What Career Counselors Can Learn from Bela Karolyi

by: Sharon Belden Castonguay, EdD
Director, Graduate Career Management Center
Baruch College, Zicklin School of Business
New York, NY

The July-August 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review contained a brief interview with Bela Karolyi, the iconic gymnastics coach responsible for the training of nine gold medalists, including Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, and Kerri Strug. What struck me about it was how applicable his methods for success were to the field of career development. Some transferrable lessons:

1)      Love what you do.

Of all professions, if you don’t love what you do in career development then you need to find another field. Moving on.

2)      Identify high potential.

This needs to happen during the admission process, at least for graduate programs. Who has the agility, the mental toughness, the intelligence, and the discipline to succeed not just in the classroom, but on an increasingly competitive job market? I’ve seen plenty of MBA/JD/PhDs who pursued graduate work just to avoid a job search. College-level career counselors and graduate admissions officers need to screen carefully for this—as I’ve argued before, we do a disservice to young college graduates by encouraging further education due to a lack of obvious alternatives.

3)      Provide clear guidance to your coaches.

Bela reports of his coaches, “I give them very clear criteria…There is a system and a syllabus they have to follow.” Career services staff often operate with a fair amount of autonomy, but this can also cause confusion, particularly when adding new team members. Does your office operate under a set of guidelines that everyone knows to follow?

4)      Change your coaching style to fit the contender.

“Over the years there were very few instances when I had kids with the same character, the same drive, the same personality.” Sound familiar? Directors should set overall strategy for staff, but allow them the flexibility to adapt as necessary. Counselors should recognize that some students need a touch love approach, while others need gentle coaxing to finish that resume or get started on that LinkedIn profile.

5)      Balance individual and team competition.

Much like gymnastics, job hunting is both an individual and a team sport. A student wants a job, but the overall success of their alma mater’s students will also affect that individual’s brand. Business students tend to be competitive with one another, and while drive that can be channeled in positive ways they should also understand that they are brand ambassadors for their schools—and will be for the rest of their careers.

6)      Start from where you are.

Bela had to start over when he defected to the United States from communist Romania after the 1980 Olympics. How many of us have had out budgets cut in the last few years? Been asked to improve efficiency while also demonstrating improved employment outcomes of our students? Going back to #2, it requires agility and mental discipline not only to survive a job search today, but to adapt to the changes in our field.

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