Executive Treatment Before The Title: Coaching In B-Schools

Jessica Cheng graduated from UT-Austin’s McCombs School of Business this year with a plum job at Procter & Gamble lined up. How did she land it? Hard work and tenacity, for sure–but Cheng also took full advantage of McCombs’ personalized coaching.

When she needed to practice for a phone interview with her future employer, her coach went into a separate room and called her for a rehearsal. When she needed to prep for an in-person interview, her coach reserved a conference room—which he made her re-enter when her arrival wasn’t up to his standards. Cheng describes him as her “right-hand man.”

Leadership coaching has become a staple of many executive MBA programs, but now top full-time MBA programs–from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School–are giving students the kind of one-on-one attention that had largely been available only to senior execs. Whether that coaching is mandatory, voluntary, leadership-focused or all about communication skills, MBAs have been using it to zero in on specific self-development challenges, cultivate better people skills and map out career goals.

For the schools, it can be a costly addition to an MBA program. UT-Austin says it is spending $5,000 per student on coaching.  Yet, as schools compete to produce the most polished grads, the trend is likely to spread. “Unlike an executive coach that might be working with the vice president of a company, typically that executive coach can’t be in the room and actually observe,” says Mindy Storrie, director of leadership development at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. “The benefit of having it as part of your MBA program is that oftentimes, we can have that same person in the room.”

Much of the coaching at Kenan-Flagler focuses on molding students into workplace-ready leaders. By contrast, coaches at Goizueta Business School take more of a bird’s-eye view. “We really want them to find a career that fits with them and their goals—not only their career goals, but their life goals,” says Wendy Tsung, executive director of MBA Career Services. “What kind of house are you living in? Do you have family around? How big is your family? What kind of climate are you in?”

At McCombs and the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, executive coaching looks a bit more segmented. Through the MBA+ Program, MBA students at UT-Austin have access to a veritable menu of communication and specialty coaches. Rotman now offers its MBAs up to 60 hours of coaching, ranging from critiques of business presentation training to psychological prep for job interviews (see Coaching MBAs For A McKinsey Tryout).

In all schools, coaches create uniquely low-stakes environments—ones that might be hard to find after graduating. They often address highly personal issues: personality conflicts, skill and leadership weaknesses, deep uncertainty over personal goals and aspirations. “I believe that what’s most helpful to a student ultimately is a safe place to take information that you may not understand or disagree with—or you sort of get it, but you don’t know what to do with it,” Storrie says. After all, if you’re really screwing up, it’s better to hear it from a coach than from a boss.

David Kaplan, a rising second-year at Goizueta, is currently interning at Coca-Cola

David Kaplan, a rising second-year at Goizueta, is currently interning at Coca-Cola


David Kaplan enrolled in Emory’s two-year MBA program to steer out of a dead end. After graduating from a small liberal arts college in Kentucky, he had taken a job at a family-owned railroad company—and stayed for six years. “I worked for a modern day railroad tycoon,” Kaplan says. “There wasn’t much direction, other than from the owner.”

He’s now a finance intern at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, where, among other things, he’s spent a day delivering Coca-Cola products with a driver. “You have no idea how much fun I have had this summer,” he laughs. For that opportunity, Kaplan thanks Goizueta—and Maureen Manion-Leone, his career coach.

Kaplan tried to imagine how Coca-Cola would’ve reacted if he’d applied without that extra guidance and groundwork. “They probably wouldn’t even give me a soda,” he says.

Career coaching is a major part of the Goizueta experience. “We’ve really revamped our coaching program about five years ago,” Tsung says. She describes the previous staff as “lean”; now, MBAs have access to four full-time coaches, each with a different industry focus. That means Goizueta’s small class of around 200 students gets plenty of personal attention.

MBAs are only required to meet with their coaches once, but in many cases, students show up much more often, discussing everything from their resumes to the lives they want in ten years. “A lot of their coaches are invited to their weddings,” Tsung says. “We get birth announcements.”

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