Leadership coaching pairs students with alums

Daphne LarkinNorwich Today

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Four Norwich University students face a problem. They have limited food and medical supplies – just enough to support their platoon of soldiers on a mission in Vietnam – but they have encountered a group of refugees who have nothing and are nearing a critical state.

Do they give away their supplies, share or keep all of the food and medicine for themselves?

“It says in the Army you put your men first and the mission first,” said Trung Nguyen. “They’re civilians. Wouldn’t it put your men at risk to help these people?”

Alex Johnson argued that the soldiers would probably be OK with a limited food supply, while the refugees were desperate. He suggested a compromise.

“I’m not going to risk the lives of 30 men, women and children so that my men can have another hot meal,” he said.

The scenario was, of course, purely hypothetical, and the four students were dissecting the case in a classroom in Norwich’s Northfield, Vt., campus. All were freshmen enrolled in Norwich’s School of Business & Management [SOBM], and all had volunteered to participate in the exercise.

The case study, as well as two others they addressed, was a tough ethical dilemma worded to thwart easy solutions. To add to their stress, four adults–Norwich alumni–sat observing the discussion closely without offering the students advice. In fact, most never said a word.

This setup, repeated in several other classrooms in the same building, was an experiment and an opportunity for former Norwich students to share their real-world experience with the current crop. The alums, or “coaches,” weren’t interested in the answers students struggled to form. Each was focused on a single student, observing body language, listening ability, courtesy and other skills related to leadership and communication.

Following the debates, students stood up individually to give two-minute “elevator” pitches about themselves as if they were applying for a job or graduate school. Later, the coaches would sit down with their students and give them personal, confidential feedback about ways to improve their leadership skills and role in the group.

Paul Berntsen, a coach and Class of ’84 Norwich graduate, said he observed a number of factors. In particular, he was impressed when students listened and allowed the discussion to inform their opinions.

“Were they making up their mind before they started? That was something that I paid very close attention to,” he said.

Berntsen, who works for the EMC Corporation and lives in Bedford, N.H., had to laugh when he read the cases students were to debate. One involved the ethics of selling medical supplies in a foreign country where bribery was standard business practice. It was right in line with his job as a global alliance practice manager. While it was often funny to see the students debate the question with little knowledge of how these situations really work, he was impressed by their intelligence and maturity.

“These are great kids,” he said. “This is fantastic.”

His own professional experience, Berntsen added, will be useful in helping a student find their voice when “selling” him- or herself. It’s something he’s been through many times.

“I need to do something in the course of that speech that’s going to hook the person I’m talking to,” he said.

The exercise is intended to enhance leadership skills, teamwork and interpersonal skills, according to Eric Curtis, a Class of ’98 Norwich graduate who wrote the case studies and helped develop this pilot program with people from the SOBM. He hopes it goes further, and gives students and alums a chance to connect and form real relationships.

“I’m hoping we can kick this off and grow it,” said Curtis, who modeled the experience on a program he participated in at Babson College, where all students go through a one-on-one coaching program. “Now, we’ve got to take 20 coaches and 20 students and grow that into 50 or 100 for next year.”

The owner of CurtisCompany, which develops strategies for nonprofit companies and a SOBM Fellow, he knew immediately the Babson program could be adapted to Norwich, which has been developing a leadership program for a number of years.

“Right after I sat down with the student and said [to myself], ‘I would like to hire this person.’ I said this would be great for Norwich,” he said.

Organizers brought together 22 coaches, who gathered in Boston for a five-hour training session before the March 30, 2013, event. It was a great group, said Curtis, and drew on a wide variety of people and experiences.

“This school did so many great things for me,” said Berntsen, regarding his decision to serve as a coach. “I try to give back in ways that I can … Maybe one day these guys will give back.