Freshmen learn soft skills without hard knocks

Freshmen learn soft skills without hard knocks
Erin McCarley

Jake had attended 20 leadership programs, but holds no leadership position. Jane had never been to a leadership program, but already leads an organization.

The previous experience of the 60-or-so other participants in the Cockrell School's first freshman leadership seminar fell somewhere between Jake and Jane's background. They all wanted "help" or "fun" or "growth" or "self-confidence" from the five-hour investment.

As future engineers, they shared good company for this training. It appears engineers, more than other professionals, end up leading organizations.

In fact, the most common first degree for top Fortune 500 corporate executives turns out to be an engineering diploma. The Cockrell School has prepared its share of Fortune 500 leaders. To name a few: Rex Tillerson, chief executive of ExxonMobil, James Truchard, president of National Instruments and Hector Ruiz, chairman of AMD.

Most of these chiefs would attribute a portion of their success to the work ethic and technical prowess developed at the Cockrell School. By contrast, the people skills, attitudes and vision required for their positions accumulated more informally.

The Cockrell School decided to make it a little easier.

"The last few years we have offered powerful leadership experiences for small numbers of students through the nationally-run LeaderShape program," said Ben G. Streetman, dean of engineering."Out of the positive impact of LeaderShape, we realized the need for this kind of experience for larger numbers of our students. The result was the development of our new Ramshorn Retreats."

With the need defined, the Engineering Office of Student Life designed the interactive, small-group-based, three-part seminar that included plenty of food for expanding young minds.

Freshmen can now select from five seminars throughout the spring semester to begin the process of learning what it means to be an engineering leader. The "Ramshorn Retreats," named after the Cockrell School's symbol of excellence, discuss the ethics, attitude and responsibility of leadership, as well as other traits and myths of effective leaders. Upper-division engineering students serve as facilitators for small groups during the event. Industry leaders who are members of the university's Engineering Advisory Board join participants for a portion of the program as well.

"The development of my leadership skills began at an early age in my family surroundings," said Peter Buenz, chairman of Creekside Industries and an advisory board participant. "Important virtues such as how to relate to people in a positive manner, understanding and applying the Golden Rule and developing a keen interest in people all have had a significant bearing on my leadership style."

Buenz acknowledged students arrive at the university with varying family environments and career goals. "I understand not all students come with equal motivation to be managers and leaders in their careers; however I believe the opportunities afforded them in these seminars will lead to the development of skills with both self-satisfying and monetary rewards."

Mike Polcari, president of SEMATECH, a seminar participant and member of the advisory board echoed Buenz's endorsement of leadership training.

"The Cockrell School's leadership seminar offers a great opportunity for students to develop and nurture a critical skill set, and I was really pleased to see the high level of engagement at the first retreat," said Polcari.

Polcari generously shared some of his hard-earned observations with students during dinner at the January retreat.

"Leadership in high-tech industries requires the right blend of technical knowledge and business acumen. Mastering technical content is necessary, but not sufficient, for students looking to succeed in the marketplace of advanced and emerging technologies. It also takes leadership, and leadership is a function of both nature and nurture," Polcari said.

Jim Weithorn, chairman of Haag Engineering Co. and another advisory board participant offered other encouragement to students in his group. Understand that you will encounter challenges and not always have the right answer, he said. "Anybody who hasn't failed doesn't exist."

Four Ramshorn Retreats remain. Although registration spots for the Feb. 29 event have been filled, freshmen may register for March 20, 28 or April 3.

Jake and Jane, (fictitious names for real participants) like their peers who completed end-of-session surveys, recommend the experience. The most common theme recalled by these freshmen as they left: "Leaders help bring out the full potential of their followers."

To learn more about the Cockrell School of Engineering go to