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Global Leadership Academy (GLA)

An online talent development program that builds self-awareness, skills, & career clarity through innovative exercises & on-demand coaching

Photo of Joel Nicholson
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An overview of our idea and vision

The career landscape is undergoing profound change; but our educational model isn't keeping up. Academia is stuck in the information age, where learning is still focused on theoretical concepts and knowledge in a specific period of time — and not enough on developing core skills and self-awareness over a learner’s lifetime.

The problem is 28% of 18-24 year olds say they are self-aware (Source: GLA Research); and less than 50% of organizations believe college grads are prepared for their jobs (Source: PayScale). College career centres and career coaches are in a unique position to provide this type of education. However, these industries are incredibly siloed and fragmented, without a common pedagogical framework or platform being used.

Our mission at GLA is to offer world-class career development services to college students and career professionals, for free to users, and 100% online / on-demand. Our platform is focused on developing self-awareness, skills, and career clarity through our innovative online exercises, and post-program coaching support. Career coaching is an incredibly impactful process. Like any process, certain aspects of it can be automated online, while others must require a personalized touch. We currently distribute it through schools, with the vision of becoming the world's largest and most effective career centre. We hope to offer the same platform in the future to young professionals through organizations. 

In terms of impact, our students see a tremendous benefit taking our program, and there is an opportunity to replicate and expand at scale. In an era of cost-reductions, many universities are looking for new ways to offer unique services at affordable prices. In addition, the rapid increase of online and alternative educational institutions create a demand for an online career services model (for both MOOC students and distance-learners at college). 

With access to your own private career coach, imagine the possibilities of what you could achieve? Let's make these possibilities a reality with GLA.

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What's today's landscape look like?

The career landscape is more complex than ever before. Just 29% of recent grads are engaged in their roles and just 50% plan to be with their company one year from now (Source: Gallup). On the employer side, less than half believe college grads are prepared for their jobs, and that they lack critical thinking skills, attention to detail, writing, and public speaking the most (Source: PayScale).

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Higher education, on the other hand, hasn't evolved as significantly. Curricula are widely made up of subject-based courses, such as "Advanced Topics in Marketing" or "New Age Philosophy". Students are granted credits for knowing the topic after a semester-long course, and a series of exams and assignments. However, studies show that students forget more than 90% of what they learned just a month after they take a class (Source: Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve).

Why is this? Because we don't use the majority of knowledge learned at school on a frequent enough basis to recall it. We do, however, use skills everyday - such as communication, problem solving, collaboration, and creativity. These "hard- and soft-skills" are hopeful indirect pedagogical outcomes in academia. However, based on the statistics from employers, these hopes aren't a reality. Skills must be taught directly, and embedded in an individual through everyday practice.

For example, IDEO teaches its creative process to its employees, and it is only after this process is used everyday for a number of months and years that the skill can be developed. It's a similar situation in the management consulting industry. Firms like McKinsey teach a problem solving process, an effective communication process, and more, then consultants are able to build and ingrain these skills through everyday practice.

The same thing must be done in education. 

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In addition, self-awareness isn't sufficiently incorporated in today's curricula. Self-discovery is an essential starting point in one's educational journey. It helps the individual understand their strengths, weaknesses, behaviours, thoughts, and feelings. This allows the individual to know where to focus their career, which opportunities to say yes or no to, what they can uniquely offer in the world, and how to work effectively with others. It also increases confidence and decreases anxiety in individuals. A recent study by Korn Ferry even demonstrates a significant relationship between employee self-awareness and organizational performance (Source: Korn Ferry). We also conducted an extensive study on self-awareness, and  94% of young professionals surveyed say that knowing more about themselves (e.g. strengths, work style, weaknesses, etc.) would help them be more engaged and effective in their role (Source: GLA Research).

From a student perspective, a survey over the past three years of over ten thousand students rated counselling and support as one of the top five factors students sought out of a prospective university (Source: UniversityHub).

In conclusion, we must incorporate self-discovery and skills into one's education in order to build a professionals who are effective and fulfilled in their careers.

At the same time, career coaching is a $1b industry in the US alone, growing at 18% per year. More and more people need the personal guidance from career coaches, but with a $500 median cost per hour and an average duration of 7-12 months, these services are limited to executives and the upper-class (Source: HBR). The industry is highly fragmented, and needs a platform with a common methodology, great coaches, a consistent brand, and solid partnerships to get beyond this level.

