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Faculty Spotlight: Dr. McClain Watson

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Q and A with Dr. McClain Watson, director of business communications programs in the Jindal School

Recognized by both UT Dallas and the UT System regents for excellence in teaching, JSOM’s director of business communications programs, Dr. McClain Watson talks about how he got into teaching, effective communication and how he helps students prepare for life after college.

JSOM: What specific experiences, or series of events, led you toward a career as a communications educator?

Watson: It wasn’t a specific experience, but I’ve wanted to be a teacher since high school. I went to school for history and education and then taught high school for a brief time. I realized that I wanted to teach but at a different level. I knew I wasn’t really interested in history as a graduate field. The course titles that interested me most were in communications. I was always interested in how people speak and express themselves, verbally or nonverbally in writing, music, art and creative expressions. I saw those as forms of communication, so communications in the broadest sense became the thing that I wanted to teach.

It wasn’t until I came to UTD that I did it in the business school context. Prior to coming here, I was a humanities and liberal arts PhD — never took a business course in my life. So coming here was a real opportunity for me to create something in a field that was very different from what I thought I would be teaching, researching or learning about in graduate school. But it was a great challenge. I’ve been here 10 years now.

It’s a great time to be a communication person in a business school because, in so many business schools now, the pendulum has swung from an emphasis on technical skills to soft skills. We have a very innovative dean … who’s interested in helping our students not just on the technical side but also on the communication side. I’ve become passionate about helping students speak more clearly, write more effectively and create a path for themselves professionally.

What is the current state of business communications?

Every field is constantly in flux, but business communication is something that hundreds of millions of people have to care about and do every day in their life. How do I write this email to my boss? How do I create an advertisement that works for my audience? How do I create a sense of spirit and enthusiasm on my team? These are things that working people have to care about all the time. More than in most fields, business communication is always changing and evolving.

Of course, there’s always the foundation of basic rhetoric, persuasion and grammar. With technology and the everyday pressures that we feel at work, a lot of what comes to suffer is the quality of our communication. We’re all inundated with email every day, so we tend to not have time or feel we don’t have time to write effective emails because we’re swamped. Our boss tells us to do two or three more things this year than we did last year, and effective communication can suffer from time pressures, technology pressures, economic pressures, obviously physical pressures. Because as we work longer, our bodies break down more easily.

I’m interested in the ways that the whole range of human behavior impacts how we communicate at work. That tends to be something that business communication educators care about a lot, an emphasis on helping our students to get ready for life after graduation, which is very different from life as a student. We’re constantly trying to keep up with changes in the professional world. But through our teaching, research and through our consulting, we also are able to shape a professional world and, hopefully, bend it in the direction of slightly more humane, more efficient, more effective communication. That’s not a very clear picture of the state of the field but it’s hard to do that because the field is so dynamic.

You talked in the past about attitude being just as important as skills development. Can you elaborate on that?

That’s what I try to get across to my students. If they take that away then I'll consider myself more or less successful in the classroom. Since students are trained to care primarily about grades, [grades] become the signifiers of accomplishment and knowledge. It is, in a limited sense, [that] companies hire for attitudes and they train for skills. That’s what I’m hearing when I talk to employers and people who are interested in helping students transition from the student mentality to the mentality of a professional. They want people who are able to be flexible, who are able to deal with ambiguity, who are able to start themselves instead of having to be told what to do all the time. Because so much of our educational system has been geared toward the technical, the quantitative, the numerical — and that’s a critical part of business education — but often it’s to the detriment of this greater understanding of effective business. It’s about human relationships, it’s about people, it’s about communication. Attitude is really a critical piece.

I’ve been trying to get my students to not only develop their technical skills but to recognize that, in Texas, every year, tens of thousands of students graduate with a four-year business degree. Most of those people can do the job technically, but companies want more than that. They want to hire leaders; they want to hire people with enthusiasm; they want to hire people who have been raising their hands, who could get along with other people, who don’t creep people out when they’re on a team with them, people who can smile and talk about current events and be a complete human at work. Those are the employees who are going to not only deliver more value but also stick around longer — the happier employee, someone who’s invested in the organization. So not only once they get a job is attitude important, but in that transitional period between being a student and getting that first job, you’ve got to be able to convince people that you know what you’re doing, that you can be trusted, and that you’re interesting to be around. That’s all about attitude.

I think, in a business communication context, we have a real opportunity to help people develop not just their technical skills as writers and speakers and physical, nonverbal body communicators, but also their attitude. Whatever happens when they graduate is going to be in large part down to their initiative, effort and ability to create opportunity themselves, and others aren’t just going to hand it to them. A degree isn’t a golden ticket. It’s great to have, but that alone is not going to do it for you. It’s really going to be attitude and initiative that carry the most weight as you transition into a more professional identity.

How can introverts become effective communicators? Do you address this challenge in your curriculum?

