Nell Minow
Corporate Governance expert, 'Movie Mom'

Nell Minow

Editor of The Corporate Library, and 'Movie Mom' for and radio stations across the country.


Skills, not schools

Q: The Wall Street Journal says big U.S. companies, when hiring for entry-level jobs, are picking bachelors' degree graduates of big state universities over Ivy Leaguers and other grads of more elite schools. Why? Recruiters said they need people with practical skills. Would you take the same approach? Do you think your school prepared you well for whichever form of success you sought? In the long run, does it matter what you studied in college, and where you went?

Recruiters are being extra careful these days because (1) they can -- this economy allows me to be extra choosy, and (2) they must -- this economy gives me less leeway for mistakes.

So, here I am, looking down at your resume and then looking across the vast expanse of gleaming mahogany that is my well-deserved executive desk. And what I want to know is not where you went to school, but why you went there and what you got out of it.

Big state schools and big-name private colleges both have students who might just as well have wandered in and students who struggled with finances or algebra or family problems to get there and stay there. Both have students who took classes because they were offered at convenient times or needed them for their major or because they would look good on a resume and students who took classes to challenge themselves or because they just wanted to understand the subject better.

And here is how I figure out which group you are in: I read your writing sample. If you can't write clearly, you won't think clearly. If you don't know the difference between texting language and business language, you aren't ready to become a professional. If you can't communicate persuasively, then no matter what your job is, you do not have the skills to perform it.

I listen to your questions. Have you taken the time to learn about our company and the challenges it is facing? Are you capable of finding meaning and mastery in what we do? Are you able to work cooperatively but maintain an independent sense of judgment so you won't just follow what everyone else does and an independent sense of initiative so you won't wait to be told when help is necessary?

I find out what you are looking for. I have learned that the biggest adjustment college graduates have to make when they start work is shifting their perspective from a world in which everything centers on what will make their experience what they need to one where everything centers on the organization and its needs. Have you made that shift? Can you tell me what you will do for me?

Studies have shown for years that most CEOs do not graduate from top-ranked colleges, though many of them get advanced degrees at more prestigious schools. One reason for this is that the skills that lead to success in school are not the same as the skills that lead to success in business. But another is that many of these executives were among the first in their families to go to college. They had to work extra hard, exceed expectations, and compete with energy and determination. And those are skills that do lead to success in business and pretty much everywhere else.

Recruiters who think that they can generalize about the graduates of one kind of school over another are making the same mistake they don't want their employees to make. They are trying to substitute structural indicators for judgment. They should know that college performance and training is a poor predictor of job performance. A student who knows how to think and has a passionate curiosity, an enthusiastic engagement with the world, and outstanding communication ability will pick up the practical skills very quickly.

And then, a year from now, when all those practical skills are obsolete, he or she will be the first to notice and then to learn -- and shape, whatever comes next.

By Nell Minow  |  September 27, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Education and success Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Polluting your talent | Next: Give me a break!


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Corporate HR, when hiring entry-levels, wants people who are educated enough for the tasks at hand, but still receptive to the corporation's own viewpoints on how things are done.
Ivy Leaguers are high-maintenance and assume they are there to teach their managers the "right" or most current way. Their salary expectations are also often unrealistic.

Posted by: OttoDog | September 30, 2010 9:07 AM
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Minow gets it right. What matters is your ability to learn and your enthusiasm and personal initiative for doing so. I went to an Ivy and have always had a very easy time getting jobs and being a star employee once hired. That does have some relationship to the fact that I attended an Ivy, but not the one you might think. It is because as a part of the first generation in my family to attend college at all, I was highly motivated from age 12 to get into the best college I could. The same initiative that got me into a top notch school also makes me a great person to have working for you. I always over-deliver on any expectations and never stop striving to do the best at whatever I apply myself to. So of course I wanted to attend on of the schools that was thought to be among the best. That said, my story doesn't mean you can dismiss the students who went to state schools. I knew a girl in high school who got into the same Ivies I got into, but she chose state because her parents couldn't afford the costs of the Ivies. So you have to look at each individual and seek the qualities Minow is pointing out.

Posted by: Dutton1 | September 27, 2010 1:58 PM
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All three of these commentators assume the WAPO bias that jobs are all about big corporations, elite fields, and big cities. Jobs and careers are much different in areas outside the coastal beltways of the east and west. Going to an elite school is not even an option for most middle-class kids with good, but not great, scores.I think many upper-class parents believe that if they can just shoehorn their kid into an elite school they have somehow guaranteed the child a wealthy life, and can display their trophy children as evidence of good parenting.

People skills, EQ, personality, enthusiasm, etc. make a big difference in getting non-elite jobs in non-technical fields. After the first job most of us hiring look at past job performance and matching skills first. I consider the academic degree from any institution as just a requirement, but not a deciding factor. For example, if you are a great fundraiser for a reputable charity, you can probably be good in any marketing job once you learn the technical aspects of your product.

Posted by: outragex | September 27, 2010 12:51 PM
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It doesn't matter where a candidate went to school. What matters is the candidate's business experience, and performance in that enterprise. School names are good for one thing -- the introduction, or the network that landed the resume on the hiring manager's desk.

Posted by: Elvis2 | September 27, 2010 10:32 AM
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My experience is that the people in the HR department are more interested in a recent degree than lots of experience ot talent. I worked my way through a State University. Then I served in the US military where I handled projects worth tens of millions of dollars. But when I decided to offer my skills and talents to private industry they were a lot more interested in recent college grads who had worse grades than what I had in college 15 years ago. The fact that I had led soldiers safely theough life and death situations every day and that I had millions of their tax dollars by efficently managing all the projects the Army had assigned me meant nothing to them.
The big corporations want people with no backbone who will not stand up to their boss when he or she is doing something legaly and ethically wrong. That is haow the banks and mortage companies got into the mess where they needed bailouts, they wouldn't hire people that would tell them that people who make 40 K a year cannot afford a 500 K house no matter how attractive the financing terms. But if you tell a job interviewer that you would not approve an obviosly bad loan you will hnever get a job in finance even though you would have saved the company millions of dollars by not approving the bad loans.

Posted by: totalee | September 27, 2010 10:19 AM
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