More Americans than ever are earning bachelor’s degrees. Yet according to “Bridge that Gap,” a 2013 Chegg study, just 39 percent of hiring managers consider graduates prepared. The 2,001 students who also participated in the survey overestimated their skills by at least 10 percent in every single self-evaluation. Among the most prominent evaluative gaps were students’ organization skills, ability to prioritize work and an overall understanding of the business.
The disparities between employers’ needs and job candidates’ preparedness highlight significant gaps between textbook learning and “real life” knowledge. And they present a strong case for higher learning institutions to complement their curriculum with nonconventional programs that address the hard and soft skills students will need to handle the multifaceted demands of the professional world.
Interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence and conflict management are among the top 10 skills employers seek in workers. Yet, these are two of the most underdeveloped soft skills among college graduates, along with the abilities to persuade and influence, demonstrate courage and risk taking.
Business strategy expert and best-selling author Ram Charan, has described the art of business acumen as “linking an insightful assessment of the external landscape with the keen awareness of how money can be made and then executing the strategy to deliver desired results.” Integral to business acumen is understanding how business works and the various forces affecting it, as well as the ability to proficiently build relationships with external stake holders.
One viable solution to give students tools to succeed in the business world is the 360-degree assessment. Long used by corporations to develop leaders, this assessment collects feedback on an employee’s performance from their subordinates, peers and supervisors, and includes a self-evaluation. Companies will often incorporate 360s into experiential team-based business simulations that emulate a real-world environment. The process is collaborative and culminates with constructive feedback to help participants identify key areas of strength and weakness. Adapted to an academic environment, the same process could be an effective tool students can use to develop key interpersonal and business skills.
“The Tri-Leskin assessment that we continue to utilize in our Global Finance Excellence Program for our new executives focuses on a few key leadership areas and leadership characteristics for each participant.,” said Alicia Davis, director of global finance learning and development at Dell Inc.. “The participant receives live feedback from teammates in a group setting at the end of the simulation. This enables the new executives to quickly consider their leadership perception and ability to influence others, and, of course, perhaps some areas of opportunity to increase their overall leadership ability.”
TRI Corp. applied a 360-degree assessment using the TRI-Leskin instrument to 62 Fairfield University MBA students from 2012 to 2014 (Editor’s note: The author is co-owner of Tri Corporation and a professor at Fairfield University). Co-developed with management consultant and industry expert Barry Leskin, the TRI-Leskin instrument is a 12-question assessment that emphasizes cross-functional hard and soft skills.
After an initial meeting, Fairfield student teams met for 90- to 120-minute cross-functional simulation activities to test several interpersonal and knowledge based skill sets as they apply to business acumen. Each activity tested key development areas, including their awareness of various impacts on business, relationship building, influence and conflict management, and aptitude to take risks. Students completed the simulation period in either one intensive week or over the course of several weeks. One more TRI-Leskin assessment followed, to both self-evaluate and evaluate their teammates. A final discussion culminated the 360, through which students openly asked their peers how and why they came to the conclusions they did in terms of performance.
The results of the study, while limited in scope, revealed defined hard and soft development needs consistent across most of the students. At the program’s conclusion, not only were students able to identify their strengths and weaknesses, but also post-assessment results showed improvement in every skill demonstrated, particularly the hard skills.
The results of the Fairfield University experiment suggest that, when properly adapted to a university setting, 360-degree assessments used with an experiential business simulation can be a valuable tool to help students develop business acumen prior to full-time employment. Universally applying some form of 360-degree assessment to the college curriculum can groom graduates for greater career success by helping them land — and keep — that first corporate job.
Tom Conine is professor of finance at Fairfield University in Connecticut. He is also founder, partner and co-owner of TRI Corp., a corporate education and experiential leadership company.
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