Listen to this article
Students at IMD, the Swiss business school, often end up on the psychoanalyst’s couch. This is not due to the pressures of the MBA programme; sessions with a psychoanalyst are part of a personal development elective. Schools increasingly agree that trends in today’s business world mean that personal development, whether psychoanalysis or mentoring is a vital part of the programme.
“There’s a high level of complexity in the working environment, combined with the need for more difficult and ambitious solutions,” says Martha Maznevski, MBA programme director at IMD.
As companies engage with an increasingly broad set of stakeholders, from customers and suppliers to governments and non-profit organisations, leaders need a wider range of personal skills.
“You’re going to be faced with a lot more complexity and ambiguity,” says Prof Maznevski. “So the task of leading through people has become much more of a challenge.”
To prepare students, IMD has integrated a substantial leadership component into its curriculum. Some of the content is delivered in class, but there is also a strong emphasis on teamwork, high-intensity outdoor exercises and sessions with the school’s network of coaches.
These activities, like the sessions with the psychoanalyst, are designed to help students learn more about themselves and how they perform under pressure. It also helps them to understand the ways in which emotion and behaviour drive effectiveness.
“If you are a leader who wants to make a difference, you are going to be tested and you are going to be doing things that will create resistance in other people,” says Prof Maznevski. “So to develop the strength and resilience to lead in difficult situations, you need to deeply understand who you are and how you respond to things as a person.”
A similar idea lies behind the mentoring programme at the UK’s Cranfield School of Management, which connects students with alumni. Along with career and business-development coaching, these relationships are designed to help course participants learn more about themselves and their potential.
“It helps them understand how to use their own personality types to identify things that are important and they are going to excel at,” says Colin Hudson, director of career development at Cranfield.
At the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler business school, students embark on a personal development exercise before they have even started the course. During the summer, after they have accepted a place at the school, students undergo what Kenan-Flagler calls its pre-MBA multirater – a process similar to a 360-degree feedback review. Using an online tool, individuals rate themselves and obtain feedback from peers and current or recent bosses.
“What we are trying to do is create a baseline using information from people who know them very well, and bring it to a safe place where they feel they can stretch themselves with the support of coaching and mentoring programmes,” says Mindy Storrie, director of leadership development at Kenan-Flagler.
However, she also points out that the process helps students make the right choices when selecting from the school’s menu of leadership development options and deciding whether to focus on, say, conflict management, delegating to others or leading change.
“We want them to target the activities, such as the managerial simulations we offer, and coursework they choose for their electives, so that they can further develop those skills,” says Storrie.
Once teaching has started, the school offers various types of coaching. In executive coaching sessions, business executives review students’ leadership development plans and give them feedback on their performance. Other coaching sessions focus on industry- or sector-specific issues.
Personal development, in these various forms, is taking place in a growing number of schools. Using workshops and guest lectures, the personal and professional development module at Newcastle University Business School is designed to help students develop the interpersonal abilities to complement the technical, financial and business skills they acquire on the course.
At Manchester Business School, the 10-year-old Manchester Gold MBA Mentoring programme runs from January to September and is open to all first-year, full-time students.
These personal development programmes are not limited to full-time MBAs. At HEC Paris, the French business school, the executive MBA includes a session that not only assists participants in developing tools to market their strengths externally, but also helps them understand those strengths and select a career path.
And while IMD has been offering personal development for a decade, Prof Maznevski says that in the past year, the school has integrated it more deeply into the MBA course and the company learning projects undertaken by students.
Mentoring comes in different shapes and sizes. In many cases, schools match students with alumni for programmes on which the couple will interact on a regular basis during the year.
However, mentoring can take place in other settings. During the Executives in Residence programme at Cranfield, members of the school’s international advisory board – made up largely of senior corporate leaders – spend time at the school meeting students and responding to their questions on anything from their own career paths to how to design a compelling résumé.
“The interaction of students with alumni and senior business leaders, and their exposure to people in all types of business is definitely increasing,” says Hudson.
The fact that professional development services are on offer at a growing number of business schools reflects a trend in the corporate world – one that often resurfaces in difficult economic conditions.
When companies are unable to offer large bonuses or pay increases, many organisations focus on offering employees “softer” benefits such as personal and career development coaching.
“Professional development is back on the agenda,” says Hudson. “It is the classic post-recession development.”
As a result, more students are looking for these kinds of options during their MBA course. “We’re getting close to a place where this is an expectation,” says Storrie.
Hudson agrees. “Traditionally you did an MBA and that was your ticket,” he says. “But it’s become part of the value-add in recent years.”