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Executive Insights for the College Classroom: Build Your Network Before You Need It

Executive Insights for the College Classroom: Build Your Network Before You Need It

By Richard E. Jordan II, Messiah College trustee and CEO of Smith Land & Improvement Corporation

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The Millennials are the largest cohort to enter our U.S. workforce and executives are being challenged to adjust to new ways of working and collaborating, to rethink how we recruit talent and negotiate employee contracts, and to consider work/life balance concerns. Sustainability commitments and purpose-driven work are competitive advantages.
Although machines, digitization, reputation management, and regulations preoccupy the CEO’s mind, people still remain the catalyst for a company's success. As the Harvard Business Review reminds us, productivity-enhancing measures still require talented people—people with creative ideas and critical, independent thinking skills.

I was invited to address a Messiah College class on Created and Called for Community, and it challenged me to distill my fifty years of business experience into one hour. The group of 23 first-year students were exceptionally earnest and eager to hear about real-life experiences in business. And although I’ve read my fair share of “what Millennials want and need articles,” I realized that some things haven’t changed in decades.

People still do business with people. Likability, personality, passion, drive, networking, and a positive attitude—these are key to company success. And they are qualities that young people possess and should focus on.

First, my advice to every business leader:

If you’re invited to speak to a college classroom, take the time to invest in the students. Opportunities to speak to young audiences about our work journey, successes, failures, wrong turns and management styles are game-changers for students. And it’s an opportunity to give back to the next generation. This type of real-life experience isn’t found in textbooks, but it’s the type of information that makes communities stronger and more prosperous. There are 21 million college students in the U.S. and the sooner we prepare them for a successful transition from campus to occupation, the stronger our economy will be.

The students’ majors varied widely, from Spanish to engineering to psychology to business. As a trustee, it’s critical that I understand higher education through their lens. What do they expect from their investment? What are their goals? How can we better prepare them in this transition to business or service? We are ultimately responsible as fiduciaries to protect and align the investments of the college with its mission, and we are trustees of the future for these 2,500+ students entrusted to our teaching for some of the most important years of their lives.

It was not hyperbole when I told this class that they are at a special institution. I believe that wholeheartedly. Careers will be formed, futures will be changed, commitments will be proffered, and for many, dramatic dreams achieved. 

I discussed the path to leadership in business or in organizations, how to network with the corporate community, questions to consider when choosing a career, and how to focus on competitive advantages like emotional intelligence. I shared about my early start in business as a summer employee doing manual labor. Many lessons were learned working in the repair shop and auto body shop and I reminded them that their summer jobs and internships can be strong foundations for future employment.

Although my father was in management, I received no special dispensations or treatment. In fact, I felt that the expectations on me were more stringent because of my last name. It proved to be a motivator and instilled the value of hard work.

My advice to our college students:

1. Commit to a job for more than one year. Although few employees stay at firms for three and four decades like they did in the 1950s, changing jobs every year is anathema to building talent and learning skills. It's disruptive to careers to change continuously, unless a situation is unbearable.

2. Build your network now, as a student. Reach out to executives. Ask for a brief meeting of introduction. I brought several business cards to class in case the students wanted to connect with me and continue our conversation. I was impressed with how many of them stayed after class to ask me questions and request a meeting for coffee. Nearly all of them asked for my business card.

3. Think beyond the GPA. We look at GPAs, but that is rarely the deciding factor in landing a job. We look for well-rounded individuals, hard workers, jobs that you've held, teams that you've played on, initiatives you've started. Have you mastered critical thinking skills? Are you a team player? Can you communicate clearly?

Business leaders, think of your own experience as valuable information that should be invested in the generations that follow us—not locked away as intellectual capital. Millennials want to learn from our business journeys, and they want to make personal connections.  I was honored to see how Messiah College is delivering value in the classroom and pouring education and experiences into our students.

My hour in the classroom will hopefully help guide these 23 students to make some important and positive career decisions. I speak for business leaders in our community and for Messiah College trustees when I say, we can't wait to see them economically active and thriving in leadership positions.

Richard E. Jordan is CEO of Smith Land & Improvement Corporation, a commercial real estate development firm headquartered in Camp Hill, Penna. He is a graduate of Elizabethtown College, a trustee of Messiah College, and holds an honorary doctorate from Elizabethtown College. He can be reached at rjordan@smithlandusa.com.