It seems there are few serious opportunities for leadership development at colleges and universities. There are small programs for a select few, but such activities are usually not professionally staffed. This deficiency, even at top schools, opens a rapidly expanding market for professional coaching.
Our organization provides professional, certified coaches to every student who wants it at the approximately 7,000-student Rice University, with more than 2,000 students coached or in coaching to date.
Coaches can follow the steps below to open similar markets entrepreneurially, starting with individual students, creating a proof of principle and then marketing to the school to scale the business.
1. Find one or two students who want to develop, and coach them pro bono.
If you can’t find a student through friends and family, call the Student Affairs department, and offer to coach a willing, deserving student. Student body leadership and club leaders are prime candidates.
2. Coach students four to six sessions per semester with a focus on leadership development.
Avoid perceptions of life coaching, which is usually not taken seriously in university settings. Avoid career coaching — all universities have a career development office that provides that service. Use a leadership development planning form, but allow the student to choose their goals or competencies to work on. Among Rice University students working with professional coaches, the top six leadership qualities they choose for development are self-confidence, interpersonal skills, self-control, self-awareness, effective communication and empathy.
The schedule should not be rigid, but set instead by the student client. If you disrespect them by treating them like students and not legitimate clients, you could lose them. They don’t need you to graduate, so if you make it difficult, they can simply quit.
3. Pretest the student, ideally with an emotional intelligence assessment and a cognitive or personality measure of some sort.
This step is imperative because you will post-test the student to reveal growth over time. You have to show measurable growth in student development in order to create the market. Without solid outcome metrics, your services will be a tough sell on a campus that places research and quantitative measurement in high regard.
4. Help the student find an accountability partner.
Have them ask a reliable friend to call them every night. On the call, the partner asks the student a series of questions chosen by the student client as areas of improvement.
Questions might include: Did you exercise today? Did you tell your family you loved them today? Did you check in with your boss/academic advisor today? Did you work to understand someone else’s perspective today?
Students determine the questions, and the call is straightforward and brief — no chitchat, pleasantries or asking why the client did or didn’t do something. It’s fast and takes only a minute. Done daily, it can supercharge a student’s personal development.
5. Challenge students to be in unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations.
DNA (which stands for “diverse, novel, adverse”) is an acronym that David Peterson, Google’s director of leadership and coaching, uses to describe “the conditions we all face now in a world which is VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.” This can help your student clients become better leaders in fast-changing environments.
Help clients find activities and groups outside their comfort zone — challenging and sometimes miserable outdoor experiences, attending events that are religiously or ethnically unfamiliar, or attempting to learn things that are completely foreign and not altogether pleasant, like how to butcher. Challenge is about newness.
6. Encourage students to find a mentor.
You have to show students, staff and faculty that a coach is different than a mentor. Make clear that a mentor is a person of greater experience who agrees to help introduce the student to a common field of interest.
In all likelihood, the student will have to take the initiative to find someone they respect and knock on their door. The person behind the door is likely to assist in their career development, further distancing your leadership development role from career coaches and the mentors themselves. Mentors can be overused on campuses and, in my experience, are good for career development but often poor at leadership development. If you find this to be true, then the distinction is important for you to highlight.
7. Post-test the students.
Have the students do satisfaction surveys, and put the results into a professional-looking report. Create hard copies and PDF versions. In our satisfaction surveys, the most important question is, “Would you recommend coaching to a fellow student?” We get 98% to 99% yes answers to that, but it’s not enough to be popular. The post-test on your validated cognitive, emotional or behavioral measures has to show significant improvement. We show an 80% to 100% improvement in the level of measured leader identity. That’s what we’ve found impresses university administrators — not mere popularity with students.
8. Market your services with a basic foot-in-the-door technique.
If you can get an audience with the dean of students or another university decision maker, great. If not, target influencers — parents, counselors, athletic team coaches or even religious advisors. Offer a small pilot at reduced or no cost. Keep any fees as low as possible; you will make your money at universities by coaching a large number of student clients, not by attempting to charge executive rates, which are likely to be immediately rejected.
When coaches build business in universities, the payoff can be gigantic. The University of Texas recently invested in coaching for 3,000 students, and Seton Hall is coaching about 80 students this year. An entrepreneurial, savvy coach can form a company around the demand in higher education in a matter of months. There are roughly 4,360 colleges and universities in the U.S. That’s a lot of potential coaching business.
To develop your coaching practice, look beyond traditional executive coaching and into the university market. There are many students across the country, and you might even find that they’re a lot more enjoyable to coach!
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