“The sciences are the how, and the humanities are the why. Why are we here? Why do we believe in the things we believe in? I don’t think you can have the ‘how’ without the ‘why.’”
— George Lucas
When a man who makes his living telling stories espouses the virtues of strong communication skills, the world smirks. But when Norman Augustine, longtime chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, insists that liberal-arts deficiencies are putting the United States at a strategic disadvantage, corporate America takes notice.
In June, Augustine added his name and endorsement to The Heart of the Matter, a Congressional report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that argues for large-scale education reform — namely, balancing math, science, and business training with greater reading, writing, and arts education.
The report states: “At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences — as a stimulus to innovation and a source of social cohesion — we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be — our sense of what makes America great.”
The academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, which prepared the report and whose members include Lucas, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and actor John Lithgow, is obviously interested in promoting the arts. But its recommendations match those of the American Management Association, which in a 2010 study of 2,115 managers and other executives found that communication, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration are important to employees’ success.
Yet less than half of executives interviewed for the AMA study said their employees had effective communication and innovative-thinking skills, and eight out of 10 said schools and universities could better prepare America’s future workforce by placing more emphasis on the humanities.
In the meantime, how do you evaluate a job candidate’s competency in these “soft” skills? Mary Catania, writing for CRM and recruiting software maker BrightMove, offers an idea: Require sales candidates to submit brag books, marketing candidates to prepare portfolios, and customer-service applicants to share real communications with clients.
“To properly judge a candidate for employment, you want to see past work experience in action,” she writes in a blog post on the company’s website. “If a candidate does not have any past proof, it could be a warning sign that they either are fabricating their work experience, or are not savvy enough to keep proper documentation.”
Catania (@marycatania) also suggests administering a short, simple writing test to job candidates. Ask them to perform a specific task, such as:
1. Craft a timed response to a fictitious e-mail from the CEO.
2. Rework a paragraph from an RFP or product description to make it better.
3. Write an advertisement based on a creative brief or an industry topic.
If communication skills are so critical and yet so underdeveloped, why is the nation’s top MBA program radically reducing the number of essays required of applicants in its admissions process? John A. Byrne (@JohnAByrne), editor-in-chief at C-Change Media, points out in a LinkedIn post that Harvard Business School’s essay requirement has dropped from four to one in recent years.
“Even more astonishingly, Harvard has left open the possibility that an applicant wouldn’t have to even write a single essay if he or she believed the rest of the application fully reflected their candidacy,” he writes. Byrne was reacting to a blog post on the school’s website by its director of admissions which suggests that an applicant’s resume, transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, career goals, test scores, and references may be sufficient.