As executive coaching continues to gain acceptance in a wider range of professions and organizations, I find that more people are aware of coaching as a discipline and readily understand that I help my clients be more fulfilled and effective in their work.
But my role as a "Leadership Coach" at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) takes a little more effort to explain, primarily because it's such a unusual job title and (as far as I'm aware) no other business schools have a similar team of practitioners like me and my colleagues on staff to help MBA students develop their leadership and interpersonal skills.
In February GSB Dean Garth Saloner was interviewed by McKinsey on "Building the next-generation business leader." (In addition to that video you can download the transcript, PDF 158 KB.) Garth's response to the interview's first question--"Has the economic crisis changed what employers are looking for in MBA graduates?"--provides some context for why the GSB first hired me and my colleagues back in 2007 and starts to explain the role of a Leadership Coach at the school:
What [employers] really tell us they need are leadership skills. It's what you might think of as the softer skills, or the people skills. Those are the things that are in short supply in managers who they want to rise to the most important and significant ranks in their companies.
The harder skills of finance and supply chain management and accounting and so on, I think those have become more standardized in management education, have become kind of what you think of as a hygiene factor: everybody ought to know this. That skillset is pretty widely available. To be perfectly honest, there's not a ton of differentiation in those [skills] across a number of providers.
But the softer skill sets, the real leadership, the ability to work with others and through others, to execute, that is still in very scarce supply.
I think that has not been lost, in the aggregate, on firms who are hiring this kind of talent. And the implication is that they're looking for judgment, and they're looking for the ability to really do critical thinking, which is one of the reasons we have emphasized critical analytical thinking in our own curriculum...
There are a set of leadership skills that can be taught. They have to be taught experientially. This is not something you can lecture about.
You have to put people in small groups, give them leadership tasks, and have them work them through. So what we'll do is we'll put them in a group, we'll give them a difficult assignment--maybe it's a difficult conversation, maybe it's feedback, maybe it's execution--and we will videotape what they're doing in these sessions. And these small teams will have coaches, leadership coaches.
So this is very different from the way management education looked 15 or 20 years ago.
And it's different from the management education of just 10 years ago. I graduated from the GSB in 2000, and today the school offers a much wider range of classes and activities that emphasize experiential learning and critical thinking, and those disciplines now form two cornerstones of the school's new curriculum.
Almost every class I and my colleagues support at the GSB involves the process that Garth described of putting people in small groups, giving them some difficult interpersonal work to do (ranging from solving business scenario "cases" to understanding how to communicate with each other more effectively), and letting them figure out how to get it done (with plenty of support, guidance and coaching along the way.)
Much of the work that I and my colleagues do employs what you might call a "train the trainer" model. We Leadership Coaches often work with groups of Second Year students who in turn work with groups of First Year students on a wide range of issues. Not only is this model more scalable and efficient, allowing seven Leadership Coaches to support dozens of Second Years, who in turn support hundreds of First Years, but it also creates very real, hands-on leadership opportunities for those Second Year students, who are then that much more experienced upon graduation.
And despite the semantic difference over whether leadership is "taught" or "learned," I'd say that Garth's comments are very much in line with those expressed by Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and currently professor of management practice at Harvard Business School:
[Leadership can be] learned. I teach now, and I don't think you can teach leadership, I think you can learn about it. I think you can learn about yourself. It comes from within, from who are you inside and what makes you tick, and what are those tapes playing in your head about what you want to be and what your limitations are.
What we can do [in leadership development classes] is cause people to come together and learn about themselves through dialogue... You learn about who you are, and if you go inside yourself, you find out, "What are my passions?"...
I do think the GSB has a competitive advantage in this area over other business schools, due to the high-touch, labor-intensive nature of this work that is hard to replicate in larger programs, but in both Garth's comments and Bill's I hear a shared philosophy and commitment to students' personal development as leaders.
Finally, while I very much appreciate Garth's strong support for this work, I do wish we'd all stop using the word "soft" to describe leadership and interpersonal skills. As Tom Peters has said:
Hard is soft. Soft is hard. The readily-manipulable numbers are the true "soft stuff." The relationships-leadership-"culture"...are the true "hard stuff."
While I'll be the first to admit that working in academia can be uniquely challenging at times, it's also uniquely rewarding to be able to play a meaningful role in the development and growth of our students, who are some of the most talented and conscientious people I've ever met. And I'm hopeful that their experiences at the GSB will allow them to enter the next phase of their careers with a stronger set of leadership and interpersonal skills and a deeper understanding of themselves than I had when I graduated.