Solving for X: Creating a Culture of Readiness

Schools have a responsibility to prepare students to be competent business professionals.

THE CHALLENGE

Business students tend to have highly aspirational and aggressive career goals, but in the eyes of potential employers, they are not prepared for the real world. Thus, business schools have a responsibility not only to educate students on the fundamentals of business, but also to prepare them to be competent professionals.

While faculty often assume that they already are embedding professional development into their courses, it’s important for schools to make it clear to all stakeholders how and when they are intentionally integrating these competencies into their curriculum and learning experiences.

THE APPROACH

At Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, 98 percent of our undergraduate students are employed or enrolled in graduate school within six months of graduation, so they must be prepared to work the minute they leave campus. To ensure their professionalism, the marketing division of the school works closely with the Center for Career Development (CCD) to integrate career readiness into the curriculum in a consequential way.

To accomplish this, we use as a road map the eight core career readiness competencies defined and recently updated by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). Here, we present each of NACE’s competencies, followed by an explanation of how we integrate it into Babson’s curriculum:

Oral and written communications. Graduates should be able to articulate ideas effectively to people inside and outside of the organization, whether speaking publicly or writing memos, letters, and technical reports.

It seems as if every generation of faculty laments, “Students just can’t communicate.” In the case of today’s students, it’s not that they are bad communicators; it’s that they tend to communicate in nontraditional ways. Members of Gen Z share ideas through images, and they are able to multitask by connecting across up to five screens at a time. Since the business world has not quite adopted this frenetic style, it’s important that students learn to balance their preferred communication methods with more traditional ones.

At Babson, first-year students are enrolled in a seminar that teaches basic coping tools and strategies for navigating the social and academic complexities of college life. One interesting component of this module covers how students can communicate with professors. Students are taught how to craft professional emails to faculty, how to ask professors questions, and how to participate in class. As a result of this module, most faculty on our campus would agree that our students are polite, respectful, and confident in their ability to communicate with us.

First-year students also gain communication skills in the Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurs course, which requires them to make frequent presentations about their business ventures to peers and faculty. By the end of the first year, students have presented in public forums many times, which prepares them to be very successful in future class presentations throughout their college careers.

Critical thinking and problem solving. Graduates should be able to obtain and interpret data to analyze issues, make decisions, and overcome problems in original and inventive ways.

One way students develop critical thinking skills is by engaging in experiential learning. At Babson, faculty work with the CCD to create unique events that allow students to engage with industry professionals for the purposes of networking and gaining new knowledge. As an example, the CCD enables students in the Retail Management course to attend the National Retail Federation’s Big Show, one of the largest retailing industry events in the world.

Students in the Retail Management course have another opportunity to develop critical thinking skills through live case studies. Students are divided into groups by functional areas within a retail firm—for example, supply chain, HR, corporate social responsibility, and merchandising. Working with executives from a national retailer, students write one-page case studies about current challenges facing managers in their functional areas; then each group leads a lively in-class discussion. Because we use the same retailer throughout the project, students learn how all the functional areas work together to drive the business. They are able to see the challenges and trade-offs required to execute a strategy in one area and the impact that has on other areas. This fast-moving project requires students to develop problem-solving skills and shows them how firms make decisions in real time.

Leadership. Graduates should be able to leverage the strengths of others to achieve common goals. They should be able to manage their own emotions, use empathy to guide and motivate other workers, and prioritize and delegate work.

At Babson, one of our learning goals is for students to develop self and contextual awareness that will enable them to make informed decisions. In our capstone Marketing Management course, they develop awareness about leadership styles through assignments that include executive focus articles in the journal Business Horizons and books about great entrepreneurs such as Mary Kay Ash. These assignments also develop their understanding of the role marketing leaders play in the firm and the paths marketers can take to the C-suite.

But students do more than just read about great marketing leaders. Working in class with a member of the CCD team, students undertake an analysis of their own leadership capabilities by completing the Leadership Compass self-assessment. The career center representative facilitates a discussion that enables students to determine their own dominant work styles. Students also learn to appreciate a variety of work styles, recognize positive and negative impacts of different styles, identify areas they need to develop to become better leaders, and think about the impact of leadership style when working on teams.

Teamwork and collaboration. Graduates should be able to build collaborative relationships with diverse colleagues and customers, work within a team structure, and negotiate and manage conflict.

Students often are unaware of the problems that can arise when they are working with classmates, so it’s important for faculty to discuss team dynamics. The Leadership Compass self-assessment feeds easily into a discussion about teamwork. This experience prompts students to end the class with two fill-in-the-blank questions for discussion with their teammates: What is good about being a _____ while working with a team? What is challenging about being a _____ while working with a group?

In classes where group projects are the norm, another exercise that works well is one that we derived from “Making Student Groups Work,” an article by Linda Lerner that appeared in the February 1995 issue of the Journal of Management Education. Lerner describes frustrating student team members, such as Nola No-Can-Meet, Seldom-Seen Steve, Do-It-All Dottie, Always-Right Artie, and Quiet Quentin. During class time, students are asked to reflect on whether they recognize themselves or any of their fellow team members in these descriptions. Then, in a group exercise, students discuss three questions: What challenges are presented by such group members? Are there any “problem” individuals missing in the profiles? What are strategies for dealing with “problem” teammates?

Finally, since the onus of the group process is often on the students themselves, we require students to take on particular roles, such reports manager, presentation manager, meeting manager, process manager, research manager, and devil’s advocate. Each student group is required to submit a team organization form, with an explanation for why a particular person is the right person for the role. From a learning perspective, the opportunity for specialization in an area allows students to collectively evaluate whether strengths are real or perceived.

