What Shakespeare Can Teach Business: Juliet Goodfriend, February 22 at St. Ambrose University Print
News/Features - Local News
Wednesday, 21 February 2007 02:31

Juliet Goodfriend The "real" world can teach you about marketing, or annual reports, or human resources. The real world can't teach you much about literature, or philosophy, or art.

Juliet Goodfriend thinks that higher education and corporations put too much value on those real-world skills, and not nearly enough emphasis on the liberal arts. In her words, there's too much focus on "professional training at the loss of real education."

She isn't some anti-business lit professor. Quite the contrary. She's a former CEO who happens to think that Shakespeare, Plato, and Rembrandt are critical to success in business. "In my view, a liberal-arts education is a much better background - if it's a good one, that is - for business than focusing on business studies as an undergraduate," she said.

Goodfriend will be St. Ambrose University's 2007 Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow and will present "Business: A Liberal Art" at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 22. The lecture, which is free and open to the public, will be held in the ballroom of the Rogalski Center (at the corner of Ripley and Lombard streets in Davenport).

Her advice is directed at students but speaks to a larger issue in business: that many people with business undergraduate degrees won't have the critical-thinking and communication skills necessary to succeed in business.

"You'll never again have a chance to learn from the humanities what they have to offer," Goodfriend said in an interview last week, "and you'll have every chance in the world to learn such subjects as marketing."

Goodfriend is the founder and former CEO of Strategic Marketing Corporation, a marketing-research firm geared toward the pharmaceutical industry. And her liberal-arts background was helpful even as she was bringing that career to a close.

"When I was considering selling my company," she said, "my husband suggested I read King Lear to get an appreciation of what it's like to lose your power base. It was very Lear-like, my experience, as it turned out."

That anecdote illustrates Goodfriend's main point. It's not that an education geared toward the practical skills of business isn't valuable; rather, it's incomplete. A liberal-arts education complements a business education, particularly in its emphasis on writing and other communication.

"You can best understand what's important in life by studying literature and art and history and philosophy and such subjects," she said. "They give you an insight into the values that you would want to sustain in your business. They give you empathy with other people, which is very important in business.

"And the practice ... in a demanding liberal-arts program of writing is perhaps the single most important thing that is more demanding and more challenging and more disciplined in English courses, for example, than it is in a course in marketing." A liberal-arts education also strengthens "the ability to communicate with people," she said. "You don't learn that in communication class. You learn that by studying great literature."

If that sounds abstract, consider this example: "If you write a business plan, and all you have are the numbers, no one will (a) really understand what your business idea is, what your project is meant to do, and (b) they won't really want to follow you or invest in you. So you need therefore to be able to write a story, tell a story about what your business plan is."

Goodfriend concluded: "Writing good narrative prose that has an understanding of plot and of the narrative arc is essential to presenting a business plan to a board of directors, or even to your boss."

Her message sounds like an offshoot of the "creative class" concept promoted by Richard Florida. Florida argues that an emergent group of creative people will increasingly drive the economy, and many communities are trying to capitalize by marketing themselves to this "creative class."

In emphasizing problem-solving and communication over professional training, Goodfriend is reinforcing that concept, except that she's framing the issue in terms of educational and hiring choices rather than in the context of the economy as a whole: Students should pursue liberal-arts education first, and companies ought to hire them.

Goodfriend, who was a force behind the creation of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute (http://www.brynmawrfilm.org) and now runs that organization near Philadelphia, sounds a bit like a shill for the degree factory. Given how businesses hire people, a liberal-arts degree by itself won't open many doors in the business community. Goodfriend is describing a course that almost requires career-specific advanced degrees.

She has served on the board of Bryn Mawr College (from which she graduated in 1963), and said that as a CEO, she liked to hire people with Ph.D.s. And she acknowledges that personnel departments aren't scooping up liberal-arts majors.

"The people in personnel departments, or human-resources departments, in businesses don't necessarily recognize it," she said. "It's the people at the very highest levels who would be more likely to recognize the value of a liberal-arts education" - such as the ability to speak clearly, write articulately, communicate across cultures, and understand foreign environments.

"The technical backgrounds give you your first job," Goodfriend said, "but they don't prepare you for all the other jobs that you'll have afterwards."

Goodfriend was a philosophy undergraduate, and she had a career in mind when she chose her major: "I wanted to write science for the laity."

She said that although she had to learn marketing research, statistics, and other business skills, her liberal-arts background was "marvelous training for me right out of college."

She got a job in the pharmaceutical industry, she said, and she essentially translated technical information for her co-workers. "I was able to unpack or decode medical mysteries for the sales force in a way that they could understand it," she said, "because I'd learned how to ask questions and how to do research and how to categorize information."

Those are some of the skills she sought in her business, and a reason she hired so many people with doctoral degrees. "First of all, they could deal with a large amount of information, and it was easy enough to teach them how to condense it," Goodfriend said. "Secondly, they knew where to find information, how to put it together cogently, because they had worked on big projects."

In the 1970s, Goodfriend said, she was one of the first people advocating for the pharmaceutical industry to market directly to the consumer. While drug companies were developing all sorts of new therapies - she mentioned antihistamines that don't make the user drowsy - consumers didn't know about them.

Now, of course, all drug companies market directly to consumers - with disastrous results. The public is inundated with drug ads that prompt consumers to ask for drugs by name, and that puts doctors in the difficult position of prescribing the drugs - regardless of the merit - or potentially losing patients. Consumers are also acutely aware of the money drug companies are pumping into advertising while drug costs continue to climb. Everybody loses.

This was a failure, Goodfriend said, of understanding the long-term consequences of a course of action. Drug companies should have produced ads alerting consumers to the characteristics of new therapies, she said, instead of pushing the specific drugs. Then consumers could ask their doctors about their treatment options and make informed decisions.

Goodfriend tells the story to illustrate the negative effect of an emphasis on business skills versus the liberal arts. If the drug industry had more liberal-arts graduates, she suggested, it might have come to the conclusion that the hard sell was counterproductive - that it would take decisions out of the hands of doctors, that it would spark anger at the health-care industry over the prices of heavily advertised drugs, and that it would grab the attention of regulators.

"They didn't think it through it," Goodfriend said of the way drug companies chose to market drugs. "They overdid it."

 

To listen to the Reader interview with Juliet Goodfriend, visit (http://www.qcspan.com).