Community Engagement

Business Backup

Area leaders supply link to real-world possibilities for OU School of Business students

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icon of a calendarAugust 22, 2023

icon of a pencilBy Mary Gunderson-Switzer

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Oakland University’s new Executives in Residence (EIR) mentors are so much more than a quick, one-time “phone-a-friend” resource, offering OU School of Business students exclusive individualized attention and professional insight to last them a lifetime.

The EIR program, offering business students direct access to mentorship with accomplished area business leaders, began in January of this year. The program was implemented under the inspiration of School of Business Administration Dean Chuck Pierce.

“I believe in the value of EIR programs,” Dr. Pierce says, “and my vision is for OU to offer our business students an EIR experience that is unique. To reach our students in a way that best motivates them on their career paths, we provide them an opportunity to connect with the right business leader for them as individuals, by offering a thoughtful variety of choices.”

Oakland’s School of Business currently has 12 EIR mentors, all accomplished area business leaders (including C-Suite executives). The mentors are a well-rounded group with diversity of professional experience, age, sex, and backgrounds. Students are part of the process of matching up with a mentor most simpatico to their needs.

Program mentors are given the opportunity to give back to the community and stay connected with students and faculty at OU.

“The mentors are very busy people who graciously give their time to our students, and it’s also a good opportunity for the mentors to see what our students may be able to offer them, in terms of future employees,” Dr. Pierce says. “It’s a win/win/win – a win for OU, a win for our students, and a win for the business community.”

The EIR mentors/mentees meet on a regular basis. The goal is to foster a friendly, trusted professional bond, while receiving business and career essentials, including:

  • Resume/letter development and refinement
  • Career exploration and career path planning from first post-graduate job and beyond
  • Job search and interview strategies
  • Navigating career-related challenges
  • Guidance on internships and extracurricular activities that will enhance career development
  • Professional networking advice

The overwhelming majority of first students in the program (91%) felt they received valuable advice and guidance for individual growth and career goals.

Two of this year’s mentors shared how their experience with the students was also rewarding for them.

Getting to know you

Rhonda Patterson is the ever-busy North American platform planning and strategy manager at Stellantis, a multinational automotive manufacturing corporation that got up-and-running in 2021. She was already spinning several plates, running the gambit from cost containment measures – to reducing parts complexity – to supporting company teams – to training employees – when she was asked if she’d be a mentor for OU’s EIR program.

“Yes” was her immediate response, though she did have one hesitation.

“The students would be about my son’s age, so would they click with me – or was I too old?” she laughs.

Patterson says that bit of nervousness quickly dissipated, as her rapport with the students was “as comfortable as talking to a friend or neighbor.”

A large part of this ease can be attributed to the responsive tone she set and her flexible attitude.

“I simply asked each of the students what they wanted to get out of the program, in terms of what they most needed from me, and then I worked to provide that,” she says. “They all wanted bi-weekly or weekly virtual meetings, and I’m certainly used to that, with my boss currently located in Paris.”

Patterson says she got to know her mentees as both students and people.

“With a graduate student I mentored, with both of us being black and women, we could relate in a special way on those levels, both personally and professionally,” she says. “Along with having her own family, she had a full-time job at OU and took classes in the evenings, so we talked about work-life balance quite a bit, in addition to the direction of her career.”

Another student was “so bright,” she says, but seemed to need a boost in confidence.

“One of his family members had been laid off in the tech industry, and he was concerned about his future job stability,” Patterson says. “He’d inquire about the security of various professions. When he asked for my input with a career-related homework assignment for OU, I took the opportunity to highlight all his strengths and had other confidence-building discussions with him.”

Students also enjoyed talking to Patterson about current events; while at other times, the focused shifted entirely toward practical issues.

“One student just needed help with resume building and how to manage LinkedIn,” she says.

Over the summer, Patterson extended an invite for her mentees to meet up in person, for coffee or dinner.

“The EIR experience has been wonderful,” she says. “I’ve really enjoyed my time with the students, and they said that it was extremely helpful to them, which makes it so worthwhile. They know I’ll be around for them in the fall, should any of them still need me.”

Successful youth is his business

Scott Cieslak, CFO at Detroit Manufacturing Systems (DMS) and an OU finance alumnus, makes it a habit to frequent his old stomping grounds, checking to see if he can be of any assistance within OU’s School of Business.

Accepting the call to be one of the first EIR mentors, Cieslak has found his niche to help, bringing 26 years of Tier 1 automotive experience to OU business students. He also brings a passion for giving back to others that exemplifies DMS’s founding philosophy of a “spirit of servanthood” toward the surrounding underserved community.

“The EIR program has been an ideal way for me to both give career guidance to the students and serve as a conduit to the outside business community,” he says.

Cieslak meets his mentees where they are – but always in person.

“One thing that’s important to me is that I meet with the students in person and away from my office,” he explains. “I don’t want to get distracted by what’s going on around me at work, or by my phone. I want to be able to completely focus on them. So, we usually meet for morning or afternoon coffee.”

Cieslak appreciated the uniqueness each OU mentee brought to the table.

“At our first meeting, one student jumped right in to ask how he could reach my level,” Cieslak says. “His [educational and career] path looked a lot like mine had been, so we’ve always had plenty to discuss.”

Another was his “I’ve got a new idea” student, who wants to start his own business and enjoyed bouncing ideas off Cieslak.

The mentee that surprised Cieslak the most was a “good kid with potential,” who wants to find a job in Finance applying his analytical skills that he learned at OU. He openly shared with Cieslak about his ongoing tough environment and his challenges while growing up “practically in the backyard” of DMS.

“He told me that getting away to be a student at OU had been a good experience for him, as it had given him the structure that he needed to stay out of trouble,” Cieslak says.

Sensing that structure was still needed, Cieslak felt led to facilitate an interview for him at DMS, for an internship opportunity. Cieslak didn’t call in any special favors for him – he had to earn the spot on his own.

“I got a call from the person who interviewed him afterward, telling me, ‘He’s great – we’re offering the internship to him,’” Cieslak says. “That was rewarding to me.”

While the timeframe to help his first group of mentees may have officially ended, Cieslak extended a lifetime offer to them.

“They know they have me as a contact for life,” Cieslak says.

And like any good leader who remembers the past but looks toward the future, he adds: “If they have more OU business students for me to mentor this fall, I’m up for it.”

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