What’s the overarching question being asked?

Please see below for our interpretation of the challenge question, in addition to specific definitions of key terms. 

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What's out there, and why isn't it sufficient?

There are products and services that are offered today to solve this problem:

  • College Career Coaches. College career coaches are invaluable for guiding students towards effective academic and career performance. More and more students need this service, but with an average staff-to-student ratio of 1:1,000, the current career centre model isn’t designed to meet this demand.   Career coaches need a more automated tool to assist them with their coaching process; and students need a program that’s online and on-demand. 
  • Career Assessment Tools (Sokanu, StrengthsFinder). Traditional career assessment tools are very "one-way". Users take a brief assessment, and are given a set of recommendations for their career. However, they rarely understand the "why" behind these results. Very few programs build a users' understanding of their character, feelings, motives, and desires - which is essential in building self-awareness. 
  • Mentors. Numerous startups have attempted to create an online mentor:mentee platform, and it's been proven that young people want to obtain guidance via digital. However, there are never enough mentees to devote the efforts necessary to scale the mentorship model for free. The business model must involve some sort of financial compensation for the mentor.

Where did we begin?

It's important to look back to see where an idea originated. Our journey has been a long and arduous one, but each chapter was a key stepping stone to arriving where we are today.

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What do we believe will work for the user and as a business?

GLA 3.0 is a career development program that builds self-awareness and career clarity through a simple online program, and on-demand coaching.

The Program. The program takes 30-40 minutes to complete. There are three modules, each have a introductory video, an exercise, a reflection video and question, and a downloadable one-page report. The three modules are: (1) Your Interests - which helps the student clarify their passions; (2) Your Career Orientation - which helps the student understand their career needs and motivations; and, (3) Your Strengths - which helps the student understand their unique mix of competencies.

We use this information to recommend the student "Career Tracks", a list of nearly 100 "paths" a student can take that combine their interests, values, and strengths. These include anything from Media Planning, to Recruitment & Onboarding, to Microfinance. These career track recommendations provide students with a very tangible outcome from the program, which was a critical requirement for users based on previous feedback.

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Target Customer. We've shifted markets to focus on helping current college/ university students, particularly those interested in pursuing careers in any business-related field. Investing in self-awareness is something very few people will do for themselves; and as we found through GLA 2.0, the incentives aren't aligned for organizations to willingly invest in self-awareness and career education to young employees. 

Educational institutions, on the other hand, have the development of their students in their best interest. College career centres, in particular, often provide services and access to platforms such as GLA Discover. With the rise of online learning, universities and colleges will need to start providing their remote learners with career centre services -- which is a perfect opportunity for GLA.

Value proposition:

  • For students: Students need a tremendous amount of support throughout school— building self-awareness, staying motivated as a student, choosing the right career, and succeeding in that career after school
  • For career centres: They need a tool that helps them have more effective coaching conversations, or helps offer coaching services to students who won't come see them (ideally online and on-demand)
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Target User. While our target audience are current university students, the Discover program can also be offered to recent alumni (i.e. the 50% who change jobs after two years). We plan to discuss this with career centres, offering the program to alumni free of charge. 

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Overall, what we're looking to do with this new iteration is use what we've learned in the past to establish three forms of "fit":

  1. Product/market fit: the product suits the needs of the customer/consumer
  2. Founder/product fit: we have the experience & insights to build a great product 
  3. Founder/market fit: we have the connections and network to sell the product 

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Today's Hypothesis. In this iteration, we're also very focused on proving/disproving two primary hypotheses. We're staying hyper-focused with these initial hypotheses.

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What's the potential of our idea?

Our vision is to build GLA into the world's largest college career centre— 100% online. Our focus will be to support the development of self-awareness, skills, and career clarity in our students, over the course of their education and career. We'll provide a comprehensive repository of online modules to support this, along with on-demand access to a mix of AI-based chatbots and real-world career coaches for supplemental support.

We'll work so closely with our partner institutions that our courses will become embedded into their curricula, and pre-requisites for graduation. We'll be Coursera and Udemy's exclusive online career centre, as well as provide career centre services to the tens of millions of online learning students around the world.

