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Guest view: Why executives shouldn't skip the college classroom

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Millennials are the largest cohort to enter our U.S. workforce and executives are being challenged to adjust to new ways of working and collaborating, to rethink how we recruit talent and negotiate employee contracts, and to consider work/life balance issues.

Sustainability commitments and purpose-driven work are competitive advantages.

Although machines, digitization, reputation management and regulations preoccupy the CEO’s mind, people still remain the catalyst for a company’s success. As the Harvard Business Review reminds us, productivity-enhancing measures still require talented people — people with creative ideas and critical, independent thinking skills.

I was invited to address a Messiah College class on Created and Called for Community, and it challenged me to distill my 50 years of business experience into one hour. The group of 23 first-year students was exceptionally earnest and eager to hear about real-life experiences in business. And although I’ve read my fair share of “what Millennials want and need articles,” I realized that some things haven’t changed in decades. People still do business with people. Likability, personality, passion, drive, networking and a positive attitude—these are key to a company success. And they are qualities that young people possess and should focus on.

First, my advice to every business leader: If you’re invited to speak to a college classroom, take the time to invest in the students. Opportunities to speak to young audiences about our work journey, successes, failures, wrong turns and management styles are game-changers for students. And it’s an opportunity to give back to the next generation. This type of real-life experience isn’t found in textbooks, but it’s the type of information that makes communities stronger and more prosperous.

The students’ majors varied widely, from Spanish to engineering to psychology to business. As a trustee, it’s critical that I understand higher education through their lens. What do they expect from their investment? What are their goals? How can we better prepare them in this transition to find meaningful work?

Richard E. Jordan II
Richard E. Jordan II - ()

I discussed the path to leadership in business,, how to network with the corporate community, questions to consider when choosing a career, and how to focus on competitive advantages like emotional intelligence. I shared about my early start in business as a summer employee doing manual labor.

My advice to our college students:

1. Commit to a job for more than one year. Although few employees stay at firms for three and four decades like they did in the 1950s, changing jobs every year is anathema to building talent and learning skills. It’s disruptive to careers to change continuously, unless a situation is unbearable.

2. Build your network now, as a student. Reach out to executives. Ask for a brief meeting of introduction. I brought several business cards to class in case the students wanted to connect with me and continue our conversation. I was impressed with how many of them stayed after class to ask me questions. Many of them asked for a business card.

3. Think beyond the GPA. We look at GPAs, but that is rarely the deciding factor in landing a job. We look for well-rounded individuals, hard workers, jobs that you’ve held, teams that you’ve played on, initiatives you’ve started. Have you mastered critical thinking skills? Are you a team player? Can you communicate clearly?

Business leaders, think of your own experience as valuable information that should be invested in the generations that follow us. Millennials want to learn from our business journeys.

My hour in the classroom will hopefully help guide these 23 students to make some important and positive career decisions. I speak for business leaders in our community and for Messiah College trustees when I say, we can’t wait to see them economically active and thriving in leadership positions.

Richard E. Jordan II is CEO of Smith Land & Improvement Corp., a commercial real estate development firm in Camp Hill. He is a graduate of Elizabethtown College and a trustee of Messiah College. He holds an honorary doctorate from Elizabethtown College. He can be reached at rjordan@smithlandusa.com.

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