar executives have begun to look at the program as an in-house think-tank, assigning the teams actual research on strategic questions the company is facing.

“In that first class, we were kind of feeling our way,” Perlick says. “When the executive leadership listened to the level of research, the work and thought that went into these presentations, then they began to see the worth of the program. They began to give Kathy special strategic projects — ‘Can you run this through our class?’ They have become almost an internal consulting group they can use to get a pulse, vet an idea, see how it resonates, and get some brainpower against it.”

Going before the executive leadership to make the Capstone presentation is a galvanizing experience, says Davis. His team, who chose to call themselves the Visionaries, was assigned a sales forecasting project. “Kathy said, ‘You're going to be presenting to the executive team, and it's going to be hard. We challenge each other, and we'll challenge you. You have to do your due-diligence.’ She meant it. The stakes were high.”

Not only would they be grilled by the executives, one of the teams would be selected as the best of the bunch, just to add some competitive juice to the proceedings.

Preparing for and presenting the Capstone report was one of the most rewarding parts of the program, says Davis. “It was a fun group, a lot of A-types in the same room together. We're all go-getters, everyone wants to take the lead. But we all recognized we have different strengths to contribute. This was our opportunity to shine and bring something to the table that the company is interested in using.”

They grilled and drilled one another, cutting an initial pile of more than 100 slides down to less than 40, fine-tuning the timing. They critiqued and coached each other's presentation styles: “Speak up!” “Stop fidgeting with your pen.” They had special ties made bearing their team logo. “For the two weeks before the presentation, we were eating, sleeping and breathing that project,” says David.

In November, the four teams gathered in a room with Graybar's top executives to present their reports. Each presentation took about two hours, half presentation and half question-and-answer. Mazzarella approached the Visionaries and told them that Graybar CEO Bob Reynolds was particularly interested in their presentation, so they would go last.

“The first team had the challenge of being number one. When the questions came, everybody else went, ‘Oh my God!’ Palms started to sweat,” David recalls. “My team's challenge was to get the cohort and the executive team up to speed with sales forecasting, what you can and can't do. To do that, we had the challenge of coming up to speed in causal mathematics. We had to take it to a whole new level.”

In the end, the Visionaries were chosen as the winners for best presentation. Awards were presented at a dinner and awards ceremony that evening attended by the Graybar executive leadership, as well as the president and CEO of GE Consumer & Industrial, Jim Campbell, and the dean of the Rutgers Business School.

The involvement from Graybar's executive team is key to making the whole thing meaningful and effective, says Perlick. Each of the teams is assigned two mentors. One is someone from the executive leadership team who can answer questions, advise the team on where to get data for their research and approve funding to get that data. The other mentor is someone from the previous cohort who was elected by their team to carry on the tradition.

Davis, who was elected by his team to be the mentor to the next session, is looking forward to being involved in continuing to develop the program.

“Being able to step outside of the day-to-day, and get immersed in the strategic processes that drive the business how are we analyzing our business — how are other industries handling their supply chains? I learned things I might not have thought about before, brought out by being in this program and being challenged in that way,” Davis says.