Listen to this article
Sagar Joshi went to business school because he wanted to make a fundamental career switch. Having spent several years in research and development at French industrial supplier Air Liquide in Delaware, the 37-year-old Indian wanted more managerial responsibility and to work with multidisciplinary teams.
During his executive MBA at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, which he finished this year, Joshi secured a marketing job with M&T Bank in New York state. Fearing the transition would be difficult, as he had no work experience relevant to the new role, he signed up for executive coaching, which Darden offers as part of the programme.
Coaching is a type of leadership development that helps people achieve personal and professional goals or solve problems. Six one-on-one sessions, delivered in person and remotely, helped Joshi to become less assertive and more empathetic. “That was important because I had to be more observant to understand my new industry and function,” he says. “The coaching was transformational.” The sessions included role-playing; in one scenario he was an employee approaching management with a problem.
With longer lifespans, later retirement and greater job insecurity because of the threat of automation, people are changing jobs more often. Business schools have responded by using coaching to support students and alumni with career switches, securing promotions or overcoming problems, such as uncertainty. Globally, 82 per cent of EMBA programmes last year offered executive coaching, up from 68 per cent in 2013, according to the EMBA Council, an academic association.
Students are demanding a practice that has become popular with corporations such as GlaxoSmithKline, according to Colleen Bracken, one of more than 40 executive coaches who work with EMBA participants at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “There used to be a perception that having a coach meant there’s something wrong with you. Now it’s a status symbol,” she says.
About 70 per cent of each of Wharton’s two EMBA cohorts (in Philadelphia and San Francisco) take an optional coaching module each year, which the school introduced to the programme in 2015. The largest portion — 44 per cent — want to influence others or improve their communication skills.
Participants receive appraisals based on anonymous feedback from classmates and colleagues, for example on competencies such as diplomacy. Students use the data and coaching to identify problems, find solutions and reflect on the implementation of solutions at work.
“The module is popular because it’s individualised and practical,” says Lynn Krage, director of Wharton’s McNulty Leadership Programme. “You look at your strengths and weaknesses and apply what you learn on the job.”
Edward Sun’s feedback suggested that he tended to avoid conflict. A coach advised him to seek negative feedback from colleagues to desensitise himself. “It helped me receive and give criticism better,” says the 37-year-old American. He believes that coaching made him a stronger manager and helped his promotion to secretary-treasurer at Stony Brook Medicine, a healthcare group in New York state, where he works as a clinical assistant professor. “I was able to articulate my beliefs better during the election for the position,” Sun says.
But coaches are expensive. IMD in Switzerland uses about 15 in its EMBA, most of whom are contracted rather than employed full-time. They provide three mandatory sessions for students, included as part of the $108,000 tuition fees. Stefan Michel, EMBA dean, says that top coaches in Switzerland earn up to $2,600 per day, though he does not reveal IMD’s rates. He has considered raising tuition fees to absorb the cost of coaching.
For Silvia Bagdadli, associate professor of organisation and human resources management and executive coach at Italy’s SDA Bocconi School of Management, the benefits outweigh the considerable cost. The school provides three optional coaching sessions to EMBA students during the programme. “It has become a must-have,” says Bagdadli. “All the best business schools offer coaching in the EMBA. So you need it to attract applications.”
The greater challenge that schools face is getting students to open up on sensitive issues. Coaching was previously mandatory for EMBAs at Darden; three years ago the school made it optional. “We found that students who were forced tended not to engage,” says Connie Whittaker Dunlop, executive director for professional advancement. “They need to volunteer and be willing to open up to benefit.”
Choosing the right coach is also critical. Darden pairs EMBA students with coaches who have something in common, such as having worked in the same industry, or who have similar personality types.
“This helps ensure students are comfortable enough to seek support and develop a trusting relationship with their coach,” Dunlop says.
At Rotman School of Management in Toronto, coaching is optional and available to both EMBA students and alumni, who meet in person or by teleconference. The flexibility is important because time constraints can be a barrier to participation. But Rocca Morra Hodge, director of EMBA career services, says that the first meeting is often face-to-face. “It’s easier to build trust in person.”
Kathleen McGinn struggled to care for her husband, who was diagnosed with mental illness, while working in the non-profit sector and studying for an EMBA at Rotman. “My whole world was falling apart and I needed support, but I thought I would be judged by other students for seeking help,” says McGinn, who also has two children.
Rotman stressed the confidentiality and credentials of its coach, who is certified by the Coaches Training Institute, which encouraged McGinn to use the service. The 42-year-old Canadian finished the EMBA this year and says coaching built her resilience: “Just talking through the situation helped me cope.”
Get alerts on Executive MBA when a new story is published