It takes a mentor

Every three months, Shane Atha (MBA ’19) and a pair of classmates meet in a W. P. Carey conference room with marketing consultant David Greenberg. They discuss classroom assignments and their journeys to marketing careers of their own. The mentor-protégé relationship doesn’t stop at the Tempe, Arizona, campus.

“We have an open line of access to him,” Atha adds. “I can call him or set up a coffee meeting. He’s remained extremely available.”

Greenberg, who has helped grow some of the best-known restaurant brands in the world, is one of 62 professionals taking part in the school’s Executive Connections program. Launched four years ago, it partners members of the Phoenix, Arizona, business community, who are all volunteers, with W. P. Carey’s 227 MBA candidates. From the moment they step onto campus,  students meet a mentor in their field of interest, and the relationship continues for the two-year duration of the program.

Similar efforts are underway at MBA programs across the country.

“What all business schools are recognizing is that to be successful in today’s business environment, it takes much more than raw analytical ability and technical skill,” says John Wisneski, a W. P. Carey assistant clinical professor and faculty director of the Full-time MBA program. “It takes the ability to influence and lead others. Those are softer skills not as easily taught in a classroom environment.”

As for Greenberg, he’s reprising an advocacy role he served while holding marketing positions at Wendy’s International and the Dial Corporation. He was drawn to W. P. Carey after giving guest lectures at Phoenix’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, an experience “I truly enjoyed.

“We talk to students about what they’re learning, and how that translates into the real world, so it’s not just theory,” says Greenberg, who also has worked for Burger King, Jack in the Box, Bob Evans, Papa Murphy’s Pizza, and Mimi’s Cafe. “Sometimes I’m checking in with them; sometimes they’re checking in with me. They can call me; they can text me; they can email me — whatever media works for them.

“The students,” he adds, “provide an awful lot of energy and enthusiasm.”

Sharpening MBA students’ soft skills

So-called executives-in-residence programs, from which W. P. Carey borrows elements, started more than 40 years ago at institutions that included Columbia Business School. Other top-tier business programs have followed suit – the University of Chicago’s Booth School in 2009 and Northwestern’s Kellogg School in 2012.

A still-cited 2005 article in the Harvard Business Review bemoaned that “employers are noticing that freshly minted MBAs, even those from the best schools – in some cases, especially those from the best schools – lack skills their organizations need.”

At W. P. Carey, Executive Connections seeks to build critical leadership and interpersonal skills; help students better understand and prepare for their careers; support them in practicing and honing essential business skills needed to succeed; encourage students to take a “deeper dive” into the inner workings of the business world; and give them a practical complement to their classwork.

Mentors act as coaches, offering guidance on projects and helping students prepare for employment and internship opportunities. They also assist faculty members with a variety of class activities.

“The foundational skills in business have not changed, but businesses’ expectations of what MBAs are capable of certainly has,” Wisneski says. “An MBA has evolved into much more of a practitioner’s degree, in which theory provides the solid foundation to make decisions. But practically applying that theory in context is what recruiters are demanding of us. And so, it’s upon all of us as business school administrators to make sure that our students are getting those practical opportunities, such that they’re ready on day one of the job.”

Leaning on mentors to move forward

The effort is helpful in other ways. Atha, of New York City, didn’t know anybody in Arizona when he arrived at W. P. Carey a year ago. More than 2,400 miles removed from his family and friend support networks, Atha found enthusiastic support in Greenberg. Besides offering practical business advice, mentors are often their proteges’ biggest boosters.

“I had an immediate mentor that I could rely on and talk to about any issues during the first year of the program, which is pretty intense,” says Atha, who is making the marketing transition after a career in sales. “There were a lot of times during the year when the stress started to build up. Dave was there to talk through any issues and give advice. That’s one of the main things I’ve taken away from Executive Connections. His advice has always been to remain focused and try to enjoy the moment.”

Expanding Executive Connections

The program has steadily grown in size and scope, Wisneski says. Initially, Executive Connections was a loosely structured effort in which students were paired with mentors in their field of interest. There were no formal guidelines.

“Now we have our executive mentors provide objective assessments of each candidate’s leadership capabilities while they’re in the program,” Wisneski says. “It’s not just about having a buddy with some industry experience to lean on. It’s also about having someone who’s invested in your development as a leader.”

This summer, Atha completed an internship at Intuit in San Diego. The company manufactures business and financial software. Its products include TurboTax, a consumer tax preparation application. Throughout the first year of his MBA curricula, Atha says he has consulted with Greenberg about “different kinds of companies I was thinking about, the ways I was communicating with them, and any recommendations he might have.”

“What I try to do as much as anything is meet the students where they are,” Greenberg says. “They all come in with different needs, different wants, different desires, different strengths, and different gaps. A big piece of it for me is making sure they're honest with themselves concerning that what they're looking to get out of the program.

“I try to be a little bit of a Sherpa and provide them some guidance as they’re working through that.”

Atha, meanwhile, plans to have many more cups of coffee with Greenberg: “I fully expect that I’ll remain in contact with Dave and use him as a mentor as I grow my career.”

Join more mentorship communities

For W. P. Carey first-year students and transfer students that are looking for a peer-to-peer mentorship program (i.e. student-to-student), they are encouraged to use Connectors to access business student mentors. Connectors mentors are undergraduate business students of all majors as well as MBA graduate students. And if you think mentoring incoming first-year students as an undergraduate or graduate student sounds super fun, definitely check it out. The W. P. Carey School of Business Professional Mentorship Program matches professional mentors exclusively with business student mentees.

Then there's Arizona State University's revamped and expanded online network drives powerful professional connections within the Sun Devil community. The ASU Mentor Network offers a variety of opportunities that allow you to continue sharing your experience and real-world knowledge with students, ranging from various informal connections to more traditional mentoring relationships.

By Andrew Faught