What does it mean to be a leader?

BY AMY McCAIG
Rice News staff

What does it mean to be a leader?

Tom Kolditz, left, director of Rice’s Doerr Institute, led an Oct. 23 panel of undergraduate students who participated in the institute’s first pilot program. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

According to Tom Kolditz, director of Rice University’s Doerr Institute for New Leaders, leadership has more to do with the people being led than it does with the person doing the leading.

And for the past six weeks, that is what the Doerr Institute has sought to impart to the 12 Rice undergraduate students involved in the organization’s first pilot program. During this time, the students worked one-on-one with nationally recognized leadership coaches to develop their own unique styles of leadership and learn how to adapt to the individuals they are leading. The program concluded Oct. 23.

Students and coaches

Leadership coaches Jen Grace-Baron, Danielle Harlan and Melanie Polk ’85 traveled to Rice for the program kickoff Sept. 18-20. Over the course of the weekend, they had their first interactions with the students they would be coaching.

Kolditz sought out coaches trained by the International Coach Federation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to professional coaching, or similar methodology. He also added that all of them have experience in university settings and are “the best of the best” in the field of leadership coaching.

“Knowing what goes on in the lives of students is a big advantage,” Kolditz said. “And since we’re evaluating the process of coaching at Rice, we wanted a very even and high quality of coaching. Ultimately, we want to see how this coaching process fits with Rice.”

The students included in the pilot program were chosen after Kolditz consulted with a number of stakeholders across campus, including athletics, student activities and alumni relations. A few students nominated themselves for the program.

Kolditz said the students chosen for the pilot program are involved in a campus organization that would ultimately provide the kind of interpersonal experience necessary for them to apply the advice from their coaches and develop as leaders.

Polk noted that the Doerr Institute and its student leadership development are not about giving students more work to do.

“It’s about them living their lives, being a person and seeing how they can organically integrate leadership skills in a real-world setting,” Polk said. “It’s nothing manufactured. It’s about meeting them where they are — and not trying to contrive anything — using real and authentic experiences from which to gain leadership skills.”

Lillie Besozzi, assistant to the director of the Doerr Institute, said they are interested in a very flat, non-hierarchical leadership structure.

“This structure is characteristic of the tech industry – companies like Google and Facebook,” she said. “Millennials find the structure appealing and it fits with the Rice culture.”

Hundreds of Families Weekend 2015 attendees followed the discussion in the Shepherd School of Music’s Stude Concert Hall.

Pilot program kickoff

Each coach was assigned to four students. During the first weekend of activities, the coaches met with their students for three hours each. Students worked with their coaches to identify personality-specific goals — such as being more assertive or controlling impulses — that would help improve their individual leadership development.

In addition, each of the students was given a challenge: influence some type of decision by mid-October, such as a family decision or a class project decision.

Albert Nabiullin, a McMurtry College sophomore and a mathematical economics major, set a goal of arranging for a band to play for a collegewide event during Families Weekend. He said that he and the other students were given carte blanche to select a goal to focus on.

“We had to personally influence some decision, but it didn’t matter the context in which we did it,” he said.

The students were also instructed to provide evidence of how they influenced this particular decision by using 70-20 (www.70-20.com/), a website and phone app named after the 70:20:10 model of personal development. The website and app allow students to upload evidence of completion of or progression toward their goal and to receive feedback from their coaches. The students also communicated regularly with their coaches via email, text or Skype.

Rachel Lin, a McMurtry College sophomore studying psychology, said it was an incredible honor to participate in the program. She said that what she found most unique about the coaching is that it helped “deconstruct the stereotypical image of leadership.”

“I think what a lot of people normally think about leadership is that it is either something you have or you don’t have,” she said. “But coaching showed that this idea is simply just incorrect. There are so many ways in which one can have the capacity to lead. We also focused a lot on personal growth, because personal awareness was the first step to being able to build leadership.”

“These Rice students are ambitious, hopeful and amazingly creative,” said Grace Baron, who was Lin’s coach. “As a result, opportunities to lead are happening for them formally and informally, consciously and unconsciously every day. As coaches, we had the privilege of helping them define and operationalize how they lead, at their best, and take this for a spin across their various roles at Rice. To capitalize on what’s working and dial back what’s not. It is inspiring to imagine the difference these students will make out of the gate after college, and how this program will be a launching platform in their lives both personally and professionally.”

Harlan believes that effective coaching is about empowering students through the process.

“I wanted them to be aware of what they bring to the table, what their unique edge is and what they can fall back on when times are tough,” she said. “In addition, it was important for them to have strong self-awareness and self-knowledge so they could set goals and come up with solutions that worked best for themselves.”

Ultimately, Harlan said, the coaching process was very student-driven.

“They set goals but we probed, asked questions and helped them synthesize and make sense of their thoughts and talk about what they did and what they might do differently the next time,” she said.

Isabel Scher, a Wiess College senior studying political science, said that while she has been involved in many leadership opportunities on campus, her coach helped her define her leadership style for the first time.

“She has helped me identify environments in which I thrive, set goals and exceed them, and pushed me to stop and celebrate milestones rather than just moving on to the next to-do list,” Scher said. “The self-awareness and personal leadership development have been invaluable as I pursue full-time employment opportunities and think about the type of leader I want to be within my community at my residential college my senior year.”

Both Polk and Harlan said that the students exceeded their expectations with their level of self-awareness and openness.

“These students really want to make a difference in the world,” Harlan said. “To them, it’s more than having a good position or making a lot of money. They are community- and world-oriented.”

Rice President David Leebron welcomed families and spoke to the importance of developing students’ leadership potential and skills.

Hope for ‘new kind of leaders’

The program culminated with an Oct. 23 session during Families Weekend 2015, when the visiting families of Rice students gathered in the Shepherd School of Music’s Stude Concert Hall to hear Kolditz and a group of the student participants discuss their experiences over the previous six weeks.

Rice President David Leebron welcomed the families and spoke about how the Doerr Institute’s mission “to elevate the leadership capacity of Rice students across the university” addresses a key aspect of the needs and demands of today’s university students.

“We hope our students, our graduates … are not just going to be the new leaders, but often the new kind of leaders we may need in a more complex, more diverse, more international world that needs to draw on more different kinds of knowledge than we have ever had to do before,” he said.

Next steps

Polk applauded the establishment of a pilot program with a small group of students to see what does and does not work as the institute makes plans to roll out what the larger program has to offer.

Kolditz said his ultimate goal for the Doerr Institute is to make leadership coaching a familiar part of the Rice experience — and available to all who want it. He said that the program is not just for people in formal leadership roles; it’s about developing each student’s leadership identity so that they can show leadership in their individual lives — whether it be in personal, business or social roles.

“Much of the student experience at Rice is proudly student-led,” Besozzi said. “The student leaders might not have formal titles, so they have to promote their ideas in a way that gains purchase with their peers.”

“Ultimately, leadership is about people who can make ideas come alive and get things done with other people,” Kolditz said.

The Doerr Institute was established earlier this year with a $50 million gift from Rice alumni Ann and John Doerr through their private family foundation.

A video of the Doerr Institute’s Families Weekend event will be available online in November. Those interested in viewing it, can follow the Doerr Institute on Facebook and Twitter or visit the Doerr Institute website at http://doerrinstitute.rice.edu/.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.