Tomorrow the new school year begins in earnest for me at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where I've been an Instructor and Leadership Coach since 2007 and where I was an MBA student myself 15 years ago. This past year has been full of lows and highs for me, ranging from a painful back injury to a book and a brand-new blog, so tomorrow's milestone is prompting me to step back and think about what I appreciate about Stanford right now and my hopes for the coming year.
I'm keenly aware of what a privilege it is to have such talented and dedicated students. I've worked in some capacity with roughly 1,000 Stanford MBAs over the years, and I can count on one hand those who I'm reluctant to think of as my fellow alumni. I'm not suggesting that our students are candidates for sainthood--they're young people who can lack perspective, make questionable choices, and spend way too much time on elaborate social activities, as young people do. (I sure did.)
But 99.9% of them work their asses off and seek to make the most of their abilities. And they all believe that they can do well by doing good in some way, shape or form. They are MBAs, of course, which means that they're competitive people who keep score, but very few are seeking simply to maximize their earning power; they want to make a difference in their professional lives, to leave the world a better place than they found it, and they expect to make a good living in the process. Will all those dreams come true? No. But I know how important it is to have those dreams in the first place, and I'm eager to do what I can to help as many of my students as possible realize theirs.
For the next six months I'll coach 12 Leadership Fellows as they in turn each support nine first-year students, and in the first half of 2014 I'll work with 24 students in two sections of Touchy Feely, our most popular elective (officially known as Interpersonal Dynamics), helping them develop a range of interpersonal and leadership skills. I'll wear some other hats too, but those will be my biggest responsibilities, and they're certainly the ones I look forward to the most.
I keep a list of the students I've worked with most closely over the years--a total of 311 at the moment--and this year I had several opportunities to reach out to them. I wanted to let them know about the writing I've been doing, which I hoped would be a useful resource to them--and I also just wanted to learn more about their post-MBA careers. The response was gratifying, although not surprising, because so many of them are doing such cool things:
- Building an ecologically sustainable fashion company.
- Allowing people to make better decisions about healthcare.
- Investing in growing South Asian ventures.
- Consulting to companies on improving their organizational culture.
- Taking over a family business to keep it running smoothly.
- Attending basic training for the U.S. Army Reserves.
- Launching a micro-lending practice in New York City.
- Running an alternative online dating service.
- Building an app that suggests inspiring activities to try.
- Helping to grow a big-data healthcare startup.
- Creating a training and coaching platform for front-line teams.
- Starting a company in India.
- Managing multiple cities for a rideshare service.
- Leading a branding consulting firm.
- Coaching venture founders and CEOs.
- Pursuing an MD after a career in consulting and strategy.
Now, is everyone out there doing something this awesome? No, of course not--as I said, not all dreams come true, and there are plenty of alums I know who are less-than-thrilled by what they're doing at the moment. In some cases they're working off their B-school debt, while others knowingly played it safe because they wanted a brand name on the resume. But even those who aren't finding their work fulfilling now have the opportunity to ask their peers for advice and guidance--a resource that was invaluable when I made my own transition from management to coaching in 2006.
I often work with GSB alumni in my private coaching practice, but this year I'm also looking for more opportunities to tap into the wisdom of the alums I know so that it can be shared with my current students.
Despite the warm feelings I have about our students and alumni, I'm not one of those people who think Stanford is the center of the universe. It's an organization, like any other, and it's subject to the same dysfunctional pitfalls as any other. I think it's critical to step back and assess where Stanford falls short of its lofty rhetoric, not to assign blame but to look for opportunities to live up to our ideals.
To take just one example, the number of women enrolled at the GSB continues to hover around 35%. This is consistent with other MBA programs, and it certainly has more to do with the number of women applying than with a blatant bias at the school--but it's still a problem. I don't think the GSB's culture is as sexist as Harvard's, but I consistently hear from my women students that at times they feel unwelcome, and the school can do better.
That said, while I've had my share of frustrations with the GSB over the last seven years, I also truly believe that it's become a better place and continues to improve. Like any elite institution, it can be slow to change--but it does change. The culture isn't entirely flexible, but it's not rigid, either, and there is a collective desire on the part of everyone involved to aim high and get there. My colleagues and I on the school's coaching staff were hired seven years ago as part of a major revision to the school's curriculum, a process that grew out of the recognition that, as Dean Garth Saloner has said, "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."
That's a big change in what we mean by management education, and even though I learned a great deal at the GSB 15 years ago, I believe that today's students are much better off than I was. I feel lucky to be playing a small part in that process, and I'm excited to make a modest but meaningful contribution this year.
Photo by Neotake Murayama. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.