The phrase “executive coach” brings to mind the image of a mid-tier to top-level executive being coached on how to increase productivity in the workplace, manage employees better, or otherwise step up some aspect of his or her performance.
But companies and organizations should consider offering this kind of coaching to young high-potential performers as well. Often those who are in their thirties and sometimes in their first important role at a company hunger for this kind of help. They are motivated to learn and intent on putting new skills into practice on the job.
That’s my conclusion after Butler has used executive coaches to work with MBA students in our core leadership class for the past two years. Our MBA students demonstrate a great interest in improving the skills and competencies they need to be effective leaders and managers.
Smaller and medium-sized companies or, for that matter, other educational institutions can take what we’ve learned and build their own programs to help young high-potentials. Here are some tips from our experience:
Make this training required. Our MBA students have positions of responsibility in companies, and many have started families; they have little time to come to campus unless for a specific class. As a result, any specialized instruction needed to be worked into the core leadership class.
Involve their coworkers. In the class, students rate their leadership skills in various areas. Then they do a 360 assessment in which their boss, peers and any subordinates at work rate them. As you can imagine, there is often a significant gap between how the MBA student perceives himself or herself in the workplace and how coworkers view them.
Develop a plan for growth. As part of the class, the MBA students put together a leadership development plan to play on their strengths and improve areas where they are weak. Our goal is for them to leave Butler with a diploma in one hand and, in the other, a leadership development plan they can use for guidance throughout their career.
Provide expert mentors. To help them formulate the plan, Butler provides the MBA students with executive coaches. These men and women are in, or have been in, significant positions in business or have particular innate skills. (For example, they’re director of performance improvement for a company.) Some are still working; some are retired. Each coach typically works with about five students at a time.
Each coach works with a student during the leadership class and then is on retainer, available to the MBA student until he or she graduates. Butler’s MBA program is self-paced. If Fred takes two years to complete his degree, he has access to his executive coach for those two years. If he takes five years, he has coaching help for five.
Put thought into choosing those mentors. We carefully match each MBA student and coach. Because women face additional barriers in the workplace, female MBA students are always paired with female coaches who run their own companies or are in leadership positions within organizations. Some students benefit most from a nurturing coach; others need a coach who will hold their feet to the fire.
After two years of this program, we have found that about 40 percent of the MBA students continue to turn to the coach for advice after the leadership class. They’re the most appreciative of the coaches. In the current economy, students have gone to coaches and needed career and/or life advice: “I’ve lived in Indianapolis all my life. Now I’m being laid off, but I have an opportunity in Montana with my company. Should I consider this?”
Recognize that the true payoff for the mentors is not a paycheck. Working one-on-one with the MBA students allows the coaches to give back by drawing from their business and life experiences. It’s more rewarding emotionally than financially.
What’s the lesson for companies and organizations? Your young high potentials are looking for guidance and growth, and you don’t have to spend a lot of money to give it to them. Provide them with coaches or mentors from inside or outside your organization. You might be surprised at how those relationships pay off down the road.
Chuck Williams is dean of the College of Business at Butler University. Bill O’Donnell, director of graduate programs, contributed to this article. For more information on the College and its “real life, real business” approach to business education, visit www.ButlerRealBusiness.com or e-mail Chuck at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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