We'll prove that our program goes beyond increasing self-awareness, career clarity, and skills development. We'll obtain clear and compelling data that it improves student happiness, extra-curricular participation, grades, job acquisition rates, career effectiveness, and employee engagement.

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In order to achieve this vision, we must work towards the following goals:

i) More Modules. We must build more modules to support our users over the course of their education and careers. These modules will be a mix of self-awareness training (e.g. personality type, strengths, etc.) and skills development (e.g. creativity, problem solving). 

ii) Online, 24/7 Mentorship. There will always be an element of career coaching that cannot be automated online. We must build a part of our platform that facilitates this. We also hope to leverage AI and chatbot technology to help our coaches answer common questions more rapidly, while still maintaining a "human feel" for the end-user. 

iii) New Buyers. We'd like to eventually expand our network of customers, from just college career centres to companies and government. Companies, such as Lee Hecht Harrison, are interested in using our product for employee career transition and outplacement. Even organizations, such as Google, want to provide career coaching services without having to hire additional internal staff. Government labour service agencies would also be able to leverage our product to help their clients find and perform in their jobs.

What are users saying?

Please see our completed user journey template in the following external attachment: User Journey Slides.

What are users saying?

We're using two prototypes to inform feedback for the build of the GLA 3.0 Discover program:

The six modules in GLA Discover 2.0

- Prototype 1: GLA Discover 2.0
  Jul-Nov 2016
This was the second version of the Discover program online, built more specifically for early-stage career professionals. We had over 100 students, young professionals, and experts take the program, 18 of which completed our feedback form online (External Attachment: GLA 2.0 Feedback Results).

Some of the key insights:

  • On average, GLA 2.0 was rated 8.6/10 for overall experience.
  • Two most popular modules were Career Orientation (9.1/10) and Strengths (9.0/10)
  • On average, user experience and site design was rated 9.2/10

Some written feedback:

  • "Overall, I thought it was a very reflective experience that allowed me to realize not only my strengths and weaknesses, but what I valued and how it relates to my career."
  • "This program is extremely beneficial for youth. Great insights into more complex modalities and frameworks done in an accessible fashion."
  • "Love the visuals, how everything flows. I would like a conclusion at the end, just like there was an intro. The conclusion at the end should summarize what just happened, and hopefully provide some guidance or be personalized for me."
  • "I’m sure you’ve thought of this, but just wanted to throw in that this would be a great exercise for graduating university/college students."
  • "Another potential future addition (depending on the audience) could be examples of careers that exercise the highlighted skills and values. After receiving the feedback, the first thing I did was to go on google and search the types of jobs that matched my personality."
  • "Not sure what your plans are for evolving the program further, but I suggest outlining career paths in various industries based on the results of the assessment and a generated program certificate of completion would provide the user with next steps and a resume building certification."

- Prototype 2: Student Coaching Clients
  Nov-Dec 2016
I've coached 27 students,  over the past three months, on university selection and career clarity (1-on-1, via phone calls and text). This is a paid service outside of GLA; but I used this opportunity to prototype the GLA Discover 3.0 framework. I verbally took them through the three modules (interests, values, strengths), and recommended a "career track", ranging from product managers in the healthcare industry to equity research analysts in the banking sector. 

Student Feedback:

  • "Thank you so much for your support over the last few months on my application. I learned a lot about myself, and became incredibly specific about my future career direction."
  • "Joel, before speaking with you I felt lost and unmotivated. My brother put us in touch because he thought you could help. And at first, I was really skeptical. But your process helped simplify this really complex decision about where to take my career, so thank you!"
  • "I now have a bit more focus of where to start my career search, and I believe I'll perform better in my interviews after learning a bit more about my strengths and motivations."

- Prototype 3: Excel Model.
  Jan 2017

Before revising the online web application, I built the new 3.0 program in an Excel Model, and tested it rigorously with 15 friends and students who I had previously coached. The purpose of this was to test the accuracy of the career track recommendations. Only one person said their career track recommendations were inaccurate.

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- Prototype 4: Live Web App
  Feb-Mar 2017

We're launching the Discover 3.0 live online Monday Feb 27th. We have pilots arranged with Venture for Canada, University of Toronto, and various other student organizations. We'll ask 

GLA Discover 3.0, now built and prototyping
Simple question to assess quality of program - after which the user can provide written feedback

What's under the hood, and how will it be improved?

