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A Liberal Arts Approach to Business: Beating the Competition through Constant Adaptation
Take it from an English-major-cum-CEO who’s been through the dot-com tech wars: The liberal arts prepare students for the problem solving, big-picture awareness, and innovative thinking needed for an executive career better than business classes alone.
My introduction to managing a company began in 1992. Late one night, my father phoned and asked me to take over the reins of his nascent Pittsburgh telecom equipment business, Tollgrade Communications. He needed to focus his energies on his other business, a struggling heavy-construction company. At that point in my life, I was working as a public-relations executive and had no formal business training. But I knew what to do. When presented with a problem, liberal arts majors read. We read everything. I headed to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and checked out books on management, finance, accounting, electrical engineering, and manufacturing. I pored over telecom trade rags. Heck, I even bought a set of Tony Robbins’s motivational tapes.
Three years after my dad’s phone call, our company mounted a successful initial public offering on the NASDAQ exchange. Our angel investors realized anywhere from a three- to fourteen-time return, depending on when they invested. We opened at a share price of $14. In 2000, our stock blasted off to $300 a share, then split, rocketing our market capitalization to more than $2 billion.
Although I’d taught myself how to function as a CEO through my reading, I wouldn’t have been able to lead my company to this success without the lessons from my literature, history, and other liberal arts classes. Those courses helped me develop the soft skills I would need to adeptly manage employees and present business strategies to investors and customers. More than an understanding of financials and technology, during my time as a CEO, it was the ability to effectively communicate and plan that allowed me to navigate major business changes as we ushered in the internet age.
At Allegheny College—my alma mater and where I now teach—we are making business education more holistic by bridging it with an interdisciplinary approach. This approach ensures that students from a range of backgrounds who study in a variety of fields learn team-based approaches to problems, oral communication, ethical decision making, and myriad written communication techniques. As our global economy continues to change at warp speed, more institutions should consider how they can prepare future business leaders to have broad knowledge of the world, operate with a sense of ethical and social responsibility, be prepared to grapple with complex and diverse challenges, and quickly synthesize massive amounts of information in order to make sound decisions and keep their organizations nimble.
An English major’s executive journey
Of the approximately 1,921,000 bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2015–16, the greatest number—372,000—were conferred in the fields of business, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.1 But what will all these business-degree holders need to find a job?
A 2018 survey of business executives and hiring managers commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that oral communication, teamwork skills with diverse groups, critical thinking and analytical reasoning, complex problem solving, and information literacy are among the top skills sought by employers.2 As Rachel Reiser, assistant dean at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, told the Atlantic in 2016, businesses are seeking employees with “the ability to think, the ability to write, the ability to understand the cultural or historical context of whatever business decision they’re making.”3
In addition, a 2017 New York Times essay argued that liberal arts colleges “are the most appropriate institutions for training future business leaders.”4 In other words, businesses are seeking employees who graduate from business programs infused with the education that liberal arts colleges offer.
Every CEO, for instance, has to be a good storyteller to be successful. Throughout my time at Tollgrade, I needed to reduce complex business models to PowerPoint pitches lasting no longer than a standard television sitcom. In that short amount of time, I had to convince speculators that they could find El Dorado in their investment; convince customers that we could ease their pain; convince suppliers that the road to our office could be their legal Silk Road; convince salespeople they could summit mountainous sales goals like Hillary and Tenzing scaled Everest; and convince engineers that they could become the next Archimedes with their eureka discovery.
How did I prepare for these pitches? I drew, for one, on my undergraduate film course. As I used PowerPoint to tell our company’s story, not only to raise start-up capital but also to orchestrate our successful IPO, I remembered how one of my English professors, Lloyd Michaels, showed that effective dramatization and visualization were some of the most powerful forms of communication. I also remembered how my creative writing professor, Alfred Kern, taught me to weave a narrative that people—whether lovers of literature or customers, investors, suppliers, or employees—could embrace. Kern showed me that great writing is not a gift but a skill that needs to be doggedly practiced. He taught me perseverance—invaluable, since building a business is a race for the steady more than the swift. Another lesson that served me in my business endeavors was history professor Jay Luvaas’s admonishment that, as Shakespeare wrote, the “past is prologue” and that many ways exist for exploring the nature of history. This led me to study past economic trends in order to separate the wheat from the chaff in the modern business problems I faced daily.
I learned, too, the importance of applying lessons from philosophy and ethics courses. Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, and others set moral principles to govern human behavior. Those principles also make good business sense and should be part of every future CEO’s business education. For example, on more than one occasion, my company chose to be up-front about a defective batch of our product and eat the cost of replacing it. We ended up forging even stronger relationships with our customers. In another example of an ethical decision that turned out to be a wise financial move, at the end of 1999, we turned down a merger transaction with a much larger company. Not only did we realize that the valuation did a disservice to our shareholders, but we also saw that the incoming owners sought to displace some of our best managers. Six months later, our market capitalization soared to $2 billion.
