Time to reflect on your goals and experiences

Hilary Wilce says a good mentor is vital to making the most of your MBA
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The Independent Online

When you decide to do an MBA, many things are thrown into the air. It's a big break in your working life, with a lot riding on a successful outcome. You may have changed country, or be planning to switch careers afterwards. The course will be demanding and push you out of your comfort zone, and you'll find yourself studying intensively while coping with the demands of home life, deciding on your future and applying for jobs in an increasingly competitive market. Change and uncertainty are the order of the day and although this is often exhilarating, it can also feel daunting and overwhelming.

I know this for a fact, having spent last year coaching MBA students at the Saïd Business School in Oxford, where I helped them through issues ranging from confidence, leadership and anger management to work-life balance, preparing for interviews, and living and working in a foreign culture. Having dedicated time each month to reflect on their progress and create practical plans to deal with difficulties was invaluable in helping them make the most of their studies and focus on their goals. "It helped me improve my interpersonal relationships and presentation skills, and really helped me understand myself and present myself much better in interviews," says Andrei Mart, who has just completed his MBA.

Ian Saunders, associate fellow of Saïd and head of the coaching team, knows students reap big benefits from coaching. "These are very bright young clients, and we offer them the kind of help and support that allows them to become the best they can be," says Saunders. "We are often dealing with significant issues and helping them see things more broadly, in new ways. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive."

Traditionally, all business schools have offered their students academic support and career coaching, but more and more schools are waking up to the value of personal-development coaching for their students.

At the elite London Business School, students are offered a revamped leadership-development programme, which they can tailor to their personal needs. This enables them to improve their business-communication skills and build their strengths through a vast range of courses, including voice coaching, mind mapping, dealing with stress, and public speaking. Students assess themselves and talk with an adviser before deciding what elements they most need. "The whole thing is designed as a launch pad for their career as a global leader. It covers the full two years of the MBA and is backed by one-to-one coaching," says Fiona Sandford, director of career services, pointing out that the school offers a range of advisers, executives and mentors to support its students. Coaching for MBAs may encompass discussion about career choices, how to improve job applications and interview technique, or – for executive MBAs – how to improve performance.

At the University of Bath School of Management, students get at least two one-to-one coaching sessions, but they can continue to book sessions if they feel they need to, says Bruce Rayton, the MBA director. "They often use it to help clarify their post-MBA goals," says Clare Stott, MBA career development manager. "Doing a course like this can be both a blessing and a curse, because many students say they find the whole course interesting, and then they aren't sure which direction they want to go in." Students also take a personal leadership and careers module, which focuses on their aspirations.

At Oxford Brookes University Business School there is an International Centre for Coaching and Leadership Development, which offers coaching qualifications from certificate to doctorate level. "We are very lucky to have this as a resource. It's distinctive – our own staff go through the programme and get matched as coaches to what individual people need," says Daniel Ganly, who is responsible for on-campus MBAs. "Everyone on the full-time MBA programme is told they have an option of one-to-one coaching sessions, and this usually kicks in after Christmas, when they start to have ideas about what they want to do." Coaching, he says, is a powerful resource. "It helps people stay on track and focused, and ask, 'What can you do today, next week or over the coming month?' We have really noticed a difference since we offered this service, and our completion rate has improved."

At Manchester Business School, careers advisers are the prime source of one-to-one student support. "We offer coaching around the job search and what they want to do with their MBA," says Clare Hudson, director of the MBA careers management service. "In the first four weeks every MBA has a one-to-one session, and from that we start building a relationship. Then we have an open-door policy. We see some students week in, week out, while others only come in every two or three months."

The service is a conduit between students looking for jobs and recruiters looking to fill management vacancies. It also helps students to manage their expectations and to navigate through the job application process.

Most students are also offered a mentor, Hudson says, usually an alumnus of the business school."Doing an MBA is a huge upheaval for them," she says. "Our job is to make sure they are coping academically and mentally, and then do anything else we can to further ease the transition."

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