James White
James White, executive vice president and president, Latin America, Ecolab, Inc.
Christopher Oleary
Christopher O’Leary, executive vice president and international chief operating officer, General Mills
Eric Buss
Eric Buss, executive vice president for Life Time Fitness, Inc.

The Opus College of Business recently hosted a panel of top executives who discussed themes PwC’s annual global CEO survey. The executives shared a great deal of advice on succeeding in the ever-changing job market — and traits they look for when hiring.  This post is a compilation of reflections on the event from Ben Carlson, Kirsten Haukoos, Maura Hinken, Shanthi Kelaart and Bonnie Wustudents in professor Christopher Michaelson’s undergraduate business ethics course.

The discussion was opened up by a few questions and statistics and one that stuck out was the fact that in 2012 most CEOs are planning on increasing their hiring and headcount. Eric Buss, from Life Time Fitness, is in charge of human resources, corporate development, risk management, and education functions. James White of Ecolab, is in charge of the daily operations in Latin American countries with an Ecolab presence.  Chris O’Leary, from General Mills, oversees the businesses outside of the U.S., with responsibility for nearly 14,000 employees in more than 100 countries. The speakers gave the students attending a good idea of how the business world is changing, and the important qualities of successful employees:

Communication Skills

You must be able to understand the recipient party, regardless if they are across the hall or across the world. You must be able to see where they are coming from, what their expectations are and how they see it. That does not mean that you always have to agree with them, but by understanding them, you will be able to communicate stronger and clearer with them. “As a marketing major I often think that once I finish my finance and accounting classes that I am home free, however tonight I was proved wrong.” In fact, Buss explained that every decision in business is made around a financial decision.

Academic Success

While grades matter, they are not always a make or break deal for a company. It’s good sometimes to break away from the fact that there isn’t always a perfect answer to every question in the real world. O’Leary, of General Mills, encourages students to be as learning agile as possible. Learning agility is the capacity to acquire knowledge for your job, or its various aspects quickly and efficiently; have the knowledge of how to do your job right in the first place, but also learn as you go when the time comes. The bottom line is to try hard in school, but to also realize it is more important to get an experience out of it, rather than solely a good grade.

Experience

All three representatives agreed that experience is one thing that can’t be taught. White noted that experiential learning is crucial in the real world and the only way to grasp that is to be put into unexpected situations.

  • Studying abroad was mentioned as a way to gain experience in new situations. That type of experience shows learning agility and the value of  understanding other cultures.
  • Failure is an important and acceptable kind of experience. “If you haven’t failed, then it means you haven’t’ done anything,” noted O’Leary, to agreement from the panel. At General Mills there’s failure everyday, failure is part of what they do, the key is to minimize and learn from it.

Tolerance for Ambiguity

Jim White said that you must have “tolerance for ambiguity” — to be able to not be guided every step of the way, or be told exactly what to do. To be able to create a project or figure out your own jobs on your own. Many jobs in today’s world are not black and white about what to do; many are in that gray area where things change every day and you will not always know what to expect.

Overall most of the topics covered are major concerns for college students these days and having executives like these offer reassurance us is a huge confidence booster. The panelists each took their own path up the career ladder–it took work to get there and by sharing their knowledge, our generation can equally work to be the best they can be.