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ATD Blog

Indelible Learning: Students Interviewing Their Leaders


Thu Jul 18 2013


As instructors of organizational behavior (OB) courses essential to student leadership development, we ought to afford students “indelible” learning experiences that will remain with them long after they leave the confines of the classroom and move into positions of responsibility. One such project that I have used has been to require graduate-level engineering management students to conduct interviews with their leaders and then write term papers about what they learned.

Project overview


The purpose of the project was to have students demonstrate an understanding of what they had learned in their OB/HRM course and exhibit their ability to analyze and evaluate leadership behavior in their own companies. And, of course, in the process, move them a step closer to careers in management and leadership.

Because interviewing and writing are vital management skills, each student was required to develop an interview project, conduct interviews, and write a term paper to meet the following objectives:

  1. Learn what managers in their companies actually do.

  2. Exhibit their ability to think, analyze, and write in leadership terms.

  3. Demonstrate their understanding of what they learned in class.

The process

I told students, “When talking to your managers, you should be able to think and speak in leadership terms and have confidence in your ability to use OB concepts.” They were then instructed to develop a set of questions (the first two of which I provided), set up 30-minute meetings with three managers above them, conduct information interviews in accordance with specific directions, and then write up the results of the interviews.

The specific instructions included:

  • Approach your managers well ahead of time and explain the purpose for the project and the confidentiality of your report—that is, only you, and the instructor will see it.

  • Ask your leaders for no more than 30-minutes of their time. During the interview, you may need to remind them of the time because experience has shown that once managers begin talking about their work, they frequently go beyond the 30-minutes.

  • Start with these two impersonal questions.

    •  How would you describe the overall culture of this company?

    •  How would you describe the leadership style in this company?

  • Develop an additional four questions with follow-up probes.

  • Write down all the information that you can.

  • Be sure to thank your leaders for their time.

The write-up

Using APA writing format—thereby teaching engineers how social scientists write—students were instructed to organize their papers under the following main headings and subheadings:

  • Introduction

    • What I Wanted to Know

    • Getting Leaders’ time

  • The Interview Process

    • Mood and Tone of the Meeting

    • Leader Reactions to Questions

  • The Most Interesting (or Surprising) Thing I learned

  • The Most Valuable Thing I learned.


With few exceptions, leaders were very interested and cooperative in these student projects. Most of them spent more than the 30 minutes (up to an hour) in their interviews, even when the interviewer reminded them of the time.

Students were impressed with how knowledgeable their leaders were about organizational behavior, its terminology and concepts, and how each leader made the ideas and practices work for them. Students also learned just how clearly their leaders articulated management styles within the organization and what they would like to see changed. Finally, the students with excited by how well OB concepts and terms were used by organizational leaders to describe organizational culture—such as structured, autocrat ,employee-focused, participative—all of which were concepts the students had studied.


Without exception, 34 students found the interviewing project to be personally valuable and insightful. They learned directly from their leaders how their companies were managed, about leadership in general and, more importantly, what they would have to do to move ahead in their own careers.

Try something new

As instructors, you can provide students with exceptional learning opportunities by using experiences such as the student-leader interviewing process outlined here. I believe that anytime instructors can engage students in real-world managerial or leadership activities, they will become deep-seated, enduring, and unforgettable experiences. This is particularly true for working graduate students who pursue evening programs.

Robert S. Toronto, Ph.D.

University of Michigan—Dearborn

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