Learning to Work with People

Generations of Stanford GSB alumni have been touched by our renowned Interpersonal Dynamics elective, known to all as “Touchy-Feely.” Many of those same alumni believe that it was one of the most influential courses they took while at Stanford. Decades since it was first taught at the business school, however, courses like it are hardly mainstream in management education. Yet its impact on the curriculum at Stanford GSB has only grown through the years as what we have learned about experience-based education from teaching it has become a core capability that we are able to leverage across a variety of classes.

Early on the course was controversial among educators at Stanford GSB and elsewhere. After all, it doesn’t look much like a conventional class; certainly there is no final exam. And to those appraising it from afar it has the feel of something distinctly Californian. Some kind of a self-help workshop perhaps, but not a for-credit course!

But as our graduates come to appreciate after becoming managers and leaders, the ability to work effectively with and through people is one of the most important determinants of success in any organization. Self-awareness, knowledge of the impact of one’s style on others, and skill at interpersonal interactions are at least as important a part of the leader’s skill set as is training in the more traditional business disciplines.

Today, in contrast to the one section of 12 students when Touchy-Feely began in 1966, we offer 8 sections of 36 students each, and experience-based leadership courses abound in our curriculum. In the first week of the fall quarter of the first year, students begin to hone their skills in a course called Managing Groups and Teams, then move on to Leadership Laboratories, a required course in which the students work in eight-person squads designed to improve their leadership skills through exercises and behavioral analysis. Key to the approach in these exercises is the role of the Arbuckle Leadership Fellows, second-year students who not only went through the course as first-years themselves, but who also have subsequently taken a course to prepare them to facilitate the experience for the class below them. This year 90 students applied for these positions, an increase from 57 the year before. The fellows are further supported by a cadre of professional leadership coaches.

The Leadership Laboratories culminate in the Executive Challenge, a one-day series of exercises in which more than 160 senior-level alumni return to campus to play the roles of executives in brief simulations in which the students test the mastery of the skills they have developed during the quarter.

The basic elements of these courses — intense introspection, experiential skill-based learning, and the use of coaches (whether students or professionals) — are increasingly the foundation for other classes. One way or another this is true of courses such as Leadership Coaching and Mentoring, High-Performance Leadership, and Acting with Power. But these elements also find their way into other classes as a supporting component. For example, when we teach Entrepreneurship from the Perspective of Women, we invite two of the school’s leadership coaches to facilitate a session for the women in the class to help them think through the basis of their attitudes toward entrepreneurship. Leadership coaches similarly now support Paths to Power. Indeed, there has been such a proliferation of courses that touch on personal leadership development that it has become important to coordinate our various classes and activities in this area, a role that Professor Lara Tiedens has agreed to take on for us. Touchy-Feely has definitely gone mainstream at Stanford GSB.