The Cornell Connection: How Coaching Gave Me The Confidence To Lead

Elyse (2nd from right) with her fellow CWG leaders and group members

I’ve just started my last semester of the MBA, perhaps my last semester as a student…ever. I’m excited for the next chapter and returning to “real” adulthood, but I also want to use this last semester to make sure I’m delivering on what I set out to do when I began the MBA.

Last fall, I wrote about being intentional and refocusing on my MBA “why”. I was inspired by the coaches and leaders I worked with who invested in me. Having a great coach helped me find what I was good at, establish my voice, and build the confidence I needed to grow. It started me on a path from someone who could fulfill the requirements of a role to someone with the potential to lead. As a result, I knew I wanted to invest in my coaching skills as part of my MBA. Learning how to coach at Johnson has helped me unlock potential in others and serve as a resource to those around me. Better yet, it sparked a shift in my mindset that makes me feel more curious and equipped to grow with the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.

Elyse (Left) at a coffee date with fellow JLF Minwei Cao


My first role out of undergrad was at a mostly grown-up legal services start-up. I joined a tight-knit HQ office in New York City. Even for my role – the lowest on the totem pole that only required a proficiency in Outlook calendar invitations – there were 11 interviews to make sure everyone agreed I was “on brand” for the company. I understood their concern: in my first 6 months on the job, I had a call with a former SEC chair, brought Beyonce’s counsel a cup of coffee, and met a lawyer who was made into a character in the film “The Big Short.”

Many of my colleagues were former lawyers themselves and could speak knowledgeably about the industry and its culture. They were authentically relaxed and at-ease with influential clients and with lawyers who had decades of experience. I, on the other hand, felt completely out of my element. I liked being exposed to a new company and industry full of smart people, but the learning curve was steep.

I could perform the basics of my role well enough – be pleasant while asking a predetermined set of questions on the phone, work quickly and avoid typos in templated emails – but I didn’t know how to add real value. I could carry out someone else’s agenda, but I didn’t trust myself to come up with the right answer or find the right thing to say. I found myself avoiding tasks for as long as possible that made me feel particularly unsure. The ever-present imposter syndrome depleted my energy and made me doubt myself. A few months in, I felt stuck.

What happened next changed my luck. As is common in growth companies, leadership rearranged teams; I was assigned a new manager who was concerned not only with my performance, but also with my development.

I didn’t know it then, but this was when I’d begin to reap the benefits of having a great coach.

Around this time, I was working on a project that I particularly dreaded. I owed the team a weekly email update, and I was dragging my feet. When my manager asked for a status update and I again said I hadn’t sent it yet, she surprised me. Instead of saying “shape up” (which would’ve been a completely reasonable response) or quickly dealing with it herself, she stayed curious. She asked questions to better understand why hitting “send” on this message was so difficult for me. “What is it that you need to communicate here?” “What are you worried the recipients will think or feel reading this?” In this conversation, I was able to put words to the reluctance I felt; I began to understand that I didn’t want to send the message because I didn’t agree with the plan. I didn’t think it was my place to disagree or change course, but my manager wanted to know what I thought anyway. She validated some of my concerns and then reflected back to me: “It sounds like you don’t think this is the best way forward. What do you think a better outcome could look like?” From there, we were able to tease out the key issues, work together to think of viable alternatives, and plan out my next steps to get others on board and change course. Her coaching helped turn my anxiety and avoidance into action.

I’m happy to report that this was the first of many coaching conversations that started with uncertainty and ended with a plan I felt good about. I found myself looking forward to our weekly meetings. I started trusting her with my concerns and she helped me gain clarity on how I felt and what I wanted to do about it. She didn’t prescribe next steps. Instead, she asked thoughtful questions and urged me to say out loud what I thought my next moves should be and their potential consequences. This helped me understand and weigh my options, guiding how to move forward in the short term. Better yet, it helped cultivate my judgment, build my confidence, and learn how to trust my gut again. In turn, this built a foundation for my long-term personal and professional growth.

Elyse with friends at a fall sage social

Perhaps most importantly, she helped me commit to taking action and held me accountable for the follow-through. If I wavered, she helped me work through my hesitations. If I tried something and faltered, she was there to offer feedback and help me think through how to approach it differently the next time. These exercises taught me how to hold myself accountable. They trained me to commit to what I believe is the right path forward, even when it’s hard or unpopular, versus ignoring my knowledge or instincts and taking the safer option.


After many weekly one-on-ones, this approach stuck. I learned how to use the coaching thought process to navigate day-to-day challenges independently. The more I used this approach, the more opportunities came my way: bigger roles for me to play, with more responsibility, client interaction, and eventually, people management. New roles gave me plenty of new, sticky challenges to work through with my coach, and more opportunity to grow.

I credit this approach and my manager with transforming a situation rife with imposter syndrome into a period full of professional growth. I no longer felt stuck. Good coaching had sparked a shift in my mindset that started me on a path from someone who could fulfill the requirements of a role to someone with the potential to lead. And I think I’m not the only one who can benefit from this approach.

After almost five years with the firm, I knew I was prepared for the greater challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in my next chapter: the MBA.

