Liberal Arts Can Improve Leadership Skills
“Young people should come into the workforce with the attitude of developing more value than they are paid to do. Then they will never have to worry about their job in the future”, claims Dan Moore, the President of Southwestern Advantage, a U.S. company in which many young people work and can develop their skills. After graduating from Harvard and Vanderbilt universities with honours, he has been working at Southwestern Advantage, a company which publishes and distributes educational books to American families, for over 40 years.
Having accumulated a staggering amount of experience in youth employment, Dan Moore shares his insight and advice with academic and business organizations around the world. In October he visited Vytautas Magnus University, where he explained to the students the most significant aspects of looking for a job and pursuing a successful career.
You are the president of Southwestern Advantage and read lectures to students all over the world. Which of these activities do you prefer?
I like them both. Leading Southwestern Advantage is an important privilege: our company is over 150 years old and only a few people have been its presidents during that time, so for me it is an honour. The most enjoyable part is working with young leaders, including VMU graduates, to see them start out as nervous first-year students and then become some of the best leaders in the world. I am trying to help them by passing on the lessons I have learnt.
Lecturing at the universities is also enjoyable to me, because students are eager to learn. It makes them start thinking about themselves and their own future, which is very satisfying and worthwhile.
Can you describe the student and employee selection process in your company?
Many students, including those from VMU, participate in our summer programme. They go to the U.S. and start their business of selling educational books. It begins with the informational meeting, where everyone learns the details. Students, who apply for the programme, have to come to at least four of these interviews. They are asked about their background, goals and references. We also talk with their parents, because they have a big influence and should be engaged in some of those decisions. We do so many interviews, because our programme is very challenging. We don’t want people to come in thinking it’s easy or that they will just go to America and make a lot of money.
There are students from Lithuanian universities, including VMU, who work in your company. How would you describe them as employees? Perhaps certain qualities or skills make them stand out?
There is a lot of pride among Lithuanian students in their culture, their history. They are proud of being Lithuanians. And when people enter our company with a strong national identity, they become very powerful contributors. When they’ve worked in our programme for several summers, they also develop a record of success, which prepares them for all the future challenges. Moreover, they are very competitive—perhaps this is because they love sports. For instance, they appreciate the Estonians working in our company, but they don’t like to lose to them in sales competition. We are particularly proud of VMU History B.A. and M.A. graduate Andrius Pelegrimas, who is the number one salesman in our company this year. About 2,000 salesmen from various countries compete for this award every year, and this time it went to him.
What is your opinion about liberal arts? What are its benefits to the person and society in general?
Liberal arts education is really important. That was my background. If you are taught to read philosophy and think about it, you can become a critical thinker, which helps you to develop your own standards and values. I think good liberal arts education helps you to become a good communicator verbally and in writing as well, so they know how to argue their good ideas in a constructive way. Awareness of history is also important. “Those who do not learn from mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them”. I always thought how powerful that saying is. Many of our world leaders’ mistakes these days are very similar to those we made in the past. New generation needs to be aware of history and liberal arts in order to become better leaders and avoid those mistakes. I believe in awareness of culture, history, communication, etc.—all parts of liberal arts education.
What about your own education—could you share with us how you started your studies at Harvard?
When they admitted me, I was not keen to leave my home and my girlfriend, because when you’re 17, you think only about these things. But I’ve always thought that later in life I would regret to not doing something, so I decided to go. I studied politics in the beginning, because I wanted to be a lawyer (there are no BA studies of law in the US, any kind of BA degree is required to apply for law school—Ed.), but I quickly lost interest in it and, consequently, a career direction. But I had a very strong work ethic, I always had a part time job and did my best in it. The recruiter at Southwestern Advantage saw that and hired me. I paid for my studies with what I made by selling books. It took a lot of pressure off my parents and gave me a sense that I can make it on my own. After studies I started working as a sales leader at the company and never left it.
I am very grateful for this job and the chance to work with young people and universities. Career centres in both Lithuania and the U.S. deal with the same problems. We have to get this message to your first and second year students: use your career centres, get experiences, and make your resume come to life.
Based on your personal experience, what qualities and skills are necessary for young people to successfully enter the labour market?
If they know how to motivate themselves, they will be much more effective employees. Nowadays many companies have their own management programmes, but they still depend on self-motivated young people. If young people wait for someone else to tell them what to do all the time, they probably won’t be very successful. They should be independent and willing to take initiative. Strong work ethic and the will to do more than you are paid to do are very important.
This helps one to maintain a job. But what is important in order to get that job in the first place?