It’s not something that I spend a lot of specific time on — that difference between introversion and extraversion. It’s certainly important, but everyone starts from their own place, with their own background, with their own set of experiences. My point is that you don’t need to be an extrovert to be an effective communicator. Introversion isn’t shyness; it’s simply a matter of not needing to have other people around to draw out your energy and your motivation. Wherever we’re starting from, whatever our placement on the introversion-extroversion matrix, there are things we can do to enhance our skills, our strengths. It’s still going to be important for you to develop an ability to listen, to hold your body in an effective way when you’re meeting with people behind your desk, in the breakroom, out in the parking lot. And I think a lot of these things transcend the introvert-extravert distinction.

The next question talks about your concept of whole-self job readiness, and I think you’ve already touched on a lot of that. Is there anything more that you want to add?

It’s important that students, especially students who were considering coming to the Jindal School, know ahead of time that they’re not just going to be trained on the technical skills. There’s going to be a real emphasis on personality, on an ability to walk across the room and shake hands with someone, to look people in the eye. As students, it doesn’t really matter whether the other people in the class like you or not. It makes no difference to you and your success as a student whether people think you can be trusted, or know what you’re doing. So after 15 plus years of living that life, that’s a pretty big switch to make when your foot hits the floor on the other side of the stage at graduation. Suddenly it matters whether or not people think that they can trust you, whether they think you’re interesting to be around or likable and all the ways that we relate to people. That’s what’s going to lead people to either want to open doors for us or not. The whole-self phrase is really just about recognizing the humanity of business. Business is about people, it’s about relationships. Developing those skills is really part of our responsibility as business educators.

I would imagine that a business student comes to that realization — it might be a light-bulb moment for them to discover this whole-self concept in class.

We talk about the whole-self idea in advanced communication class. Most students take it in their last year. By that time, they’ve been through two or three years of primarily technical education. It’s an important moment in their education because they are going to graduate, it is going to happen, and the things that help them be good students can hurt them once they stop being students. The attitudes, habits, mindset, thinking about what matters in the world — it’s really critical that students develop this whole-self mentality about their education so that it’s not just getting good grades. It’s developing the characteristics that matter once they stop being students. Grades are important, but the employers I talked to say they’re number three or four in terms of the priority list when they’re reviewing candidates. What really matters is their ability to inspire confidence in others, to seem like they’re open to new experiences and are willing to dive in and raise their hand and smile and be kind of a person who is worthy of trust and new opportunity. Those are communication behaviors. That’s what we try to teach in the BCOM sequence here in the Jindal School.

It seems that you are kind of a bridge between their student life and the business world. You’ve experimented with a lot of innovative tools and help them bridge that gap. Can you talk about some of your more successful ones?

I’m excited about the professional online portfolio — the POP project. Every student who takes BCOM 4350 builds a website. They design it and control it. It’s not on a UTD server. It’s their own website. The purpose of the site is to create an impression of them online. It’s a place where students get potential employers to learn more about them as a person, what their major is and showcase school projects they’re proud of. Students post three or four projects that they’ve done that are related to their major or work experience that they have. They talk about interests outside of school. They show pictures of those things and write about how getting better at those things has help them to mature and to have a more thoughtful view of the world and help them get better at certain things.

Another thing that I like to do is have what I call whole-class feedback conversations. Most feedback for most assignments comes from the instructor, and the assumption is that feedback is expertise based — I’m telling you these things because I’m the expert and you’re not, and you need to know these things from the expert because this is the one right way to do it. But when you talk about communication, there’s really not one right way to do these things. I have experimented with opening up the feedback on presentations. Being able to give helpful feedback is a really critical skill to have in professional environments now which are all team-based, and you’re all reviewing each other, and you’re all part of 360 performance reviews. So we give that feedback as a class, and then I’ll turn the conversations and say, “All right now if this group was going to go again, what are something they might do differently?” We talk about things that maybe didn’t work quite as well. It’s not just feedback from me that they may or may not even look at, much less apply in their next presentation, which is of course the whole point – to do a little bit better next time — but it opens up the feedback because I’m not the only expert on the presentation. The other 40 people in the room just sat through it too.

Initially, students are really anxious about the feedback and think they’re going to get dressed down in front of the class. It never happens. Everyone is respectful and constructive. At the end of the semester, because we’ve all sat through so many presentations and we’ve all had so many different feedback conversations, we leave with this archive of knowledge and experience that none of us would have had if we only stuck to expert-based feedback. When you open it up, everyone can benefit. That’s one of the things that I really enjoyed about that class. It’s pretty different.

*****

Transcribed by Linh P. Nguyen

Jimmie Markham

Jimmie Markham brings a widely-ranging life and professional experience to his job as a communications manager at JSOM.  As an infantryman in the U.S. Army, he learned to “improvise, adapt and overcome” and that “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”  He’s been dealing with the unexpected ever since and, in doing so, has become a skilled and dedicated communications/marketing/customer-service and sales-support professional with nearly 20 years of experience using improvisational, critical-thinking, technical and people skills to advance the interests of external and internal clients. A BA in Art & Performance (creative writing emphasis) from UT Dallas helped polish his natural predilection and passion for the written word. Read more articles

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