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A Liberal Education: Preparation for Career Success

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Soon after trying to uncover the magic formula that colleges use to make admission decisions, students are faced with another vexing question: What subjects and what majors should they choose to ensure their long-term success?

I never figured out the admission formula, but as a former CEO with more than 30 years in management at a Fortune 50 firm, I can offer advice on that second big question: pursue a liberal arts education. For most people, it's the best foundation for a successful career.

Lots of self-help books, pundits and well-intentioned family, friends and advisors encourage college students to "major in something practical," apparently assuming that the liberal arts don't meet that standard. But as someone who spent many years assessing the skills and talents of management prospects for a wide range of disciplines and industries, I know that the candidates who were the most attractive manager prospects were those with a well-exercised mind, leadership potential, and the passion to make a difference. These success factors can be cultivated in many ways, but all are best developed by taking courses in the liberal arts and sciences.

Developing one's mind is no different from developing a strong body: exercise and, specifically, cross training. By studying art, science, the humanities, social science, and languages, the mind develops the mental dexterity that opens a person to new ideas, which is the currency for success in a constantly changing environment. And just as an aspiring major league pitcher needs a live arm and a calculating, cool head to pitch effectively, so too does a management prospect need to be educated broadly to respond effectively to ambiguity and uncertainty. Completing a broad liberal arts curriculum should enable a student to develop the conceptual, creative and critical thinking skills that are the essential elements of a well-exercised mind.

It's true that businesses want employees with mastery. An accountant must understand accounting and a chemist must understand chemistry, but an education that is too specialized produces graduates who may be limited in what they can contribute in the workplace. More than ever, success in business today is about agility and managing, or even leading change. Companies must continually reinvent and transform themselves to win in the face of unrelenting change and competition. Individuals must also continue to change and learn new capabilities and competencies to grow and adapt. Mental agility comes from a well-exercised mind.

Equally important, the liberally educated tend to possess the communication skills that enable them to explain complex issues clearly, so that they are better understood and can be better addressed. In business, it's important to develop a new idea, but it's often as important to be able to explain why an idea is important. Liberal arts graduates are conceptual thinkers. They are also effective communicators.

We also look for leadership, the second success factor when hiring. Most colleges and universities have a student government, newspaper and a multitude of other groups and organizations, but they are more accessible and often more integrated in the real everyday workings of a liberal arts college. The smaller community also means more meaningful and personal interaction with college administrators, faculty and alumni. Even today at Hamilton College, where I serve as chairman of the board, student leaders interact regularly with college management and sit alongside trustees in committee meetings as we plan the college's future.

Passion to make a difference is the third success factor. Here, too, a good liberal education requires students to debate ideas vigorously and consider issues intensely. Students graduate believing they can effect change and make a difference. They learn how to organize an inquiry and hold an advocacy process that's civil and respects others. Companies want graduates with these experiences. Even at a large company like P&G, we want employees accustomed to engaging in issues that matter to them, so that they will not be reluctant to find new solutions that make a difference in the daily lives of customers.

The formula for businesses trying to compete in today's economy is simple: hire employees with the mental agility, leadership and passion to navigate constant change -- in other words, hire those who are liberally educated.

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A.G. Lafley retired as Procter & Gamble chairman in 2010 after 33 years with the company. He currently serves Hamilton College, his alma mater, as Chairman of its Board of Trustees. He is a director of the General Electric Company and a special partner at Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, a private equity company.