How does this program directly help students become more effective and satisfied in their chosen career path? Our career path recommendations are driven by real-world data on career professionals. We surveyed over 1,000 professionals who consider themselves "effective" in their careers. We assessed their strengths, values, and interests in the survey, as well as their happiness and fulfillment in their current roles. 

How did we come up with the strengths and career orientation frameworks? Respondents from the aforementioned survey also took a comprehensive strengths and motivations assessment. We conducted a factor analysis to find meaningful clusters of shared variance. In other words, we wanted to see which strengths and career motivations contributed the strongest to their career effectiveness and fulfillment. This allowed us to arrive upon our competency and career orientation frameworks.

How will we leverage user data to improve our platform over time? Incorporating a direct feedback process is very important. For example, when users complete the program, they have the opportunity to tell us if the program objectively improved their self-awareness and career clarity. They also have the opportunity to ask us any questions through our on-demand coaching services. This is an important way we intend to build our knowledge base of the questions students are asking, which will then be incorporated into more and better modules, as well as an AI-driven chatbot career coach. 

We'll also use the information about how users complete our assessments. Currently, our strengths assessment asks 60 questions, but through a categorical principal components analysis, we can eventually dwindle that down to 2-3 questions with a 99% confidence level. This means we become better at understanding people over time. 

How will we leverage user data to help our clients? A user's activity on our platform can help inform a students' engagement and drop-out likelihood. For the students who are using our program, we are able to generate profound insights through building deep psychological profiles on students. For example, what types of students end up being the most successful in the program? What services can be offered at the university to best support specific types of students? What types of students leave their companies the most? What skills are some students missing that others aren't? These are all critical insights that help universities offer more personalized, effective programming.

Who's likely to buy it?

The previous version of GLA wasn't built for students, but it organically caught the attention of student-focused conferences and universities. We provided access to GLA 2.0 to a variety of organizations, including:

  • 100 undergraduate students from Rotman School of Management + workshop
  • 75 prospective students at Queen's University's QLEAD conference
  • 20 prospective accounting professions through the Certified Professional Accountant Ontario organization
  • 15 future Wall Street banking professionals through the Wall Street Oasis program, funded by V2V Associates
  • 25 young professionals through the Millennial Crusaders organization in Toronto

In the future, we also hope to offer the program through career transition organizations (such as Lee Hecht Harrison), and other career centres / agencies at school and government.

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Why are we participating in this challenge?

Last, but certainly not least, why are we doing this challenge? I first learned about OPEN IDEO in February 2014. Since then, I've been waiting for an education challenge to be released. I also wanted the timing of GLA to be right. For the past six years, my main focus was UniversityHub, an edtech start-up I sold in November 2016. Now, the timing is right to focus on crystallizing the GLA idea and taking it to market.

Over the past couple years with GLA, our design thinking process could have been more rigorous, so this is an effort to really specify what we do, test our current hypothesis, receive an extraordinary amount of feedback, facilitate sales opportunities, and crystallize the "future vision" of GLA.

Who is your idea designed for and how does it reimagine higher education to support the needs of tomorrow?

GLA is designed for college students and career centres. It reimagines higher-ed because it flips the traditional model of academia on its head. We help college students and alumni develop their self-awareness and skills over their lifetime, as the career landscape changes. The program is provided for free to students and affordably to colleges, without the need to a large number of career coaches on staff.

This idea emerged from:

  • An individual

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

Feedback! The more the better. Please email, and we will set you up with a free license to go through the 30-40 minute program.

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

The latest version of the program helps — primarily undergraduate business students — identify their interests, values, strengths, and career specialty areas. Prior to building it online, I have been testing our methodology and framework with students that I help with college admissions applications.

Tell us about your work experience:

I worked with global management consultancy AT Kearney for five years, across three continents. I then moved back to Canada to focus on my edtech company, UniversityHub, which uses data and algorithms to help prospective university students make more informed decisions about post-secondary. I've also coached over 500 students, worked with the World Economic Forum, published a report for AT Kearney on Rethinking K-12 Education, and was a spokesperson for HSBC Canada on youth financial literacy.

