Last fall, inside the typically tidy conference rooms of Montana State University's Bracken Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Business Education, a very atypical scene played out. The rooms bulged with racks upon racks of business clothes in all sizes. Hangers--and elbows--were flying. So were flip-flops, as young women shook them off in exchange for sleek leather pumps to match pencil skirts and blouses.
Meanwhile, in an adjacent room, the same fashion free-for-all was in full swing. Only there, the young men traded in jeans and T-shirts for dark slacks, oxford shirts and jackets.
In the middle of it all stood a petite woman with perfectly coiffed strawberry-hued hair, calmly commanding the orchestrated chaos, gently remanding one of the youths back to the racks for a better fitting pair of pants, while congratulating another on finding the perfect jacket.
It might all sound like an episode of the hit show "What Not to Wear." In reality, the scene was the first ever "Executives' Closet" event at MSU's College of Business, conceptualized and carried out by the redhead--Linda Ward, assistant director of the Bracken Center.
What does fashion have to do with business students? A lot, according to Ward, whose oft-heard refrain is, "You have to dress for the job you want."
A major part of her job, she said, is helping students "create the total package."
That package is professionalism. Yet Ward understands that many undergrads cannot plunk down the cash for professional interview outfits. So, together with the COB's student clubs, she spent last summer soliciting donations of "gently used" professional clothing to provide for students in need.
Susan Dana, the COB's associate dean for academic affairs and director of the Bracken Center, said Ward's "sense of humor and optimism makes for an incredible package. It just enables her to do so much and makes her so accessible to others. Our students respond incredibly well (to her)."
Dan Moshavi, dean of the College of Business, agrees.
"(Ward) is just a pleasure to work with," he said, noting that Ward models the very professionalism the COB strives to instill in its students.
But looking like a polished pro is only part of the equation for a business undergraduate competing in today's ultra-competitive job market. Students must remain vigilant in their job search and, more importantly, they need experience to get their feet in the door. For many students, this is where Ward's impact is most appreciated.
"I wouldn't have the job today that I love without her," said Stephanie Cole, who graduated from MSU last spring and is a project manager for Bozeman-based Profitable Ideas Exchange, a peer-to-peer consulting organization for Fortune 500 companies.
"I asked (Ward) if she had any ideas for me. She was constantly e-mailing me...I can't be grateful enough to her. I found an incredible job in a really difficult time," Cole said.
Ward credits MSU's Career Services--and her collaboration with it--in helping business students land jobs, and Moshavi credits Ward for establishing a similar network within the College of Business.
"Linda basically created a career services unit from nothing," he said, adding that she is a "touchstone" for maintaining long-term connections between the COB and its alumni, many of whom now recruit MSU students for internships and jobs.
A native of Molt, near Billings, Ward, 57, left her family's wheat farm and cattle ranch to attend MSU's College of Business, where she earned a marketing degree in 1975 and met her husband, Mike, a finance major. The newlyweds moved to Alaska shortly after graduation, where Ward took a job in the marketing department of a telecommunications carrier in Alaska.
After a few years, the couple moved to Seattle, where Ward worked for Boeing Computer Services as the link between data communications engineers and their primary customer, aerospace giant Boeing Company. From Seattle, Ward went to San Francisco, where she worked for Bank of America as a systems manager.
In 1986, Ward and her husband returned to Bozeman to raise their sons. The Wards opened Bozeman's first Ready Lube. After 10 years, they sold the business to Jiffy Lube.
Once their children were older, "I felt like I needed to refresh myself with technology," Ward said. She enrolled in the MSU-Great Falls College of Technology, earning an associate's degree in microcomputer technology, where she "learned to build computers from scratch."
She re-entered the workforce with temporary jobs at MSU and was hired by the MSU Provost's Office. Then in 2004, a position opened with the still-under-construction Bracken Center, after the family and friends of the late Gary Bracken, a 1961 COB graduate, provided a gift to launch a center dedicated to supporting undergraduate business students.
Ward jumped at the opportunity. "I liked the idea of taking something from zero and making it go. And, I liked the idea of working with students," she said.
Austin Owens, a 2009 COB finance graduate who works with an employee screening company in Fort Collins, Colo., marvels at what he calls "The Linda Report," Ward's frequent e-mail update on jobs, internships and study abroad opportunities.
"I have no idea how she finds everything, but she does and she gets it in front of you," Owens said.
Then there are the job fairs and mixers Ward organizes, including "Meet the Recruiters," a low-key social that enables students to network with representatives from more than 25 local and national recruiters.
Ward's dedication was acknowledged when she won the 2007 College of Business's Code of Excellence Award, decided annually by COB faculty, staff and administrators. She is the only non-faculty member to have won it.
The unassuming and soft-spoken Ward seems a little uneasy with all the attention.
"I love these kids," she said simply. "These kids are launching. It's so rewarding to hear back about success stories."