Advisory board members not only can provide a business school with guidance on its developments and concerns, but also can serve as mentors who provide students with practical, real-world experiences that give them a huge advantage upon graduation. At Woodbury University’s School of Business in Burbank, California, we want our advisory board members to become intensely involved in the career guidance opportunities we offer to students, which we believe will improve student retention and lead to their greater professional success. To this end, we successfully implemented three major projects during the 2017–2018 academic year.
The first project involved the creation of a rotating Executive in Residence program, in which advisory board members signed up for once-a-week office hours for upcoming semesters. (See “Executives in Rotation”). The days and times of these executive-in-residence visits varied, enabling various clusters of the school’s commuter student population to take advantage of the opportunity.
Every week, we announced the name of the next advisory board member and began making appointments. If an executive’s schedule was not properly filled, we extended the opportunity to other schools on campus. If time permitted, the executive also made classroom visits within the School of Business, giving a brief 20-minute introductory presentation, followed by a Q&A session.
As we expected, students generally gravitated toward executives with experience in their areas of interest, but the richness of the members’ backgrounds resulted in a wealth of information for students.
A Meeting of the Minds
Our second project was our Creative Minds Conference, which we debuted last October and plan to hold annually around the same time of year. The event was designed to give students a chance to interact with local executives.
At the inaugural conference, the executives consisted of several advisory board members, who also brought one or more of their associates. Students from all campus teaching divisions were invited to attend, bringing their résumés and portfolios with them. At the beginning of the networking portion of the evening, the executives briefly introduced themselves, which allowed students to target the ones with expertise in their areas of interest. Students were encouraged to approach executives to make connections, learn about certain careers, ask for advice on preparing résumés, and discuss internship and job opportunities.
To invigorate the event, a local student organization came up with an ice-breaking student contest called “So You Think You Can Sell?” Preregistered students were given a few seconds to see items that they were then required to “sell” to the audience in one-minute sessions. The items included a rain maker, a back scratcher, a stress ball, and a squeeze toy. Often, the students did not know exactly what the items were used for, which resulted in hilarious sales pitches that elicited outbursts of laughter.
At the end of the contest, a judging panel of advisory board members selected the winners and gave me the names. I announced the winners near the end of the evening, after the participants had had opportunities to network.
The third project, held near the end of the spring semester, was the Career Development Encounter. For this event, students were invited to participate in 15-minute mock interviews with a panel of business executives. We asked students to email their resumes several days before the event and to prepare three-minute elevator pitches about themselves. We assembled two panels of executives, so we could accommodate as many students as possible.
To generate interest in the inaugural event, which was also open to all students on campus, I sent out mass emails inviting students to register; I also made class appearances to explain the process. In addition, the school produced and distributed flyers. To make the event even more appealing to students, we offered four gift card prizes for the best prepared and most engaged participants. An advisory board member sponsored the gift cards. We found that the students who participated generally behaved professionally, were eager to received feedback, and came away with great insights about how to improve their résumés.
After the interviews, we held a session that allowed panelists to share their thoughts. Most of them said that they were highly impressed by the passion, eloquence, energy, and level of preparation the participating students displayed. Several reminisced about their own first interviews, which allowed them to relate vividly to the apprehension some of the student participants felt. The panelists did note that, since these were mock interviews, it was not easy to ask pointed questions. However, they said they would formulate a stronger set of questions before next year’s event. Panelists also suggested that the school should send them student résumés more than one day before the interviews took place.
In the final debrief session, the panelists shared the following six pointers with the student participants:
1. Have your goals well-articulated and be prepared to present them succinctly.
2. It is not a problem if you are unsure about your real interests, but at least think of one or two main areas that intrigue you; then, think of ways you might branch out from those areas. This will lead you to career options you may not have considered.
3. When interviewing for a job at any company, research the firm beforehand.
4. Don’t undersell yourself. Articulate all your experiences. Sharing such information can help open career avenues.
5. Be honest, but don’t volunteer unnecessary information. If, for instance, you are interviewing at a firm where you would like to gain experience before eventually opening your own business in the same industry, there is no need to share this plan. If you carry it out, you will be a future competitor, and companies are not fond of helping future competitors.
6. Understand that every position has its advantages and disadvantages. Some positions may seem glamorous but end up being tedious, stressful, or simply out of line with your aspirations. Others may initially seem dull or underrated but may end up providing you major opportunities for growth.
We’re still in the infancy of our plan to bring together students and advisory board members, but we’re already seeing great rewards. Our greatest proof that these initiatives are worthwhile is the fact that students appreciate them and enthusiastically participate. When we help our students prepare for their careers by drawing on the acumen of local business leaders, we are able to link community to education, establish a useful network for all parties, and deliver a very practical component of business education.
Joan Marques is dean and professor of management at Woodbury University’s School of Business in Burbank, California.