Today’s business leaders cannot stay sequestered in the boardroom and make decisions in a vacuum. Executives are called upon to step out and lead the way in a global economy, and they are often asked to speak to issues or make decisions that affect an organization’s reputation. When Tollgrade first entered the global marketplace, for instance, we acted like many “ugly American” companies. We strode into meetings in our khaki pants and blue blazers as we sought to sell our whiz-bang telecom products. As Americans, we didn’t fully grasp the significance of the cultural differences in business practices. We weren’t able to establish a significant local presence until we either partnered with or acquired companies already doing business with telecom companies outside of the United States. We realized that we needed to hire sales and marketing executives who not only spoke the native language of our customers but, more important, also understood their social norms. We couldn’t use a one-size-fits-all structure for joint ventures and instead had to adapt our approach based on our customers’ needs.
Raising the bar
In 2017, Allegheny College conducted a gap analysis between its offerings and those of top-rated university business programs. What we found was that analytical skills, team-based management techniques, and communications skills were of paramount importance. As a result, Allegheny created a liberal arts–centered business major with a heavy emphasis on economics. We also expanded a robust set of cocurricular activities at our Thompson Center for Business and Economics.
The business program also serves as a socioeconomic ladder for a diverse group of students who begin to see how entrepreneurism can help them prosper in life. Of Allegheny’s incoming first-year students, 30 percent meet the eligibility requirements for receiving a Pell Grant. The past four of our incoming classes have been the most diverse in our history. In 2006, less than 10 percent of the student body was made up of people of color. In fall 2019, 26 percent of the incoming class was made up of people of color. In 2018, four of the eight winners of our Shark Tank–like entrepreneurship program, the Zingale Big Idea Competition, were students of color.
Although the college has offered a managerial economics track for more than a decade, its new business major features liberal arts electives to complement a core curriculum heavily based on economics. The emphasis on the rigorous study of economics is also a key differentiator from other institutions’ programs. Allegheny’s business major incorporates core economics coursework in microeconomics, macroeconomics, managerial economics, financial accounting, and economic statistics. It offers business electives in money and financial institutions, finance, marketing, advertising, human resource management, entrepreneurship, nonprofit management and social entrepreneurship, international business, and accounting.
The liberal arts element of the business major comprises electives in rhetoric and communication, advanced public speaking, literature, French, Spanish, ethics, business and management ethics, and three other philosophy courses. Students also have the ability to study abroad and engage in community-based service-learning projects. We also teach job-hunting skills and arrange for employers to interview students on campus.
In addition, the Thompson Center for Business and Economics (created through a generous long-term commitment from Bank of America vice chairman and Allegheny alumnus Bruce R. Thompson) enables students to participate in business-focused cocurricular activities. The center simulates a stock-trading floor using a trading lab outfitted with Bloomberg terminals, which allow students to follow real-time financial information. During the center’s Lunchtime Learning series, noted alumni executives share their journeys up the corporate ladder, talk about their industries, and offer insight on how new employees can break in. The center also facilitates exploratory trips to New York City, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, during which students visit different companies and meet alumni working in those industries. One excursion involved visiting the Cleveland Federal Reserve.
The center’s annual executive roundtable panel discussion assembles nationally known experts to discuss timely business issues. For 2018, we adopted the theme “The Year of Women in Business,” and all of our speakers that year were noted women executives who discussed their careers.
Student big ideas
For one of its most interactive cocurricular experiences, the Thompson Center hosts an intercollegiate business pitch competition called the Zingale Big Idea Competition. Winning students receive a collective $20,000 in prize money and gain valuable input from the contest’s judges on how to make their businesses better.
One of the 2019 winners, Natalia Buczek, was an art major. Because her father suffers from Alzheimer disease, she was driven to create AidMemoir, an iPad application to assist the caregivers of people suffering from memory diseases. She partnered with computer science major Christopher Miller to create the app, which is not yet commercially available for purchase. During the development process, she and Miller demonstrated the functionality of the app to medical professionals at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Based on their feedback, she and Miller revised the app, which originally helped only patients, to serve both patients and caregivers after the progress of the disease made it difficult for patients to use the program.
Another of the 2019 winners, Christian Walker, developed Animatr Apparel, an anime-inspired line of streetwear that includes hoodies, sweatshirts, and T-shirts. Walker had first competed in the contest in 2018, but his entry that year didn’t make it past the first round. He spent the following year developing his business based on the judge’s tough feedback. During his 2018 summer break, he sharpened his business skills at the eCenter@Lindenpointe, a business incubator based in Hermitage, Pennsylvania, and ended up generating more than $5,000 in sales in less than ninety days.
