Doerr Institute redefining how leaders are trained

Rice University is using a $50 million gift from John and Ann Doerr to redefine how leaders are made. The Ann and John Doerr Institute for New Leaders opened last July, with retired Army Brigadier General Tom Kolditz as executive director. Kolditz, a genuinely chipper guy with an engaging, outgoing personality, is an internationally recognized expert on crisis leadership and leadership in extreme contexts. He has more than 25 years in leadership roles, including positions at West Point and Yale University, where he was a professor in the practice of leadership and management.

Kolditz quickly developed a professionally executed leader-development experience with a scope and scale unprecedented among major universities. The program revolves around three broad initiatives with initiatives within each – initiatives aimed not just at students, but at faculty and the very fiber of Rice University.
Individual leadership training will be available – for free – to all 6,200 graduate and undergraduate students and will occur in environments the students are already in, rather than relying on extracurricular “leadership events.” For example, a student athlete is going to get coached in the context of his athletic team; the youngster who runs the student-led coffee shop is going to get coached in that role; an engineering student is going to get coached in the context of an engineering project team.
“We’re not a little program that takes 50 or 100 or 200 students and does workshops,” Kolditz said. “We are really responsible for every student at Rice who wants leader development.
“This is unheard of, to basically tell students who are coming to a good-sized research university that if they want to have a leadership coach while they’re here, it will be provided free of charge. It’s an incredible benefit to Rice students.”
Participation is voluntary for students, Kolditz said.
“People come here ’cause it’s a great research institute,” said Lillie Besozzi, the institute’s associate director for operations. “The idea of taking these fantastic minds and great researchers and then giving them these additional resources is really exciting. I geek out over it.”
Two Early Programs
During the fall and spring semesters, the institute, which is housed in McNair Hall, ran a small pilot program, which  provided a one-on-one, elbow-to-elbow leadership coach from the Houston business community and International Coach Federation to 278 sophomores, 52 percent of which were women. Those sophomores are the coaches’ clients, and the coaches, who are paid by the institute, are required to work around their schedules, Kolditz said. 
“Our coaches never judge them or grade them,” he said. “They put them in the driver’s seat and just coach them in better and higher levels of performance. 
“This is something that usually doesn’t happen until you’re a senior vice president in a company, but we’re doing it on a grand scale with these young people. Frankly, you can have more impact doing this with young people than you can with senior executives, because those executives already have habits that are almost impossible to break.”
Three to five sessions with a professional coach can change a student’s future trajectory forever, Kolditz said.
The institute also has an ongoing coach certification course taught by the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies that is open to the entire Houston community. The first class had 10 undergraduate students and 12 members of the community, including some Rice faculty.
Measurable Results 
The institute does not do anything that doesn’t have a measurable impact on a person’s capacity to lead, and a four-person “metrics team” measures those impacts, Kolditz said. They use a full range of research measures –   including surveys, interviews, focus groups and 360 assessments – to gauge impact. 
Measurements from the coaching pilot show greater self-awareness, more assertiveness, more open-mindedness and improved framework for open-ended problem-solving among participants. 
The institute focuses on a flat, non-hierarchical concept of leadership – the kind of models used by Facebook, Google and tech companies, where there are a lot of bright, creative people.
“This is already happening in the business world,” Kolditz said. “We saw this initially with businesses going to matrixed organizations as opposed to the classic hierarchies. Even the military has gone to a more matrixed format, especially in the special operations forces. There are times when you’re part of team when, based on your expertise, you need to be the leader. Then, there are other times when you have to follow, and our students have to be able to pass in and out of that role comfortably. We’re not trying to produce a bunch of pinnacle leaders, CEOs and so forth; that’s not what we’re about. We’re about getting the best version of our students out there.”
While the leadership coaching pilot had 278 students – 12 in the fall and 266 in the spring – Kolditz estimates the program will have about 600 sophomores enrolled in the fall, putting it around 50 percent of the Class of 2019.
The institute has grown to 14 full- and part-time employees and, in the fall, former Houston Mayor Annise Parker will join as a fellow.
“You can see how, across the university, this is going to impact every student here in some way,” Kolditz said. “We want to change the nature of a Rice degree.
“It will still be one of the best research and educational college degree on the globe. But, we want people to understand we’re graduating some fabulously trained leaders, as well. Leaders who go out in the world with their degrees and are much better able to be good stewards of their professions. It enables someone not only to be a creative genius but a creative genius who has some idea about how to move forward by developing teams and making things happen.”
Dave Schafer is a staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.
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