10 Things I Wish They Would Teach in Business School

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Bonnie Low-Kramen’s vision for a leadership curriculum

I believe that there has never been a better time to be an Assistant than right now. I also believe that there has never been a more complicated time to be an Assistant than right now.

If you agree with that, here is a question for you: Do you feel well managed?

If the answer is “No,” you are not alone. From my work with Assistants all over the world, my unscientific survey comes in at about 80% who don’t feel well managed. Furthermore, the Assistants themselves are not surprised by how few feel well managed and in fact, their attitude is one of “well, that’s just the way things are and we have to work around it.” Those who do feel well managed understand how fortunate they are and in fact, know that they are the exception and not the rule.

This is not OK. This subject is an elephant in our administrative professional room.

No great manager or leader ever fell from heaven, it is learned not inherited ~
Tom Northup

I began looking for answers and wanting to know why there is such a big leadership gap and most importantly, what can Assistants do about it? My search led me to business owners, psychologists, university professors and American leadership expert Jack Zenger.

Jack wrote an article in December, 2012 for the Harvard Business Review called “We Wait Too Long to Train Our Leaders. Reading it was my “aha” moment. Jack and his team did a survey of 17,000 business leaders around the world and they figured out the average age that leaders receive their first training in managing people. What do you think?

Drum roll please. The answer is 42. Stunning, isn’t it?

What that means is that many of the world’s finest business schools are not teaching their students how to manage the staff who they will eventually have the responsibility to supervise. Since most college students graduate in their early 20s, simple math tells us that they could be managing people for about 20 years without any training unless they receive it on-the-job.

I started looking at the course syllabi for business schools and, indeed, teaching “staff management” is simply not there in most. When I went to hear Jack speak in New York City in 2013, I had the chance to sit down with him. Jack agreed that the soft skills of management and leadership do belong in business school curriculum since effectively managing people, like working as a top-notch Assistant, takes training and practice. Clearly, the training is not happening soon enough.

What do Assistants do about this?

Until the curriculum in business schools changes in a significant way to teach students how to manage people, our leaders are going to need support and help from their Executive and Personal Assistants. This will mean bringing ideas and suggestions to their managers about how systems can be improved and altered for the better. The best managers are receptive to hearing what their Assistants have to say and if they are not, the Assistants can “guide” them. Assistants who are proactive in this way will be seen as leaders in their own right and will be rewarded as such.

If I could wave a magic wand, here are 10 things I wish they would teach in Business School. The class would be called “How to Be a Manager Everyone Wants to Work With”. I include the books that I feel would be required reading for the class.

1      Best manager/worst manager – Which one will you be? Write an essay comprised of two stories. Write about the best manager you ever had and what were the qualities that made her/him so great. Conversely, write about the worst manager you ever worked for and why. Be specific and detailed. Through the semester, the essays would be read aloud in class and at the end of the semester, the class would vote for who they most would want to work for and who they would least want to work for from the stories they heard. The class will discuss the vote. Resource: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey.

2      Respect for the staff – Show respect for everyone. No exceptions. The world’s most successful companies value respect for others. No one – not the richest or most successful person you can think of – became successful alone. What matters most are simple acts and don’t cost one penny. Say “please,” thank you” and call people by their name, taking care to pronounce and spell it correctly. Research a business leader you admire (living or dead) and who helped him/her achieve their success. Extra Credit: Interview one person from their staff to quote in your report. Resource: The Power of Respect by Deborah Norville and Daring Greatly by Brene Brown.

3      Finding talent – Your staff can make or break you as a manager so it will serve you to take great care in selecting them. Imagine that you have landed your dream job. Create a Job Description for your Executive Assistant and 10 questions that you will ask him/her at the interview. In class, students will describe their dream job and review the requirements for the ideal Assistant to support you to do that job. The class will then discuss effective interviewing and the importance of setting accurate expectations. Resource: How to Be Exceptional by Jack Zenger, How to Win Friends & Influence People in the Digital Age by Dale Carnegie.

4      Leading the team – Effective managers are also good leaders. Your staff will be looking towards you for guidance, support and mentorship. You will find that candid and constructive feedback is coveted by your team. Investing in your staff’s professional development is money that comes back to companies exponentially. Work hard to develop your leadership skills and involve your staff to help you to become a better leader. Resource: Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Truth About Leadership by James M Kouzes.

5      Profits & employee retention – They are connected and not to be underestimated. Select three companies and research the last three years of profits compared to their employee retention rates. Compare and contrast your findings. Resource: From Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t by Jim Collins.

