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At this university, any student can sign up to get professional leadership coaching—for free

July 8, 2020, 2:30 PM UTC

Mary Natoli was surprised when Tom Kolditz, director of Rice University’s Doerr Institute for New Leaders, asked if she would like leadership coaching. She was the new president of Rice’s Cycling and Triathlon Club and had recently organized a demonstration to improve safety at a dangerous intersection near the campus; the wife of a postdoctoral student had recently been killed there while cycling. “It was the first time I had done something like that,” she recalls, “but it ended up getting a lot of news coverage and a lot of attendees.”

That’s what prompted Kolditz to offer coaching to Natoli. When Rice students step forward to take action for a cause, the Doerr Institute generally contacts them to ask if they’d like a professional leadership coach. “We don’t care that much about what their cause is,” says Kolditz. “It could be the College Republicans or Black Lives Matter”—both of which have received coaching—“or almost anything else. For us it’s about producing incredible leaders.” Activists are especially promising because “they’re all passionate about their cause, which makes them easy to train.”

Doerr Institute-Mary Natoli
Mary Natoli at her organized demonstration pushing for change regarding the dangerous intersection right outside the front gates of Rice University.
Courtesy of Mary Natoli

At a time when the world is crying out for leadership, the Doerr Institute merits attention. It’s apparently unique in the world of U.S. universities, a leadership organization untethered to the business school or any specific department, offering services free of charge to all students. The coaches are certified professionals in the Houston area who might also be working with Exxon or Shell executives. “We never say no,” says Kolditz. “If we have 500 students, we find the coaches and we do it.”

The institute was the idea of legendary Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr, who backed Amazon, Google, and other tech colossi in their early days, and his wife, Ann, both of whom hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Rice. Partly they wanted to help their alma mater. “There are not that many companies being led by Rice graduates,” Ann notes. But they also focused on a larger problem. In Silicon Valley, “one of the things that’s an issue for companies to grow is just leadership capacity and the lack thereof,” she says. So they gave Rice $50 million, the largest gift the school has ever received, to establish a leadership development program.

A headhunter the Doerrs engaged to find the program’s director recommended Kolditz, a retired Army brigadier general with a Ph.D. in psychology who oversaw research and teaching of leadership development at West Point. He later directed the leadership development program at the Yale School of Management

Doerr Institute-Tom Kolditz
“We don’t tell students what they need to learn,” Tom Kolditz tells Fortune. “We ask what their goals are and how we can help.”
Courtesy of The Doerr Institute for New Leader

John Doerr wrote a book called Measure What Matters, so it’s no surprise that the Doerr Institute measures its results obsessively. “Tom is always trying to understand if he’s doing something that’s successful,” says Ann Doerr. “He’s always measuring and testing what he’s doing.” Every new Rice student completes a leadership identity questionnaire, a widely used measure of leadership capacity, and completes it again at graduation.

Those who work with the institute typically double their score. But the rest “don’t improve at all,” says Kolditz. Results at other schools are similar. “Most schools have something about leadership in their mission statements, but they don’t do anything. It underscores how dismal leadership is for companies that are hiring 2.2 million college grads every year. No company wants to hire a college graduate with high school leadership skills.”

The institute doesn’t require anyone to use its services; 30% to 40% of students do so. Even the activists whom the institute contacts don’t always say yes. That’s partly because most students have no idea what this kind of coaching is and don’t fully understand that it’s a free service. “I had heard of the leadership coaching, but I thought it was something I didn’t have time for,” Natoli recalls. When offered the opportunity, “I was like, what do you want from me? And it turned out it was really just for my benefit.” 

Another student, Tim Harrison, signed up once he understood the deal. “I’d heard there was coaching, and at first I didn’t really know what coaching was,” he says. “But the more I looked into it, I was like, ‘Wow, they’re offering this for free. For me it was an absolute no-brainer.’”

Doerr Institute-Tim Harrison
Tim Harrison is in the process of being certified as a leadership coach and is being coached by Kolditz as he develops a coaching-based nonprofit.
Courtesy of Tim Harrison

He was especially glad to have a coach when he entered his senior year. In addition to classes, “I was a Division 1 student athlete”—basketball, a forward—“and I became president of the Black Male Leadership Initiative, and I was running an online business [flipping furniture].” He realized that “instead of wishing it was easier, I’ve got to wish I was better.” For that, “I really relied on my leadership coach.” Harrison graduated in May with a psychology degree and will go to work for Accenture in the fall.

The institute has learned a few things in its four years of existence. “The activists have typically never failed at anything in their lives, yet they want some help,” says Kolditz. “We have to manage a lot of impostor syndrome”—chronic self-doubt—“and fear of failure.”

In addition, many people, both students and others, struggle to grasp the institute’s operating model, simple though it is. “We treat students like clients,” Kolditz says. “They’re in the driver’s seat. We don’t tell students what they need to learn. We ask what their goals are and how we can help.” That’s disorienting in a university setting where authority figures surround students. “After their first session, they often turn to the coach and say, ‘How’d I do?’ We say, ‘You don’t get it yet—you’re the boss.’”

Tim Harrison is in the process of being certified as a leadership coach and is being coached by Kolditz as he develops a coaching-based nonprofit. Two years after Mary Natoli held her demonstration at the dangerous intersection, she says, “It’s not entirely due to me at all. It was a huge effort with a lot of groups. But as a result of a number of actions and people advocating for safety, the intersection is just finishing up a $1 million improvement project with all kinds of new safety features.” She got her Ph.D. in bioengineering in May and is now in a postdoctorate role coleading a team developing a point-of-care COVID diagnostic. She says, “The Doerr Institute coaching is really helping me now.”

The Doerrs and Kolditz want more such success stories. “We always wanted this to be a test case for other universities to think about their role in leadership training,” says Ann Doerr. Kolditz is helping the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching create a designation for colleges and universities that meet certain criteria for leadership education. “It’s going to cause a lot of change,” he says, incentivizing schools to put substance behind those uplifting mission statements.

“We want to give away everything we’ve learned, just give it away so other universities can improve their posture with respect to leader development,” he says. The passion among students is certainly there. Whether schools will seize the opportunity remains to be seen.