A win-win situation

Published: October 17, 2013

With peer coaching, MIT Sloan students help one another develop key skills

Two years ago, while working on her MBA at MIT Sloan, Kaitlyn Caughlin recognized that her fellow students could benefit from the kind of peer-to-peer coaching that was common at her company.

So, working with Tracy Purinton, associate director of the MIT Leadership Center, she helped develop the Peer-to-Peer (P2P) coaching program, which offers MIT Sloan students the opportunity to gain insight into their own leadership strengths and weaknesses with the guidance of their peers.

“I saw two needs,” said Caughlin, MBA ’12, who serves as a manager in corporate strategy at investment company Vanguard, where she also worked before attending MIT Sloan. “We’re trying to graduate a lot of leaders, so they need that coaching, those people management skills. And then we have first-years who are trying to develop their leadership skills and [need] feedback.”

P2P addresses these needs by training second-year MBAs, MIT Sloan Fellows, and MIT Executive MBAs to coach first-year MBA, Master of Finance (MFin), and Master of Science in Management Studies (MSMS) students. (The program expanded to include MSMS, MFin, and EMBA students just this year.) To date, the program has provided leadership coaching to nearly 100 first-year MIT Sloan students.

“It can be quite liberating for our students to have someone who can be a sounding board,” Purinton said. “[A P2P coach] is someone people can be vulnerable with, and our students value that.”

The goal of P2P, Purinton said, is to give students a chance to maximize their effectiveness in working with others—a skill they will need whether they are leading multinational companies or simply contributing to project teams. The students being coached—Purinton calls them “coachees”—set their own goals, which can run the gamut from learning to delegate more effectively to improving listening skills to becoming a more persuasive advocate.

The key to the program’s success—according to both Caughlin and Purinton—is the coaching model, which differs from mentoring in that no specific expertise is required. The coach’s job is to help fellow students reach their own conclusions about how to improve their leadership skills.

“Coaching is much more about listening and asking the right questions and facilitating the thinking of the other person,” Caughlin said. “That’s a difficult process, and I think by trying to help someone else you really learn your own strengths and what kind of leader you want to be.”

This model worked well for Zachary Cohen, MBA ’13, who got the chance both to coach and be coached while at MIT Sloan. “I participated in P2P for three key reasons. I wanted to develop relationships with some of my classmates, specifically across years. I wanted to build my leadership strengths and learn what coaching was all about. And I wanted to gain insight into how to better take advantage of opportunities at MIT Sloan and in my career,” he said.

During his first year in the program, as a coachee, Cohen asked his P2P coach to help him improve his effectiveness as a co-chair of the MIT Sloan Social Impact Fellowship—even though he was confident in his own abilities. “He helped me to see that I had not considered how to engage others in the effort,” Cohen said. “I gained the confidence to build a fundraising committee … [which] made the effort far more fun and helped me to see leadership from a new perspective.” (The committee also doubled the fundraising success of the previous year).

“Leadership is about motivating and engaging people toward a goal; not just managing oneself effectively through an activity,” said Cohen, who now works as a strategy consultant at Cambridge Strategic Management Group.

Students interested in becoming coaches must fill out an application and attend two 3-hour training sessions. Although the deadline to apply for a coaching spot has passed for this year, students who would like to receive coaching have until Nov. 1 to apply and can do so on MySloan. Coaching relationships begin the third week of February, and students are expected to meet together twice a month for 30- to 60-minute coaching sessions.

“Being [at MIT Sloan] was amazing, but now that I’m gone, what I have left is the relationships that I built,” Caughlin said. “That’s what I wanted to have happen; P2P should help build community.”

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