Many of us start the MBA as an individual contributor able to effectively conduct the duties of their job according to someone else’s standards. And yet, in many post-MBA careers, there is no instruction manual, and the stakes are high. When we graduate, we’ll be expected to approach abstract problems that are uncomfortable and thorny so we develop a perspective on what “good” looks like. It’ll be up to us to identify new paths forward to achieve success, to pressure-test obstacles, to communicate risks or consequences to stakeholders and ultimately make something new happen.

The transformation from point A to B is always incomplete and never a straight line, but effective coaching helps to close the gap and keep the pressure and imposter syndrome at bay. That’s part of why I’m so thankful for this type of training and programming at Johnson. Here, I continue to learn how to coach myself through greater and greater challenges and how to effectively coach and cultivate others.

Elyse with the Johnson Consulting Club Board 2021


If you’ve connected with anyone from Johnson, you’ve likely heard of our “Pay it forward” culture. Much of a second year MBA’s time is spent passing on what they’ve learned to the first-year and accelerated MBA students here in Ithaca, often as a leader, mentor, or coach.

There are two main ways to serve as a coach at Johnson: being selected to the Johnson Leadership Fellows (JLF) program and serving as a Career Work Group (CWG) leader. These roles break the role of people management in half; the JLF role is focused on development and teamwork, while the CWG leader is focused on individual performance – building interviewing skills and cultivating judgment.

As a JLF, I was assigned a team of first year MBAs to coach through their first semester. The teams are algorithmically designed to represent a diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, future ambitions, and MBA goals. The teams work on most assignments together throughout the first semester, where they take turns serving as team leader and engaging in performance evaluations of one another. The entire exercise exposes you to building relationships, credibility, and trust. Groups are required to stretch themselves and experiment with different ways of communicating, holding one another accountable  and navigating conflict. As their JLF, I helped my team members to process their experience as a leader and learn from peer feedback. I helped the team navigate conflict and framed how the group learning experience related to their individual development goals.

As a CWG leader for Johnson’s Consulting Club, I helped new MBA students learn the skills required to land a role in their chosen field: networking etiquette, resumes and cover letters, surviving the dreaded corporate briefing “crop circle,” navigating interview questions, and succeeding in challenging case interviews. Here, I helped define and deliver a curriculum aimed to communicate what’s necessary to accomplish their career goals and to cultivate individual judgment on what “good” looked like to guide their ongoing efforts.

Winter in Ithaca


In serving JLF team and CWG members, I found that my biggest strength was that I’d been in their shoes before. I remember what I wanted to hear when I had a conflict with a teammate or was trying a case interview for the first time. The challenging part of having first-hand experience, however, is I knew how personal this feedback could feel. At the beginning of the semester, I was afraid of getting it wrong. I didn’t know how to calibrate my coaching. If I tried to be kind and supportive, I later felt like I was sugarcoating and hindering their growth. If I was direct and straightforward, I felt like I’d been too harsh.

I learned that, while my direct experience served as a starting point, I needed the tools from Johnson’s leadership curriculum to effectively adapt to the individual and understand their perspective, challenges, and strengths. Over time and trial-and-error, I learned to be attuned to different situations and change my approach accordingly. I learned that, at times, communicating support looks like being gentle, validating experiences, and celebrating progress. Other times, it looks like raising the bar, pushing someone out of their comfort zone, and giving direct, honest feedback about what it will take to realize their potential.

I started to see this work when I could see my teams growing. Suddenly, teams were ready to address head-on problems they’d previously avoided. Team members began seeking out coaching organically. They were full of anxiety and uncertainty, but motivated and committed to finding a workable solution. Together, we brainstormed and considered multiple paths forward, and ultimately team members left with a plan they felt good about. In these moments, I realized that I’d grown, too.

While sometimes challenging, so many of my coaching experiences have been rewarding. I love watching my classmates improve at something they struggled with, or their looks of excitement the first time they knock a case interview out of the park. I love the texts I receive when feedback I shared suddenly clicked and everything started to make sense. I love getting messages filled with exclamation points when a friend receives an offer from one of their top firms.

While I’ll always appreciate the thanks and the enthusiasm, the most rewarding part for me is often a subtler moment. As a coach, I want to be able to unlock in others what my former coach unlocked in me – to cultivate judgment, build confidence, and help others learn to trust their gut. My favorite moment is watching it click in someone’s eyes when they realize they have what it takes to figure out the next challenge on their own.

Elyse Cianfarano is an MBA Candidate at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, where she serves on the board of the Johnson Consulting Club and Women’s Management Council and is involved in the Park Fellows Leadership Program. Before Johnson, Elyse spent 5 years working in talent management and client service roles at Axiom, the category creator of alternative legal services, where she focused primarily on scoping workstreams and selling legal talent with General Counsel and legal departments at Fortune 500 financial services companies. Elyse is an Upstate New York native and completed her undergraduate degree in Sociology and Anthropology at nearby Colgate University. On the weekends, Elyse can be found spending time outside, cooking or baking with some success, or scoping out new restaurants, wineries, and breweries. This summer, Elyse completed an internship with Boston Consulting Group’s Washington, D.C. office, where she’ll be returning post-graduation.



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