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Before Brittany Scopa enrolled at William and Mary’s Mason School of Business, Virginia, she had a good career in marketing, a supportive family and many helpful and smart co-workers. But something was missing.

She needed someone to bounce ideas off, someone who could help her to think through her goals. She found what she was looking for through Mason’s Executive Partners programme, a group of 120 active and retired business leaders from different backgrounds who share their experiences with MBA students. The EPs tasks range from helping the school’s admissions office, to making decisions about prospective candidates, to preparing students for job interviews, to advising on student consulting projects and even to guest lecturing in certain classes.

“They don’t tell me what to do but they ask the right questions and get me thinking about which direction is the best for me,” says Ms Scopa.

Many business schools have formal executives-in-residence programmes that give students access to a stable of professionals with first-hand knowledge of a range of industries. The difficult employment market has heightened the need to complement the networking and job advice of career services officials with real-world experts.

“Business schools have come to the realisation that their connection to industry has to increase,” says Dan LeClair, senior vice-president at the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the industry body. “There has been a lot of debate lately about whether business schools have gone too far toward academe, too ivory tower. Business schools recognise they need one foot firmly planted in academe and one foot firmly planted in practice.”

Many schools have also made an effort to expand the ranks of their executives in residence by adding managers with expertise in newer and different fields. For instance, Columbia Business School has increased the size of its executives-in-residence programme and in recent years added executives with non-profit management experience. Harvard Business School’s Entrepreneur in Residence programme, meanwhile, pairs successful entrepreneurs with students interested in an entrepreneurial career.

“Management education and development is really hard,” says Mr LeClair. “In the past, we could count on faculty members to do it all, but increasingly there is a recognition that we need executives to be brought into the mix to supplement [faculty members’] knowledge. It’s not just about content. It’s about skills, it’s about communication, it’s about a lot of things.”

Mason’s programme, which started in 1998 with 22 members, matches a student with an executive, based on the student’s aspirational career goals and the executive’s past work experience. The school maintains a database of the entire corps with detailed information of the EPs’ professional background. Only two of the school’s executives are William and Mary alumni.

One of the goals of the programme is to produce students who are ready for the practical challenges of industry, says Rik Rikkola, executive director of the programme and the former treasurer of Ras Laffan Liquefied Natural Gas Company.

Executives usually approach the school based on word of mouth, he says. Candidates submit a resume
and are interviewed. The school strives to have executives from a variety of professional functions and industries.

“It’s a big deal to find a job in this economy,” says Mr Rikkola. “I’ve helped students with everything from providing technical expertise about corporate finance to doing mock job interviews. I give them a real-world perspective.”

Over the years, the programme has evolved and EPs are increasingly involved in Mason’s admissions process. They meet students on campus visits and conduct interviews. The EPs then give feedback to the admissions team, infusing a real-world perspective into an admissions process that often relies on test scores, grades and essay questions.

“A lot of times they give helpful hints about whether or not the candidate is the right fit,” says Ms Barth, MBA admissions director at Mason.

EPs are also involved in student recruiting – the admission office receives about a dozen referrals each year from its cadre of executives.

For Ms Scopa, the programme represents one of the most “important elements” of her MBA career. “The EPs are there to help us succeed.”

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