If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you already know that we are in the midst of standing up a new university, Fairfax University of America (FXUA) – readying for our first enrolled class in Fall 2021. As part of that effort, we are working closely with a group of senior business executives representing local, regional, national and international organizations. In a recent survey of these business leaders, it was determined that learning just communication skills was barely a requisite for a successful professional career. Instead, these business advisors recommended that our curriculum take on a more robust approach to communication skills ensuring that the following competencies became part of the overall curriculum:
- An ability to listen/ a tolerance for another person’s opinion;
- Strong client/ customer-facing interaction skills;
- “Reading” the organizational culture for cues on how to act and interact with other organizational employees and supervisors;
- Follow-through on promises made; and
- Influencing skills
As we pondered our ability to incorporate these necessary competencies into the overall curriculum, it struck me that these are the same skills that were necessary to be an effective management consultant.
So, we asked ourselves the question: Did it make sense to create a sub-set of the curriculum around how to be an effective consultant?
At first glance, the idea seemed a little ludicrous. After all, the vast majority of students have little interest in becoming consultants. Yet, as we dug in deeper to the overall skills make-up of a consulting professional, we concluded that many of these competences were transferrable to any professional endeavor. Beyond the more acute communication skills mentioned above, consultants are trained in sales, negotiating tactics, change management, presentation and writing skills and, overall, effective persuasion. At a minimum, consultants are trained to identify and resolve problems. Isn’t that the same mindset you want for all your employees?
Our approach to incorporating consulting skills into the curriculum was accomplished via two avenues: inside the classroom through the required completion of a capstone consulting project and, outside the classroom through the formation of a student-run consulting practice whereby organizations could leverage the skills of our student population for small, distinct projects.
For our faculty, this was an effective means to showcase the talent of the student population and ensure that skills – both hard and soft – had been learned. And, for the students, the ability to apply their knowledge and skills both inside and outside the classroom provided a means for building their confidence prior to setting them off into the professional world.
Granted, this approach to teaching consulting skills is not without its downsides. Very few students come equipped with an immediate ability to exercise both creativity and critical thinking right out of the blocks. Accordingly, our faculty and professional mentors have the necessary role of asking students questions that allow them to think “differently” – outside the typical linear path that most people use when trying to solve a problem. Further, the ever-present question of “so what?” is expected to permeate any consulting discussion. (Consultants, sales professionals, and business leaders can attest to the importance of being able to answer that question!)
So, with the guidance of our faculty and outside business professionals, we are embarking on a path that ensures our students are equipped with the competencies to practice as management consultants – recognizing that the majority will actually use these skills for their own professional success.