What Managers Want: Three Advantages for Liberal Arts Students

Recently, I attended a session where psychologist Ken Nowack talked about the ins and outs of management feedback at work.  Dr. Nowack’s research looks into how managers and supervisors who deliver feedback badly can actually cause physical harm to the employees they’re criticizing or advising.  Study after study proves that how feedback is delivered directly affects an employee’s performance, not to mention health, well-being, and outlook.  Pretty interesting.

Another thing Dr. Nowack said—sort of as an “aside” in the midst of his information—is that managers assess an employee’s performance in three dimensions.  These three dimensions, it occurred to me, can tell liberal arts students a lot about how to “sell” themselves to prospective employers.  And they are:

1.         Technical competence.  How well does the employee know and perform the nuts and bolts of the job?

2.         Bottom-line results.  What direct contributions to the revenue, or what direct reductions to expense, does the employee make?

3.         What is this employee’s “burr in the saddle” effect?  In other words, how much trouble does he or she cause?  And “How much damage control am I as a manager, or others on my team, having to do as a result of the trouble?”

Liberal arts students entering the job market will have to be prepared to be evaluated in all three ways: technical competence, bottom-line results, and burr-in-the-saddle effect.

Technical competence is a harder “sell” for liberal arts majors who haven’t spent their academic careers elbow-deep in spreadsheets or examining the intricacies of supply chain management.  But most entry level jobs don’t really take long to learn.  The advantage liberal arts students have (if they’ve been paying attention in class) is they know how to learn.  Students who demonstrate they’re quick to pick up the most complex of ideas, systems, or processes can persuade employers they’re worth hiring.

Bottom-line results—now those are actually much easier.  Liberal arts abilities reduce wasted company expense because important written material is easier to understand.  Less time wasted re-reading unfathomable text or puzzling over convoluted, dense presentations is time spent more productively. It isn’t money you can take to the bank, but the time saved offsets lost opportunity.

And finally, the burr in the saddle.  I don’t for a moment think liberal arts students are less trouble than students from any other academic disciplines.  But I do think liberal arts students are more likely to anticipate the effects of antics, disputes, poorly worded messages, contentious meetings or badly delivered presentations. All of that will help to minimize the burr-in-the-saddle effects.

If those are the hard truths of employer evaluation—and I’m sure they are—then students need to present their abilities in the context of all three:  how they’re technically adept, expense-saving employees who would never put anything under a horse’s saddle that shouldn’t be there.

One thought on “What Managers Want: Three Advantages for Liberal Arts Students

  1. Nice article to encourage liberal arts majors. To acquire technical competence, students must take internships – and the more they take, the more examples they have to demonstrate their competencies. That’s why it’s so important consider and pursue interesting internships even as early as the summer after freshman year.

    Extracurricular leadership activities, work-study jobs and academic research can also provide opportunities to learn and build technical competencies. Just as it takes much more than your academic record to get into college, it takes much more than great grades in your major to get out of college and into a good job.

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