Alumni Panels Teach Skills That Matter
- Recent alumni are brought in as guest speakers who describe what lessons they learned early in their professional careers.
- In online sessions, alums meet with smaller groups of students to share advice about building networks and preparing for the future of work.
- The recorded sessions have even more impact when they’re used in the classroom or made available to the wider community.
Today’s business school graduates will confront a challenging workplace landscape. What will it take for them to succeed once they enter professional environments?
At Monmouth University (MU) in West Long Branch, New Jersey, we wanted to try to answer that question. Research shows that workers are more likely to succeed if they display emotional intelligence in the workplace, so we decided to expose students to examples of young leaders who have developed that trait.
In September, October, and November of 2019, the two of us developed, organized, and co-hosted a series of three panel discussions called Management Matters. Each panel featured three successful alumni—from industries such as entertainment, insurance, technology, finance, sustainable development, and marketing communications—who shared lessons they have learned about professional work, workplace politics, interpersonal communications, and decision making. These events were attended predominantly by business students in MU’s Leon Hess Business School (LHBS), but attracted some nonbusiness students as well.
We had scheduled another panel for April 2020, but the pandemic shutdown in mid-March of that year curtailed such events indefinitely. When MU reopened in the fall semester of 2021, we launched a different version of this educational experience called the Alumni in Management series. We believe that both series have helped students acquire valuable knowledge and skills that will serve them well in a rapidly changing work world.
A Chance to Interact
In the Management Matters series, we wanted guest speakers to go beyond talking about the skills students will need in the workplace, because we already cover those topics in our classrooms. We wanted panelists to focus more on the pervasive and often difficult situations that arise in professional work. As our alums thoughtfully described their approaches to these situations, our students learned about strategies they can use to increase their managerial and leadership potential.
Each two-hour panel opened with introductory statements from one of us and was followed by welcoming remarks from school leaders such as MU’s president, the dean of LHBS, and the chair of the management and leadership department. After the panelists were introduced, they described their jobs, duties, and professional aspirations, as well as the ways they intended to achieve their goals. Then, we asked them a series of questions, including these:
- What were some of the most important lessons you learned at Monmouth that helped you in your professional career? What do you wish you had learned as an undergraduate?
- The working world offers both good and bad experiences and interactions. What is one of the most memorable experiences that you’ve encountered in your professional life?
- What completely surprised you once you were in a professional setting on a full-time basis? What is something that you were unprepared for, but that you believe you have now mastered?
- If you could give one bit of advice to our students, what would it be? What is the one thing you want them to know before they graduate?
Alumni panelists shared with current students some of the most memorable experiences they have encountered in their professional lives.
We also encouraged students to interact with the panelists. The two of us roamed around the auditorium and used wireless microphones to allow students to respond to previous statements or inquire about other concerns. In addition, we invited attendees to come to the front of the auditorium after the panels were over so they could introduce themselves to specific participants. At the end of one panel, dozens of students accepted that invitation, and the panelists kindly stayed to speak with them and hand out business cards.
Attendance grew from 69 students at the first event to 109 students at the third. After each Management Matters panel, we surveyed students and gathered additional feedback through anecdotal methods. Here’s a sampling of what students said they took away from the events:
- The act of learning can occur formally, informally, and incidentally.
- It’s important to find a mentor who can help a new hire navigate the political landscape of the work organization.
- As Winston Churchill said, “Never give in, never, never, never, never.”
We had planned to continue the series with an April 2020 panel, but the pandemic canceled that event. At that point, we began to think about how we could restructure the series into something that allowed more meaningful interactions between students and speakers.
A More Personalized Approach
In the fall semester of 2021, the school launched Alumni in Management (AIM), a series that allowed students to have more intimate, one-on-one conversations with LHBS alumni who were emerging and early-stage leaders. Although we hadn’t planned it that way, the inaugural guest speakers were all first-generation college students, which is a growing demographic at MU. Two speakers were the children of immigrants.
The AIM series was conducted via remote technology in September, October, and November of 2021. Each session included a brief welcome from the host, recorded introductions from the dean and the guest speaker, and an approximately 50-minute conversation between the host and the speaker.
Guests began by discussing their personal backgrounds, making sure to share any critical life lessons they had absorbed during their early careers. For instance, they told students they had learned that no one was going to do their work for them and that it was important to build wide professional networks. They also had discovered the powerful impact of getting to know all their co-workers, especially the more experienced ones who could help them understand their industries.
Speakers then went on to discuss what they had learned at MU that set them apart in the workplace. Finally, speakers provided insights on what they expect to happen in the immediate future of work—the world in which students will be applying for jobs.
Speakers noted that the friendships and connections they had made during their undergraduate years had been instrumental in their professional success.
In advance of their presentations, we encouraged speakers to think about real-life stories that would be most compelling for the undergraduate audience, and all of them provided excellent, relatable anecdotes. Furthermore, all the speakers noted that the friendships and connections they had made during their undergraduate years had been instrumental in their professional success. These assurances validated the frequent claim that students who are actively engaged in campus groups are more likely to benefit from the university experience.
The AIM series was marketed primarily to undergraduates in the management and leadership major. Attendance ranged from 30 to 54 people.
Because the AIM series was flexible and low-touch, we could easily deliver it through remote technology, which enabled us to present a wide variety of speakers. There were several other advantages to delivering the series over the internet.
First, most of today’s undergraduates consume content digitally, so they were comfortable online. Second, attending sessions remotely helped prepare our undergraduates for the 21st-century working world, because many companies today opt for online professional development training as a way to save money on travel and attendance costs. Finally, running the programs online made it possible for us to record them and upload them to YouTube for ease of future viewing.
At some point in the future, AIM speakers may meet with hosts in person, though not necessarily in front of a live audience. If we continue to deliver AIM online, we potentially can develop a larger ecosystem of events. We might create offerings that help undergraduates prepare for the application and interview process. Or we might bring together subsets of conversations from multiple speakers to focus on specific topics such as how to develop a business strategy or what challenges are faced by veteran executives who are well beyond the early stages of their careers.
For the future, we plan to make the AIM series a regular part of LHBS, and we intend to conduct at least one interview each semester. But we’re also looking at ways we can increase the impact of each alumni presentation.
For instance, because the panels have covered such a broad range of topics, professors can integrate video content into both undergraduate and graduate courses in many ways. Faculty teaching business ethics can use clips about diversity, equity, and stakeholder theory, while faculty teaching small business management or marketing can feature segments about entrepreneurship. The possibilities are endless.
We also have realized that we can expand our offerings to make them valuable to the broader community. Research has shown that informal learning outside the classroom is one of the most vital ways for employees to engage in continuous learning. For that reason, MU’s director of alumni engagement and director of employer engagement are exploring ways to promote the series to external stakeholders—and they have both offered to help find future AIM series interviewees.
Successful alumni have the ability to encourage business students to think about and pursue what is important to them in their professional lives. We believe that when we expand traditional courses beyond the confines of the classroom, we will give students the chance to hear about what really happens in today’s work world.