6      Gender in the Workplace – Are men and women managed differently? In 2014, there are more women than men in the global workplace and the current wage gap statistics are that women make 0.77 cents for every dollar made by a man. Read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg and the class will have a group discussion about how to best work with female vs male staff, including how to handle the wage gap and maternity/paternity leave issues.

7      Workplace bullying – In 2014, workplace bullying is an epidemic problem that is like poison to healthy and thriving companies. Leading by intimidation, yelling and humiliation are the antithesis of what will motivate your staff to perform at their very best and deliver stellar results. Read Taming the Abrasive Manager by Dr Laura Crawshaw. Students will write a report on their options as a manager when needing to handle a workplace bully. They will describe the profiles of workplace bullies and research the difference between handling a bully manager versus a peer-to-peer bully. Resource: Crucial Conversations by Patterson & Grenny, www.workplacebullying.org.

8      Company culture – Company culture matters a lot. Research five companies and define the culture of each. Include Virgin Atlantic, Starbucks, Google or Zappos as one of the companies that have very strong company cultures. Include details about what impresses you about each one. Use www.glassdoor.com to research evidence that the company either does or does not actually implement the culture it describes. Glassdoor offers anonymous reviews of what it is really like to work for XYZ Company and of course, you need to take these reviews with a grain of salt. Include quotes by staffers for at least three of the profiled companies. Resource: Delivering Happiness by Tony Tsieh.

9      What inspires loyalty & the go-above-and-beyond attitude? – How do you motivate your staff to go above and beyond when no one is looking?Above all, staff want respect, appreciation, fair compensation and a strong sense of their value in the company. Resource: Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Decide by Steve McClatchy.

10   Importance of life-long learning – Graduating from college and leaving a classroom does not mean the end of learning. Far from it. Our teachers are everywhere. Leaders must commit to ongoing learning via seminars, conferences and specific targeted workshops. Leaders must also commit to supporting their staff to seek ongoing supplemental training in order to stay relevant and up to date. Leaders who invest in education and training on an ongoing basis for both themselves and their staff will reap the benefits and profits in boundless ways. Resource: Drive by Daniel S Pink. Extra credit: Google Starbuck’s latest (June, 2014) initiative about paying for college tuition for their partners.

I believe that staff at every level in a company can take measures to support our leaders to be better managers. My hope is that my magic wand does not remain a wish for long. We can do better.

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About Author

Bonnie Low-Kramen

Bonnie Low-Kramen is the Founder of Ultimate Assistant Training and is one of the most respected thought leaders on workplace issues. In May, 2019, her work was profiled in a Forbes cover story. For 25 years, Bonnie worked as the Personal Assistant to Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis and now travels the world speaking, teaching and consulting. Bonnie is known for her passionate commitment to the movement to transform the workplace in part by closing the wage gap between women and men and ending workplace bullying. The Be the Ultimate Assistant workshop that she teaches with technology expert Vickie Sokol Evans was named one of the Top 7 Conferences to Attend in 2019. Bonnie is also part of our Speaker Bureau. If you are interested in Bonnie training your assistants or speaking at your event, either virtually or in person, please email [email protected]

4 Comments

  1. What a great curriculum for nascent managers, Bonnie! In my 40 years in the administrative business, I’ve had great managers and terrible managers. Most of them fall somewhere in-between – they have some of these skills, but not all of them. Maybe we administrative professionals could start a movement to encourage all business colleges to train their BA students before letting them loose on the world 🙂

  2. I love the idea, Phyllis! Even if it worked with only a fraction of the schools around the world, our workplace would be transformed for the better. Colleges and universities are entrenched in their bureaucracy and history though and because of this, I think progress will be slow but steady. My hope is that some visionary leaders are assisted by administrators/Executive Assistants to take a hard look at what is happening RIGHT NOW in offices small and large around the world. Workplace bullying is epidemic and is like poison to a company growth, health and profits. I believe it is directly related to the lack of training in business school. What do you think?

  3. Hello Ma’am,

    This is a very important article for me. And extremely relevant in this scenario. I am Research Scholar from India. And i have been trying to write a teaching case on workplace bullying. The major problem that I am facing is that, they are asking me that where do I teach them, In which subject and which session do I teach it. and I really don’t have a clear answer to it. I really think there should be teaching cases regarding such issues. But how do convince them that this should be and can be taught in B-Schools

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