Digital technology. Graduates should be able to use current technology ethically and efficiently, as well as adapt quickly to new technology.

While millennials and members of Gen Z often use technology in their personal lives, many don’t understand how to employ it in professional settings or as a reflection of their personal brands. Furthermore, they often need to learn how to manage the data associated with many technologies, especially data used for communicating with customers.

At Babson, the Principles of Marketing curriculum is taught concurrently with the Managing Information Technology and Systems course so students understand the interdependence of marketing and technology. For their project in the Digital Brand Strategy class, students must build an online brand presence—a website—supported by three social media platforms as well as online media company BuzzFeed. They use Hootsuite, a social media management platform, to oversee the process.

At multiple points throughout the project, students gather analytics from all the platforms, as well as the SEO insights from their websites. They are evaluated on how well they incorporate the results of their analytics into their overall marketing strategies and how well they pivot based on feedback from their marketplace. Faculty teaching the course often hear, “Wow, it’s a lot different managing social media for a brand than for myself!”

Students also gain career management insights from the Digital Brand understand the impact of social media on their personal brands and they can apply personal branding strategies to their LinkedIn profiles. This is a compelling intersection of classroom learning and knowledge that reinforces a culture of career readiness.Strategy class because they come to understand the impact of social media on their personal brands and they can apply personal branding strategies to their LinkedIn profiles. This is a compelling intersection of classroom learning and knowledge that reinforces a culture of career readiness.

Career management. Graduates should be able to articulate their current skills and identify the areas necessary for personal growth. They also should be able to pursue opportunities and advocate for themselves in the workplace.

The partnership between the marketing division and the career center is particularly evident in the area of career management. We want our students to understand that a personal brand is no different from a company brand and that it is their responsibility to build their own personal brands. We use two general approaches to building “Brand: You.”

In the first, students learn to build their brands through artful storytelling. According to presentation coach Michael Weiss, “The most important six words a presenter can say are, ‘Let me tell you a story.’” The students must write 750-word documents describing their career choices and prepare four-minute presentations that use storytelling to convey why they have chosen those careers.

In the second approach, students craft personal brand statements that are critiqued by a professor and someone from the CCD team. The CCD staff member also visits the class, provides a construct for the Personal Branding Pitch, and speaks about the importance of personal branding.

In addition, CCD introduces our faculty to senior-level sales professionals who come to class or host students during onsite company visits. This experiential approach gives students a firsthand look at certain organizations and job responsibilities, which has led many of them to pursue careers in sales or business development.

Professionalism and work ethic. Graduates should be able to demonstrate personal accountability and integrity, work productively with others, manage their workloads, understand the impact of nonverbal communication, and learn from their mistakes.

The curriculum at Babson is built around two principles: an emphasis on entrepreneurial thought and action, and a commitment to social, environmental, and economic sustainability. The marketing faculty have utilized various approaches for bringing these principles into the classroom.

One marketing class took the “Brand: You” project into the realm of professional image. After completing their four-minute storytelling presentations, students turned to LinkedIn publishing. Their assignment was to write on topics that would interest people in the areas where the students were planning to pursue marketing careers. Students had to use their career knowledge to complete creative writing assignments specifically tied to their brands.

For another class, the CCD invited the LinkedIn Education and Millennials News editor to visit the school and discuss the components of a really good LinkedIn blog post. Students did well on the assignment—one scored almost 200,000 views and more than 300 comments in the first week of publishing.

One class explored the concepts of “personal accountability” and “learning from mistakes” by inviting a white-collar criminal to visit and discuss the actions that caused him to be imprisoned for several years. Before the visit, students read a book that described his actions and their consequences. The speaker talked about how his behavior led to his inability to find employment in the career for which he had trained in undergraduate and graduate schools.

Global/intercultural fluency. Graduates should value and learn from diverse cultures, races, ages, genders, sexual orientations, and religions, demonstrating openness, inclusiveness, sensitivity, and respect for all people.

We have taken an ecosystem approach to facilitating student learning in relation to diversity and inclusion. We have positioned our institution as a living/learning laboratory where learning takes place both inside and outside the classroom. Our goal is to nurture an environment that allows our students to be better global citizens. Courses that support a globally diverse mindset include several on transgender studies, race studies, and gender in modern U.S. history.

While it’s important to allow students to explore diversity challenges through an academic lens, we also bring diversity into the marketing classroom. For instance, in the Marketing Management course, students undertake a project in which they assess how marketing actions can lead to sexism and gender stereotyping. Student teams first identify gendered objects—including personal care products, children’s movies, Halloween costumes, fitness products, cleaning products, and even foods such as yogurt. Then they write short papers discussing why marketers have utilized particular sexist or gendering approaches and whether marketers are guilty of exacerbating stereotypes. The project enables the marketing class to deliver on Babson’s core value of diversity while also exploring values related to multicultural perspectives, ethics, and social responsibility.

FUTURE PLANS

Career readiness is a moving target. Our faculty must pivot quickly and strive for innovations that will keep our students at the forefront of career readiness. That’s why the CCD will survey more than 20,000 recent graduates, talent acquisition professionals, and hiring managers to evaluate these strategies and to acquire quantitative data to supplement the qualitative and anecdotal information we currently have about our students. We will use this data to inform future programming across campus to advance our culture of career readiness.

Lauren Skinner Beitelspacher is assistant professor in the Marketing Division at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Victoria Crittenden is professor of marketing and chair of the Marketing Division at the school. Donna Sosnowski is an adjunct faculty member in the Management Division at Babson; she also serves as director of the Undergraduate Center for Career Development.

Read the details of NACE’s eight career readiness competencies

This article originally appeared in BizEd's July/August 2018 issue. Please send questions, comments, and letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.