The University of Texas at Austin
  • Freshmen learn soft skills without hard knocks

    By Becky Rische
    Becky Rische
    Published: March 20, 2008

    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.”

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