“The general skills students hone in a liberal arts curriculum—writing, speaking, analyzing problems from multiple perspectives, collaborating, creative thinking—are essential skills for success in business and pretty much every career,” says Hilary L. Link, president of Allegheny College. “Wouldn’t you want your CEO, marketing manager, or sales associate to know how to do that?”
Not just business as usual
In addition to Allegheny, many other colleges and universities are bridging traditional business programs and courses that help students acquire broad knowledge and skills as they prepare for dynamic executive careers.
Bucknell University recently rebranded its School of Management as the Freeman College of Management with a mission to “work collaboratively, as a learning community, to understand organizations, analyze them rigorously, and devise creative and morally responsible solutions to the challenges they face.” Majors include management for sustainability; global management; and markets, innovation, and design. Students take a core set of management courses and electives in subjects as far-ranging as geography, international relations, political science, sustainability, mathematics, data analytics, marketing, innovation, and design.
The program also offers experiential learning opportunities through cocurricular activities such as a business pitch competition, collaboration with the university’s Small Business Development Center, and portfolio investment management by students of close to $2 million of the university’s endowment.
Grove City College, a Christian institution in Pennsylvania, offers an entire major focused solely on entrepreneurship that embraces “redemptive entrepreneurship,” for which students are “motivated by their faith to use their gifts and earned wisdom to create new ways to meet society’s needs and desires, to serve God, to renew a broken culture, and lift a fallen world,” according to the GēDUNK, Grove City College’s alumni magazine.
“Our students are eager to create innovative businesses and organizations that have real impact, not only economically and socially but in ways that foster positive spiritual and relational effects in people’s lives,” says Tim Sweet, associate professor and chair of the college’s entrepreneurship department.
In addition, the college’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which is open to all students regardless of major, provides a range of experiential learning opportunities, such as business model creation in its VentureLab, business plan competitions, and engagement with partner organizations including the curricular-development organization, Praxis Labs.
Westminster College, a liberal arts college in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, offers an undergraduate business degree and an online MBA that focus on successful entrepreneurship with an emphasis on management, marketing, organizational behavior, and change leadership. Undergraduate business students complete a senior-year capstone project by participating in the online Business Strategy Game, which simulates the management of an athletic footwear company, according to Eric A. Gaber, executive-in-residence at Westminster College. The online platform enables Westminster students to compete not only with each other but also with students in other countries.
The college also offers one-on-one mentoring programs with more than fifty C-suite business leaders, according to Gaber. Students may also compete in regional business plan competitions, as well as participate in the En-Act-Us program, a group of student, academic, and business leaders. The David W. Edward Entrepreneurship Scholarship competition requires Westminster students to present a business plan for a new or improved business, product, service, or combination of the three. Additionally, an elevator pitch contest requires students to prepare various modes of entrepreneurial presentations. “We are creating an environment that is focused on a ‘pracademic’ approach. In this manner, we are offering participants real-world applicable experiences,” Garber says.
The ability to adapt
In the tech space, executives embrace the notion that “speed kills,” meaning that you need to stay ahead of the market. Just think of what tasks your cell phone could do ten years ago compared to what your smartphone can do today. Today’s business leaders must also navigate the shifting currents of world markets that are growing in countries such as China, Mexico, Japan, and Russia. Global marketplaces mean managers must understand various cultures to adapt strategies to fit disparate markets while communicating their corporate vision to employees and stockholders alike. Twenty-first-century business executives also have to know how to manage employees from different cultures with various worldviews and be equipped to face ethical decisions that affect people and their health, the environment, and geopolitical issues.
Business leaders must keep up with the speed of technological and global change. And what could be more crucial than the ability to understand how to draw on your intellectual training in order to adapt? The ability to teach oneself—the true gift of a liberal education—is paramount.
1. “Fast Facts: Most Popular Majors,” National Center for Education Statistics, accessed August 7, 2019, https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=37.
2. Hart Research Associates, Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2018), https://www.aacu.org/research/2018-future-of-work.
3. Yoni Appelbaum, “Why America’s Business Majors Are in Desperate Need of a Liberal-Arts Education,” Atlantic, June 28, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/06/why-americas-busine....
4. Timothy Aubry, “Don’t Panic, Liberal Arts Majors. The Tech World Wants You,” New York Times, August 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/21/books/review/you-can-do-anything-geor....
Chris Allison is entrepreneur in residence and codirector of the Center for Business and Economics at Allegheny College. He spent sixteen years as an executive with Tollgrade Communications, ten as chairman and CEO. He is the author of You’ll Manage: Lessons Learned from a Former CEO, a collection of management-related essays.