Professional Excellence: Can It Be Learned in College?

After spending thirty years in a corporate environment, I embarked on a second career as a member of the faculty and staff of a liberal arts college. Each semester I would dedicate one class to the topic of “business courtesy,” highlighting for the students the personal behaviors that can distinguish them in the workplace. Since most of my students were juniors and seniors, workplace reality was not far off.

Recently, I was asked to participate in a project in a large corporation. It gave me an opportunity to once again observe young employees, just a few years out of college. What I saw are bright young people, well trained in the specific subject matter that they studied in school. Unfortunately, many lack the proper form that would allow older colleagues to appreciate their substance.

What are the essential performance elements that enable them to stand apart from their colleagues? Simply put, it’s a consistent pattern of professional behavior in all respects. Some of the attributes go without saying, such as good personal appearance, promptness, use of proper language, etc. Unfortunately, some students derail their chances because they simply don’t know those things.

But most importantly in my experience, it is those employees that know how to write well, utilizing good structure, correct grammar, and appropriate business vocabulary, who stand out. Their ideas and proposals will attract notice. This is where the perception gap between graduating students and their future employers is the greatest.

Surveys consistently show that employers are not satisfied with what they are getting. The Business Roundtable contends that virtually all of their members report a significant skills gap, and the Roundtable is promoting programs to address the problem.

Earlier this year, PayScale released a study on employer perceptions of recent graduates. Katie Bardaro, vice president of data analytics at PayScale, commented “The data we’ve collected show that even though their education may make recent college graduates feel prepared to enter the workforce, only half of hiring managers agree with them; managers feel crucial skills in recent graduates are frequently lacking or absent.”

According to that study, business officials are particularly disappointed with the writing ability of the students they’ve hired, with 44 percent saying that writing proficiency is the hard skill they find most lacking.

Similarly, a National Association of Colleges and Employers survey ranked student and employer perceptions of various skills important for success. Of all the skills that were identified in the survey, the perception gap on writing skills was one of the largest—65 percent of the students surveyed thought their writing skills were adequate, but only 27 percent of the employers thought so.

How can we teach these essential skills to college students and help them realize their importance? I believe the answer lies in the systematic reinforcement of all of these concepts, day in and day out, on campus.

To start with, students need to understand that in class they’re expected to be fully engaged—prepared, attentive, and participative. I always found that a qualitative “course engagement” assessment, worth 20 percent of the final grade, helped to achieve that outcome. This deterred students from cutting class and also from spending their class time perusing Facebook.

Students should also dress appropriately for class. Maybe not suit and tie quite yet, but they should still look like professional young men and women, serious about learning and serious about interacting with other men and women in a respectful way. If a student needed guidance in this area, I would speak with the student in private after class, and suggest the changes (lose the ball cap, wear jeans that aren’t ripped to shreds, etc.) that they need to make.

Most importantly, all course papers must be graded by the instructor line by line, highlighting and editing the text. The instructor needs to correct for poor grammar, incorrect spelling, run-on paragraphs, inconsistent use of headings and a general lack of organization.

I constantly reminded my students that their future boss would stop reading at the first paragraph, if their product were written in anything but a professional way. Assigning 30 percent of the paper’s grade to writing competency was also very motivating.

This is hard and tedious work for instructors, as I can personally attest, but it is essential. In the long run, it will benefit students more than the time professors might invest in esoteric academic research topics. Administrators should make it clear that this is a key aspect of the job and not hire anyone who seems reluctant.

But my question is this—who among the faculty will be most effective in guiding the students to understand how important these elements of professional excellence are to their future success?

Half of the courses at American colleges and universities are taught by adjuncts. Some of them work in private enterprise and teach one course, primarily for the love of teaching (it’s certainly not for the money they make).

Although they’re in the best position to emphasize these skills to the students, these men and women are generally on campus only for one course per semester, probably don’t encounter the same student more than once, and have little opportunity for personal contact with the students outside of class. As a result, their impact is limited.

As for tenure-track and tenured faculty, the very fact that they possess earned doctorates suggests that their backgrounds are generally in academic settings. Few have experienced workplace dynamics and have seen firsthand the impact of professional excellence on an employee’s career.

So, how can we do better?

My suggestion is that administrators need to think about the backgrounds of their tenure track faculty selections, beyond the typical academic credentials. Faculty who understand the dynamics of the workplace, and who themselves model and insist on proper behaviors, will be an asset to students as they interview for that first job—and thus boost the college’s placement record, a win all the way around.

Adding some full-time faculty members who have professional experience and will model it to students would be a good move for many colleges. It would increase diversity in a meaningful way.

Recently, a former student contacted me after he had read an article I had published. He’d spotted a misspelling, and called me on it. He said that my emphasis on a commitment to professional excellence has stayed with him all these years, and that typo fairly jumped out at him. Point made—all the way around.