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Character Counts: Why Business Education Requires More Than Competency

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Before you walk into a job interview for the career you want, the interviewer has already vetted you for competence in the field or industry. What is usually the determining factor in achieving success -- in the interview or in life -- is character.

Think about people you know who have lost their jobs for a reason. How often is that reason competence and how often is it character? Did they offend a client, cheat on an expense account or develop a bad reputation (which is just how others perceive your character)?

Perhaps 80 percent of your education is assessed by grades that primarily look at competence. If you score high enough on enough exams, papers, and projects, you can graduate near the top of your class. This cultivates a mindset that being right is what matters most. However, once you start your career that competence --while still vitally important -- is only 20 percent of what distinguishes you. It is more like your ticket to get in the game, not how you win at it.

In the fast-paced world of business, change is constant. As the rate of change impacts how our organizations, fields of expertise and industries are changing, the credibility and consistency of a person's character becomes exponentially more important. It is so important, that educators should be integrating character development into business education now. Not a separate class or seminar on character, but interwoven into the business school curriculum.

Since 1998, character has been an ever-increasing part of the undergraduate major in Family Enterprise at Stetson University's School of Business Administration. Each student starts with an in-depth self-assessment, and then continues to receive ongoing feedback from professors, peers, parents, mentors and even visiting business leaders. Notable acts of character, positive or negative, can and have influenced grades.

Why? Because inter-mingling character and competence creates a more integrated development experience, which cultivates better students, better employees, better leaders and better people.

And the marketplace has responded. National recruiters allow Stetson students and graduates to forego qualifying interviews. Guest speakers have recruited students. Even firms from outside a specific field will recruit Stetson students because of their readiness to interact with clients. Furthermore our students are more proactive in assessing the culture (i.e. the character) of the overall organization and if they will be compatible with it.

"We can hire the best Finance majors in the nation, but they still need to be taught how to understand the family enterprise owner and the unique issues associated with them," said Gerard T. Mazurczak, vice president of Family Enterprise at Northern Trust. "If you have students with dual majors in Finance and Family Enterprise, we would be interested in interviewing them for openings in our Family Enterprise Division."

This focus on character is in no small part why the Family Enterprise program has become one of the signature programs at Stetson.

Stetson adapted this approach for another program, the Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA). Designed for leaders who are already in the marketplace, the EMBA helps individuals move to the next level in their careers. Because of their work experience, EMBA students quickly appreciate the importance of managing and aligning their reputations and their characters.

"The EMBA program at Stetson taught me what I needed to build the roadmap, connecting the person I am today and building skills to become the person I strive to be, aligning my personal and professional definition of success," said Judy Ashbrook, director of Project Finance at Starwood Vacation Ownership. "Stetson has given me the opportunity, through advanced learning to define my strengths and identify opportunities for growth."

This applies not only in their careers, but also in their personal lives. We know they are succeeding because of the feedback we receive from their firms, their peers in the program, and their families on how they are evolving and growing. The evidence is also apparent in their success.

"In just the first year, I am already implementing what I learned from the program," said Ashbrook. "I received a promotion at work, and I have been able to redefine my leadership style to not only continue my own development but also to be a leader that can make a difference in others."

As you walk into your next job interview, important meeting or begin a new relationship, consider whether your character and reputation are aligned. Reflecting on yourself is a part of this process, but without ongoing objective feedback from trusted people, this alignment is far less likely to occur. And misalignment is destined to impact you. Impact your leadership, your relationships, and your overall sense of integrity. Remember that being right isn't always the most important thing; sometimes compassion and kindness are better approaches -- especially when the relationship matters.