Executive Treatment Before The Title: Coaching In B-Schools

Still, the sessions aren’t always cozy. “There’s definitely sort of a level setting that we do,” Tsung said. She estimates that 40% of Goizueta’s MBA students come from non-corporate backgrounds, where wearing jeans and using social media in the middle of a conversation might’ve been the norm. Though not all graduates take the corporate route, Tsung wants to make sure it’s always an option. “Once they’re there and see the culture, they can adjust, but as they come in, there are certain expectations we have of them,” she says.

Kaplan was on the receiving end of some level-setting. When he first arrived at Manion-Leone’s office, he had only ever written one cover letter, and he hadn’t interviewed for a job since finishing college. But Manion-Leone saw his potential. “I just felt like—here was a woman who understood what the job looked like, understood what corporate America is like, and understood where somebody like I could go,” Kaplan recalls. The pair’s work paid off. “The folks at Coca-Cola told me how much my cover letter influenced their interest in me,” he says.

Much to Kaplan’s disappointment, Manion-Leone won’t be his coach next year; she’ll be taking over as the senior director of the school’s MBA Career Services. But Kaplan trusts that his new coach will help him weigh his options when it’s time to snag a full-time job. “We already have a relationship,” Kaplan says. “We’ve hung out and had bagels together.”

As close as student-coach relationships can be, Tsung emphasizes that Emory’s coaches aren’t there to coddle anyone. “We’re never going to be their parents,” she said. “They’re all adults, and they can make good decisions. I think sometimes they just need information, and we can help them with how to get that information.”

Executive coach Randy Marcuson coaches a student in UNC's leadership immersion capstone

Executive coach Randy Marcuson coaches a student in UNC’s leadership immersion capstone


Few students arrive at Kenan-Flagler without leadership experience, according to Randy Marcuson, one of the school’s executive coaches. Still, running a student organization isn’t quite like leading in the workplace. “What they generally have not had most of the time is direct responsibility with a team charged with achieving a goal or managing a project from start to finish,” explains the former CEO of Embrex, an agricultural biotech firm.

Kenan-Flagler’s robust leadership initiative focuses on helping students develop those kinds of skills. Within the program, executive coaching shows up in two main ways. The first: students meet with their executive coaches during year one and often connect with them after the summer for post-internship feedback. The second: students have the option of enrolling in a leadership immersion capstone, a seven-week course that includes Apprentice-style competitions and at least one journey into the wilderness. Marcuson, who coaches students in the course, was reluctant to reveal too much about it; he didn’t want to ruin any surprises.

Marcuson is still in touch with many former students. According to Mindy Storrie, Kenan-Flagler’s director of leadership development, such longstanding relationships aren’t uncommon. “We ask the coaches to basically be available indefinitely, throughout their careers,” she says.


Fortunately, Marcuson enjoys that sort of thing. He was doing it before he became an official coach. “I became, if you will, a volunteer coach to MBA students who had indicated to the people at Kenan-Flagler that they would like to have access to one,” he says. “It was a little bit ad-hoc.”

Now that the leadership immersion program is formalized, Marcuson advises students on a variety of leadership-related challenges. The most common challenges he’s seen? Giving and receiving feedback and managing conflict. “Dealing with conflict in business, dealing with conflict in our day-to-day lives, is something one typically tries to avoid,” he says. “There’s a reluctance to hold folks accountable, to comment on the quality of their work.”

Sometimes, being a coach also means taking a chance on people. “There was a young fellow who, when you looked at his resume, prior to coming to Kenan-Flagler—it was a hopscotch of jobs,” Marcuson says. Though he describes the student as bright and well-spoken, he adds that his academic record was patchy.

After a few candid conversations, the student managed to land a job with a Fortune 500 company. Marcuson tells the story with pride: “In bigger or smaller ways, most of the time I think we do touch the lives of these students,” he says.