Really good communication skills: show the recruiter that you are worth the gamble to hire you. The best way to persuade him is to effectively communicate your past experiences. I have done hiring as well—it is like going to the horse races. They all look the same and you are trying to pick one winner. You study their records of past races: horses which have done well in the past are likely to do well in the future. When looking for the first job, you need to have experiences you could sell effectively. If you have a track record, it is easier to bet on you. Show them that you didn’t just sit in class and take notes, but also developed beyond the classroom.
How important is the resume in the job search process?
A resume is like a photo of a person’s life. It is better when it fits in one page, because it forces you to describe yourself very succinctly. A resume has two Es: Education and Experience. The Education part looks very similar for almost everybody. The other part, Experience, is a chance to differentiate yourself. If you have no experience in the career you are seeking, you should gain some. Otherwise, it is much harder to get a job.
In your opinion, what can be done to gain job-related skills while still studying at the university?
I think internships of all kinds are very valuable. We specialize in summer internships, where students have a cultural exchange in America. When they sell books, they talk to American families all day long, they learn how Americans think and in return, share the Lithuanian culture with them. It is very powerful. There are other summer internships as well. For instance, we cooperate with the Lithuanian World Centre, which organises the Work and Travel USA programmes. There are all kinds of jobs, not just in sales, and those international experiences are very important. Other great opportunities include volunteering to assist the professor with research or projects, and part time jobs. They require good time management because you are studying, working and socializing.
Volunteering to do presentations in class is also useful. Most students do not like to speak in public, but I teach them to raise their hand immediately when the professor is looking for a volunteer, even if they are nervous—it means that you are willing to take initiative and step up. Leadership experiences are very valuable, such as leading a student organization or a club on campus.
How important for a successful career is the chosen study programme or university?
It can be important in certain careers. For example, if someone wants to be an accountant, they should study accounting. But in many business fields the course of study is not very important. It is more important to understand people and be willing to learn, because most companies do a lot of training. People who are able to learn are very valuable.
The choice of university can make a difference to get the initial interview. Some universities are in a very high level. For instance, VMU is consistently among the top 30 universities in the world in the ratings conducted by Southwestern Advantage, in terms of students who make the most profit for our company. But that only opens the door. The student has to get through the door based on his or her own strengths. I think in some cases it’s more important to just do well, no matter what it is. For example, I studied Politics. I don’t work in that field now, but I worked hard on it, which shows that I’m willing to discipline myself, and that’s what students should do whatever their course is.
How should study programmes be organized in order to help young people to enter the labour market? Nowadays we often hear that graduates are not ready for the workforce.
This is because the company’s expectations are perhaps different from the lecturers’. Many lecturers believe their job is to share what they know, but the companies are looking for people who can lead and not just passively listen. The lectures should be more interactive. A portion of the grade should be based on class participation. If you never raise your hand, your grade should be reduced, and if you make good comments, it should be improved, because that is what companies are looking for: confident people who can contribute.
More group projects would be helpful, because companies do many great things in work teams. Students who are good as individuals are not always good in a team, so learning that skill is important for them. Lecturers should ask students to do independent researches outside of the minimum, so that they learn how to dig deeper while looking for resources. Moreover, they should strongly encourage students to get work experience outside the classroom, get one or two jobs in the summer. If all lecturers of the world encouraged this, people would be much better workers. But most professors are only comfortable with theory. If universities attracted more teachers who have experience outside of the academic world, it would be a better university system.
What do you think is needed in these times of neoliberalism: employed or self-employed people? What are the trends in the business world?
We need both. Very large companies are usually not organized to handle self-employed people very well. They have standards, bureaucracy and so on. They need people, who are willing to follow rules and procedures. Millions of people in the U.S. are self-employed. They contribute to companies as outside contractors or as project workers. It can be challenging, because you do not have the same guarantees of salary and wages, but also it gives you a lot of freedom. Everything is a trade-off, you trade some security for greater freedom. Not everyone is suited for those careers.
What would you like to wish for students of Vytautas Magnus University?
That they would have a lifetime based upon fulfilment, personal happiness, and above all a life where they make the world a little bit better. We hope that at the end, we can all look back and see that we made the world a better place.
VMU Career Centre, President of Southwestern Advantage Dan Moore and the company’s top salesman this year, VMU graduate Andrius Pelegrimas are sharing their experience with the students in the seminar series “Building a Successful Career”, which will continue from November 2015 until April 2016. The next seminar, Money Management – Financial Freedom is All About Your Habits, will take place at VMU on 4 p.m., 8 December, at the VMU Building No. 3 (52 K. Donelaičio, Room 322).
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