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“What are the two things that keep people in your organization from advancing?”

That’s the question Brian McCarthy posed to a manager he met this summer from one of the “Big Four” accounting firms.  Brian, who’s on the faculty in the School of Business at Portland State University, was one of several dads attending camp with their sons.  So was the Big Four manager, and Brian took the opportunity to ask him this one question:  What is it that that keeps people from being promoted where you work?

The dad from the Big Four didn’t hesitate:  “Presentation skills and writing ability.” 

Brian was somewhat surprised, in part because he expected something more like “global team management” or “advanced negotiation skills” to top the list, and in part because the answer came back lightning fast.  Not a moment’s hesitation.  In a word, communication—or lack of it—holds people back.

But it makes perfect sense:  Business leaders who can’t express brilliant, business-saving, even life-saving ideas might as well not have them, since they can’t execute on those ideas in a vacuum. 

“It’s the revenge of the English major, isn’t it?” Brian announced.  “We advertise for all these technical skills, but what we really want is people who can communicate!”

I knew that.

2 thoughts on “Revenge of the English Major

  1. Thank you for this blog! As a recent college grad with a B.A. in English and Political Science, I have definitely been discouraged more often than not during my job search. I know the value of my degree, but convincing others has proven to be quite a task. I wish more people in charge of jobs I am applying and interviewing for thought like the manager you quoted in this post!

  2. I know that a LOT of managers agree with this one. Since you know the value of your education, you’ll need to tell the hiring managers what that value is in a context they can relate to. In your cover letter, start right out with what you have to offer that businesses want: analytical ability–e.g., the ability to organize the abstract, derive the most important points from a bunch of details, to create order from chaos–and the ability to write clearly and concisely. Point out the cost savings that good communication offers them. (See “The ROI on Better Business Writing” elsewhere in this blog.) These are abilities they need everywhere, from computer operation instructions to budget documentation, from data dictionary management to employee compensation documents. Don’t give up, even though it’s a terrible job market. You write well. Put your persuasive powers to work!

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