Students pitch their entrepreneurial ideas at a Pitch Party, a UT MBA+ Leadership Program event

Students pitch their entrepreneurial ideas at a Pitch Party, a UT MBA+ Leadership Program event


At UT-Austin’s McCombs, MBA students aren’t assigned to one specific coach. Depending on what they’re facing, students can go to a career advisor, a communication coach or—for problems that don’t fit into either category—a specialty coach. Students access the latter services through McCombs’ MBA+ Program. “It helps students really customize their services,” Deidra Stephens, the program’s director, says. “It’s impossible to find all of those things in one person.”

The coaches don’t come cheap. “We’re investing nearly $5,000 in every student in coaching—if they take advantage of it,” Stephens says. Still, it’s money well-spent. In the past, recruiters said McCombs was producing graduates that had great technical skills but struggled in areas like teamwork and communication. “We needed to do something to help our students have a leg up in the job market,” she says.

All coaches work on a contract basis, and they can’t come from just anywhere. “We work on a referral basis—we don’t advertise for coaches,” Stephens explains. The communication coaches are mainly graduate students from UT-Austin’s prestigious communication program. Specialty coaches tend to come from the surrounding community. Their areas of expertise depend on the school’s needs; for example, McCombs recently hired a coach who specializes in intercultural communication because a number of Chinese students were having trouble finding internships.

Relationships between students and coaches aren’t normally that close–at least not getting-bagels-together close. Still, Cheng and her coach certainly had a rapport. “By my third meeting, he would talk to me about his kids, and I would talk about my personal life and my personal issues,” Cheng says. “Granted, we didn’t hang out outside these meetings, but I knew he was someone I could email if I needed any tips.” After getting an offer from Procter & Gamble, Cheng talked negotiation with her career advisor, but she made sure to let her communication coach know that his work paid off.

Overall, how much did the coaching help? “It was successful, because I got the job,” says Cheng flatly.


“Show me the money. Where’s the numbers? Do you have any numbers here?”

The pointed questions are being asked of an MBA student at Rotman giving a business presentation to a group of judges. One judge, unhappy with the content in the presentation, kept grilling the student. A video of the whole thing is being reviewed in a presentation workshop. The student presenters are now uncomfortably watching themselves on a large screen. As if that’s not unsettling enough, Maja Djikic, a trained psychologist, stops the tape to during the presentation to interject occasionally to critique their presentations.

The video shows a student responding to the judge’s questions with a long and indirect answer. The judge becomes visibly annoyed. “The longer your answer, the more annoyed he’s going to be,” Djikic explains. “You will experience aggression from people all the time. Address the motivating factor and not the attack. Contain the damage. It’s okay to say you don’t know and move on.”

This session is part of Rotman’s Self-Development Lab (SDL), of which Djikic is the director. The school’s description of the SDL sounds pretty academic: “Re-engineering patterns of expressive, communicative and interactive skills, and of one’s own understanding of self.” Participation is optional and there are no grades. Still, 99% of the MBAs participate one way or another, and it’s easy to see why: if a student participates in all the labs, he or she could get up to 60 hours of coaching. The coaches address a wide variety of topics, ranging from job interviews to how to choose a career.

The SDL isn’t the only source of coaching at Rotman. There are also seven full-time career coaches in the Career Management Center. They give the term “full-time” a whole new meaning: one student even emailed her coach on New Year’s Eve last year and got a call back immediately. Two banks were fighting to hire her as a summer intern, and she needed to choose before Jan. 3. The coach took the time to guide the student through a series of questions until she arrived at the answer herself.

Djikic has more to say about the recording of the presentation. “Never interrupt,” she counsels. “They are likely to feel disrespected or it will make you appear like a know it all. It can trigger a lot of other emotional stuff that will end up on your plate.” Instead of simply telling students what to do, she elaborates on the reasoning behind it.

That, ultimately, is the secret sauce of one-on-one coaching. When it comes to crafting a resume or working a career fair, anyone can buy a book or find tips on the internet. But understanding a concept intellectually is very different from understanding it viscerally. Through observation and real-time feedback, coaches help students connect the dots—and compete with grads that don’t have them so readily available.


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