Greater than the Sum
As a sophomore working for Hope’s CFL Consulting program, Micah Bieri ’19 enjoyed his first assignment so much that he wanted to do another – and then another. And another.
“I started working with Gentex, and we were doing defect analysis,” said Bieri, who dual-majored in business and mechanical engineering. “I learned so much on that first project, that I was just like, ‘I want more of this.’”
A dynamic program housed within Hope’s Center for Leadership, CFL Consulting assigns teams of three or four students to assist approximately 10 to 15 client organizations with specific projects across the course of a semester. One group, as with Bieri’s debut experience, might help a manufacturer enhance its production and quality-control processes. Another might conduct market research for a non-profit senior-care center. A third might help a company create a leadership-development program for its staff. Each team is led by an experienced practitioner coach, a professional who has had many years in the field in which the students are working.
CFL Consulting operates like (because it is) a professional firm. The students are paid employees, and the organizations that retain it pay for the service they are receiving; hence, the first half of CFL Consulting’s motto: “outstanding value for clients.” But, CFL Consulting, which was established in 2008, is first and foremost a part of Hope, and its goal is to provide meaningful learning opportunities; hence, the motto’s second half: “invaluable experience for students.”
The dynamic itself is the first lesson.
“We have to do this with excellence because we represent Hope College,” said Doug Ruch ’81, who has led the Center for Leadership since 2018 after previously serving as a project coach. “There is no option for a C grade. The client is paying us for the project. The students are being paid, the coach is being paid. We have to deliver. And I think that’s a really healthy experience for our students.”
Ruch brings decades of experience in business and leadership to his work with the program. He is retired as president and chief executive officer of the Fleetwood Group Inc. and was previously a vice president with Donnelly Corporation (Magna Mirrors). He’s taken on his role with the Center for Leadership, and is passionate about CFL Consulting in particular, not least of all because he’s seen that its experiential-learning approach works.
A dynamic program housed within Hope’s Center for Leadership, CFL Consulting assigns teams of three or four students to assist client organizations with specific projects across the course of a semester.
“We hear back from students all the time that they have, in fact, really been assisted in discerning their calling,” he said. “They have seen significant enhancements in their skills and gifts. They’ve grown as leaders.”
“And at the end of the day, this is a huge differentiator on a résumé, and it also gives you material for interviews that very few undergraduates have,” Ruch said. “There are very few undergrads that can talk about real-world consulting project experiences that they’ve had.”
Bieri’s experience reflects Ruch’s assessment nearly perfectly. He continued to work with the program through his senior year, ultimately deciding on a career in consulting itself. He now uses his experience and both of his majors in unique combination with Crowe LLP, a global public accounting, consulting and technology firm.
“It puts you out in the real world and it gives you, from all my experiences, an incredible mentor,” he said. “And having that experience alongside your education, where you’re able to interact with these organizations, these businesses, and have a mentor working with you, helping you work through these real-world problems, is an invaluable experience to anybody that’s trying to get an education at Hope College.”
“I kind of made the decision junior year that I wanted to continue doing consulting,” he said. “And I started applying for consulting jobs in August, and by fall, I think it was October of my senior year, I had a job at Crowe.”
Ruch zeroes in on the program’s cadre of mentors as a major reason for CFL Consulting’s educational value.
“One of the beautiful things about the program is the strong connection that you have between a project coach and the students, because our teams are only three or four students. So they’re getting a really exceptional amount of attention from a coach who practices servant leadership,” he said. “There’s a significant mentoring element in the program that is really beneficial for students.”
As a three-year veteran of CFL Consulting who worked on eight projects from her sophomore through senior years, Lauren Havey ’19 agrees.
“My coaches in my time at CFL instilled a confidence in me that I am so grateful for to this day,” she said. “They helped me further develop my strengths, taught me how to acknowledge my weaknesses and allowed me to learn from my mistakes.”
The opportunity to work with a variety of types of organizations — non-profits, small businesses, large businesses — is another benefit of the program. A psychology major, Havey became interested in a career in the business world through her experiences with CFL Consulting. She is now a technical recruiter, hired by one of the clients with which she had worked, TGW Systems Inc., a global supplier of automated integrated conveyor and sortation systems.
“I wanted to be in a career that allowed me to help people, and I didn’t think business would allow me to do that,” she said. “After my first project in CFL, I realized that I really enjoy the business world and that I could make an impact in this way.”
Junior Nicholas Hoffman, who is majoring in accounting on the public track, is pursuing his time with CFL with the same emphasis on discernment.
“The exposure I am getting to different fields throughout CFL is helping me decide what kind of long-term career I want to pursue,” he said. “For example, my last project has given me exposure to the non-profit world. This will be useful moving forward as I make comparisons with my experiences in different fields for different projects.”
And what of the clients themselves? Katherine Stritzke ’08 Simons had definite project goals when she hired CFL Consulting on behalf of her employer, Wolverine Worldwide, a global marketer of branded footwear as well as apparel and accessories. She is director of marketing for CAT Footwear, and was seeking solid information about prospective retailers.
“It was really valuable input for the students to do a much deeper dive on casual-lifestyle retailers for footwear in the U.S.,” she said. “They did a lot of manual digging and researching, which our sales team doesn’t have time for. They essentially provided us with a prospect list of retailers to go target, and why and with what project. They also provided a model that they had built for us to actually estimate the potential revenue based upon their recommendation.”
“I really enjoyed working with the students,” Simons noted. “They were very engaged and came to all the meetings with a clear agenda and objectives for me. So they were super-professional and productive and made good use of my time, which is important.”
“The more that I can do to prepare students and give them something to talk about when they’re interviewing, the better. CFL is a great, legitimate work experience that they can speak to.”
Once a Hope student herself, Simons values that the process was also a hands-on learning opportunity for the student team.
“I have a lot of empathy for students as they graduate and their early career. It’s a challenging transition to step into the professional world,” she said. “The more that I can do to prepare students and give them something to talk about when they’re interviewing, the better. CFL is a great, legitimate work experience that they can speak to.”
Most of CFL Consulting’s clients have been in West Michigan, with the exception of one project in Chicago this past spring, to keep the work within easy driving distance so that the clients and students could readily meet in person. The COVID-19 pandemic meant that the past semester’s projects had to wrap up via online platforms like Zoom. Terrible though the reason for the change was, the process has inspired some new thinking.
“We did the Chicago project as a pilot and then we ended up doing all of the spring projects remotely,” Ruch said. “And we proved to ourselves that we can do a fine job completing a consulting project without having to be in range of visiting the client.”
“The interesting thing about that is we’re now stepping back and saying, ‘This really worked pretty well. So why can’t we do projects anywhere in the country or for that matter in the world?’”