We Are Liberal Arts: Erik's Story

Erik M. Williams, Senior Consultant, MDA Leadership Consulting

In We Are Liberal Arts profiles, we ask our alumni to talk about their career journey, reflect on how their liberal arts education shaped them, and what it taught them to do.

I am a senior consultant in the leadership and talent advisory space. Everyday, I engage with organizational leaders to advise on and co-create talent solutions that ensure they have the talent they need to execute their business strategies. A lot of this involves designing and delivering leadership development experiences across their talent populations, from interns to the C-suite, as well as to high potential employees.

Organizations are learning more and more that beyond technology, people are the greatest differentiator. These same organizations often don’t have the internal resources to think through and execute large-scale talent initiatives, or at a minimum they seek the viewpoints of experts with whom they can partner to achieve the change they need; that’s where I come in.

To create better leaders

The impact of the competencies a liberal arts education seeks to build goes to the core of what I do. To be an effective consultant, I need to bring critical thinking to each engagement, to exemplify the highest communication skills, and to be able to throw in a dash of innovation in the solutions I put forth.

My career has been spent helping leaders create better leaders in their organizations—which, I like to think, leads to a population of ethical and engaged people who embrace diversity, promote inclusion, and who love to collaborate. I need to show all of these skills to be able to speak with any authority to my clients. The melting pot that is the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities certainly promotes this type of philosophy—engaging with people from different backgrounds, thinking about things in new ways, and collaborating with fellow students.

To ask powerful questions

I chose to major in journalism because I’ve always been passionate about writing. What has been transferrable in my career has not only been effective writing skills, but also the ability to ask powerful questions. The interviewing skills I honed in my time at CLA play such an important role in consulting, especially when it comes to critical thinking.

One question can completely alter the trajectory of a company. Just think about the first person who decided to ask “How might I bring my product directly to my customer’s fingertips?” versus continuing to puzzle over how to get customers to come through a physical door. I think we all have seen how well companies like Amazon have fared over the past decade.
The keys to success in my field have everything to do with the skills and competencies learned through the disciplines promoted in my major, journalism, and my minor, cultural studies. Effective communication, asking good questions, thinking critically—all play an immense role in being a successful consultant. It has been my abilities to articulate things clearly and concisely, to ask outside-the-box questions, and to remain open to diversity of opinion that have accelerated my career path.
Gary Thomas, a professor in the cultural studies and comparative literature department, used to recite a mantra in his classes: "What is really going on here?" His mantra has become my own. As I work with chief executives and their teams on navigating complexity, bringing systems together, innovating around the next space to play, that question has helped promote reflection, choice, response.

To pursue truth

Additionally, the perspective that there is a whole lot more grey than black and white in our beautiful, complicated world, and the continual pursuit of truth through inquiry, have played a tremendous part in my growth. I am constantly interacting with different organizational cultures, people groups, and persons with unique backgrounds. It’s cliché to say that college is where people “find themselves,” and I would argue that finding oneself is a life-long process of testing, refinement, and choices. That said, my experience at the University of Minnesota was a catalyst for new ways of thinking and engaging with the world around me—a giant stepping stone into “the great beyond.”

See Erik's LinkedIn profile 

One of our Roadmap goals is that CLA alumni will be the most desirable graduates available. Current CLA students are learning about the Liberal Arts Advantage: a set of 10 core career competencies designed to help students intentionally develop and articulate how their experience in the liberal arts allows them to obtain the the competencies employers say they want and need in future employees. 

Erik Williams