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Empowering Leaders: Redesigned Wisconsin Executive MBA Expands Focus on Communication and Coaching

By Caroline Gilchrist

March 19, 2024

An executive MBA student sits at a table with her coach, who points to her laptop

Business is changing. In response, the Wisconsin Executive MBA Program is changing too.

After three years of research and development, the Wisconsin School of Business’ launch of the redesigned executive MBA is just around the corner. In addition to a hybrid format and modernized curriculum, the program now features a more comprehensive emphasis on executive communication and expanded opportunities for executive coaching.

“Business today demands more agile communication,” says Jean Sink, director of career management for MBA and master’s programs. “The program was updated to better prepare leaders to thrive in both the modern and future workplace. We have dedicated resources to making sure we’re elevating not just the experience for our students, but also the impact they can make on their organizations.”

Executive communication: Practical skills to increase engagement

Strong leadership requires diverse skills—but perhaps none are more pivotal than communication skills.

Communication is an area of business that has seen a lot of change in recent years. Not only is it becoming increasingly digital (and as a result, increasingly permanent), but employees and stakeholders are expecting greater transparency from leaders to earn their trust.

The stakes are high. That’s why one of the main goals for the redesigned executive MBA program is to prepare students to be effective communicators at the highest level of business.

“The skills that make professionals successful, and that get them to the level they’re at when they enter the program, are typically a different set of skills than they need to develop to further elevate in their career,” Sink says.

“Business today demands more agile communication. The program was updated to better prepare leaders to thrive in both the modern and future workplace.”

Jean Sink, Director of Career Management for MBA and Master’s Programs

How do professionals reach that next tier of communication competence? Sink explains leaders must be able to identify different audiences and customize their communications accordingly.

Intentional, audience-specific communication will be a point of focus particularly in the program’s two in-person residencies. Through interactive discussions and lectures, as well as collaborative projects, students will gain expertise on communicating with four unique audiences:

  • Addressing large groups, such as in town hall settings
  • Engaging with senior leadership teams
  • Leveraging social media to communicate with customers and stakeholders as well as to establish a personal brand
  • Presenting to boards and investors and preparing for those presentations

This granular approach to communication is not common among executive MBA programs. While performing research to inform the program’s redesign, Sink spoke with peers at other institutions.

“It was interesting because my peers in higher ed were saying, ‘No one has really built a program that addresses all the necessary elements for developing the future executive, from executive presence to executive communication. If you can get this figured out and deliver, it’s going to set your program apart.’ And I heard that time and again. The executive communication content is a unique factor for our program,” Sink says.

Executive coaching: Insights to empower stronger leadership

Another enhanced feature of the redesigned program is the breadth and depth of its executive coaching. Sink, along with Deb Jahnke, assistant director of career management, will serve as the coaches and meet with students regularly over the course of the 18-month program.

A major conversation in the coaching sessions will be students’ career arcs. While most students will be on an upward trajectory within their organizations, Sink and Jahnke recognize that some will be looking to pivot to a new area in business or transition from a military career into a civilian one. Together, the coaches and students will discuss and prepare for next steps—including how to ensure employees of the students are ready for upcoming changes as well.

One tool Sink and Jahnke will use in their coaching sessions is a 360-degree assessment.

A student’s peers, supervisor, direct reports, etc., will anonymously respond to questions about the student’s leadership style; at the same time, the student will complete a self-assessment. When the results are in, the student and coach will review the results together. This detailed coaching session will empower students to understand how they can become more constructive and effective leaders. Halfway through the program, the assessment will be repeated, giving students insight into how they have improved and an opportunity to identify what to focus on next.

“The executive communication content is a unique factor for our program.”

Jean Sink, Director of Career Management for MBA and Master’s Programs

Another tool coaches and students will leverage is Gallup CliftonStrengths—a self-evaluation that will allow students to better understand their natural talents.

Sink explains that this assessment will give students a “language for how they think about their best skills, how they’re wired, and how they intentionally develop those talents—and then also where those talents can fall into overuse and actually hinder them in their professional progress.”

The coaching sessions will provide a space for students to explore and reflect, as well as identify action steps for their career, executive, and leadership development.

“Executive coaching is not Deb and me telling the students what to do,” Sink says. “It is listening to identify the themes that we’re seeing, prompting action, and co-creating this relationship to make sure we’re fully supporting our students on their trajectory.”

The coaches are more than professionally invested in students’ success—it’s personal too. Jahnke says coaching played an important role in her career, and working with MBA students is a way to pay it forward.

“I enjoy helping students reflect on their career journey, as well as consider if it was an intentional path and how it aligns with where they’re headed next. I encourage them to ask, ‘Who am I? What do I really want to do? How can I release my full potential and then help my teams release their full potential?’”

As for Sink, her favorite part of coaching is witnessing the transformation students undergo.

“I really enjoy seeing the ‘aha’ moments and the growth that my clients have,” she says. “Seeing them evolve their own learning and development and step into challenging topics or conversations is fulfilling.”