360 Assessment in a University Setting
With 9 out of 10 employers discouraged by subpar communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills among recent college graduates, a change in the higher education system may be necessary. So how can universities arm their students with the tools they need to succeed in the business world and ultimately reverse employers’ poor expectations?
The following case study provides a practical and proven approach to preparing college students for corporate success. This method has been incorporated in business practices for decades, but has not been applied to the academic environment on a large scale.
The Challenge: Develop Key Traits for Professional Success
In a little over a century, the number of Americans with Bachelor’s degrees has increased from 3 percent to 30 percent. There are more highly educated people than ever before; however, accumulating knowledge merely scratches the surface of the skill sets professionals need to manage and lead in the workplace.
According to business strategy expert and bestselling author Ram Charan, the art of business acumen is “linking an insightful assessment of the external landscape, with the keen awareness of how money can be made and then executing the strategy to deliver desired results.” As such, strong business acumen distinguishes the leaders from the lackluster employees. Yet the general consensus is that business acumen generally is underdeveloped among college graduates. Such skill sets include understanding how the business works, knowing the various forces that affect it, and proficiently building relationships with external stakeholders.
There is growing scientific data supporting the importance of emotional intelligence (EI) and conflict management (CM) in achieving professional success, but they are two of the most underdeveloped interpersonal traits among college graduates. Other limited attributes include, but are not limited to, the abilities to persuade and influence, as well as demonstrate courage and take risk.
The Solution: 360 Assessment
Long used by corporations primarily to develop leaders, 360 assessments can be incorporated into experiential team-based business simulations to emulate a real-world environment. It is a collaborative process that culminates in constructive feedback, through which participants can identify key areas of strength and weakness. An experiential team-based business simulation that utilizes a 360 enables students to hone key interpersonal and business-related skills.
The growing need for college students to accelerate their communication, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills prior to full-time employment inspired us to apply the 360 assessment, known as the TRI-Leskin, in a university setting. This particular instrument has been used with our corporate clients’ executive education programs across all global industries to improve their overall business acumen, which made it a good choice for this exercise.
Sixty-two graduate students, from Fairfield University’s MBA program participated in our study over a three-year period. To reduce biases, the majority of participants did not know each other going into the assessment. Furthermore, we diversified each simulation team based on gender, employment status, job function, and academic background.
Part 1 of the TRI-Leskin 360 assessment is a written 12-question self-assessment with strong emphasis on students’ cross-functional hard and soft skills. In Part 2, each participant shares his or her personal assessment with team members, but feedback is not permitted at this point. After the initial meeting, teams meet weekly for cross-functional simulation activities to test many interpersonal and knowledge based skill sets, as they apply to business acumen.
The simulation period involves multiple 90- to 120-minute team activity sessions, which can be completed in either one intensive week or over the course of several weeks. After the simulation concludes, team members complete the TRI-Leskin assessment once again, this time both self-evaluating and evaluating their teammates. A discussion then evolves through which individuals can openly ask team members how and why they came to the conclusions they did. Students are encouraged to review their self-assessments and feedback from teammates subsequent to the course.
The feedback process does not involve the faculty, for peers are far better equipped to evaluate each other based on the 360 questions. The faculty’s purpose is to provide experiential aspects of the simulation, be a resource for students, and to make clear the nature of giving and receiving feedback.
Results: 360 Works
Based on the behaviors demonstrated during the simulation, results confirm that there were defined development needs consistent across most of the students. As projected, the 360 helped students identify their areas of strengths and weaknesses. Even better, post-assessment results showed an overall improvement of business acumen. Their hard skills, in particular, saw significant enhancements.
Evaluations from teammates, at an averaging level, were generally consistent with students’ self-evaluations; any gaps between self- and external perceptions were within the expected range. Students particularly benefited from the open discussions, and there was no indication of tensions triggered by team member assessments. Rather, many participants deemed the 360 assessment process a positive interactive learning environment.
The results of our study, while limited, reveal an opportunity for higher education to help their students cultivate the interpersonal skills vital for success in the business world. Team experiential business simulations, properly adapted to a university setting, can give students a clearer picture of their own strengths and weaknesses and help them create a road map to develop those skills prior to full-time employment. Their readiness for numerous work-related challenges may reverse employers’ low expectations with regard to communication, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills.
Thomas Conine, Ph.D., is professor of finance at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Dr. Conine is also founder, partner, and co-owner of TRI Corporation, an organization that specializes in corporate education, experiential leadership, and simulation programs. Dr. Conine lectures and is published internationally on corporate finance and investments.
Barry Leskin, a consultant with TRI Corporation for more than a decade, has participated in and delivered numerous global TRI Corp. simulations and General Manager Assessments. Leskin is former CLO of numerous corporations and was executive director of USC’s EMBA.