How would you describe this idea while in an elevator with someone? 2-3 sentences.

With an ever-changing career landscape, students need an education that transcends college and career life, rather than courses that last a few months. GLA is an online career development program that helps students enhance their self-awareness, grow their skills, and get the career they want. It's offered through college career centres for students and alumni, and is proven to increase employability and lower job-switching rates.

What is the specific problem your idea is trying to solve? 1 sentence.

The vast majority of college students have low levels of self-awareness and career clarity, which places strain on career centre staff, and leads to disengaged, job-hopping alumni.

How is your idea different or unique from what is currently on the market?

- Proprietary Methodology. The methodology is research-backed and very effective at building self-awareness and career clarity in students. It’s our “secret sauce” that cannot be replicated - Superior UX. We’ve built a video-based and visually stimulating platform with a simple, mobile-optimized assessment - Hyper-targeted. Most career assessments are very broad in scope. Instead, our assessment is hyper-targeted for helping college career centres better prepare business career professionals

How do you plan to measure the impact of your idea?

Upon completion of the program, users are asked a single question: “How helpful was this program at clarifying your career direction?” Our mission is to improve student happiness, student academic performance, job acquisition rates, job-switching tendencies, and overall career happiness, so we intend to measure these metrics with future clients, before and after they use the program.

How might your idea be transferable to a large number of people?

Our program is highly scalable, as it’s online and automated. The key to scalability is sales adoption. We believe the most-likely buyers aren’t students, employers, or parents, but rather college/university career centres. They have the budget to purchase our program, and their incentives match our program's purpose: developing self-aware, career-ready professionals. Each career centre signed-up can lead to thousands of student users in just a single year, with minimal to no marketing effort.

What are your immediate next steps after the challenge?

April: Iterate product, and reach out to college 100+ career centres to secure pilots May-June: Conduct pilots with 5-10 college career centres (students and/or staff) July-August: Sign-up at least 3 schools to use program in career centres; Complete final round of product refinements. It's essential to get in the door with the customer, then we'll build out the vision of the product. September-December: Roll-out program, focus on sales & support


Join the conversation:

Photo of Zhao Chen

Hi Joel,

I personally felt related to your idea -coming from a high school of 3000 students and currently attending a college that houses over 25,000 undergraduates, I sometimes believed that my school lacks helpful resources to guide me in choosing a career path or just simply finding the right class to take. I am particular interested in learning more about your program and have some questions regarding the assessment of the effectiveness of the implementation. As you mentioned on this page, the program takes 30 - 40 minutes to complete, I was wondering if there is any technology implementation to detect students' engagement? In other words, how do we know if users are truly paying attention? I know personally, sometimes it is hard to focus in that long period of time, especially when I am staring at the computer. Also, how often do users receive one-to-one session and how many students will each mentor get? As much I enjoy the idea, I am worried that a virtual platform lacks the human interaction that we get when we meet someone in real life.

Lastly, I also thought about people who do not choose to pursue the traditional college career route. There are many people decide to join the army, to start their own business etc. Do you have any thoughts on developing programs catering to that demographic?

Best of Luck,


Photo of Joel Nicholson

Hi Sundy, I really appreciate you taking the time to read about GLA, and providing such thought-provoking comments.

While the program takes 30-40 minutes to complete, only about 15 minutes of that is the user answering multiple choice questions. The rest is watching our intro and reflection videos, reading the report, and journalling on what the user learned from each module. It's quite interactive and engaging based on our previous set of users who have gone through.

Your other question was about how often users receive one-to-one sessions with coaches. The intention is for this service to eventually be on-demand, whenever a student needs it. First, we'll have to see how many students will use something like this, and the frequency, so we can keep it economical for us and the customer.

Regarding the personalization of text-based career coaching, it's a fair concern. I've coached students a lot via text, and they seem to be fine with it. There's definitely times when we pick up the phone and chat, but overall it's much more effective then them booking a session, since they're so used to instant access to other things in their life (i.e. Netflix). Note our platform is a complement to career centres and their career coaches, rather than a substitute, so hopefully there will always be the regular option of booking a meeting and seeing a coach in person.

Great idea about approaching the army. I'm definitely going to look into this one, as I know many young veterans have some challenges figuring out what to do after their time of service.

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