Thursday, November 21, 2013
Business was booming.
Nine years after the high-tech firm Sensors Unlimited was founded, it was acquired in 2001 for more than $700 million. Then the recession struck, forcing the company to reduce its workforce by about 40 percent — from more than 120 people to 50.
Sensors retained only one consultant, Mark Kasrel, an executive coach who had worked with executives and key personnel on a weekly basis since its inception. He kept his job while contributing nothing in terms of technology, sales or management. His focus, rather, was on people. Kasrel helped employees achieve success by developing their interpersonal and leadership skills.
“With such rapid technological change, we can't lose sight that it's still a people-oriented world,” says Kasrel, executive in residence and Harper Professor at Rider University’s College of Business Administration. “It's people doing the work and interacting with each other.”
The company gradually returned to profitability, and when it did, Chairman Gregory Olsen, Ph.D., credited Kasrel with helping it get there.
A licensed therapist who studied biology and psychology at West Virginia Wesleyan College, Kasrel is an unlikely presence in the business community. He’s served as a business consultant for more than 25 years, helping fast-growing startups achieve stability and family businesses succeed over the long term.
“I’m a non-academic,” Kasrel says, “but I'm able to share work experience of more than three decades and the reality of what really goes on in the workplace.”
At Rider, Kasrel teaches professional development, imparting the lessons of how to be emotionally and socially smart to his students.
“The course certainly isn't Dr. Phil, but students tell me it’s not like any other course they’ve taken at Rider,” says Kasrel, leaning back in his office chair at Rider. Framed Looney Tunes cells line a wall behind him and a Magic 8 ball sits on his desk.
In his classroom, students learn how to be empathetic and self-aware, regulate emotions, resolve conflicts, work on their own, and be a part of a team. These soft skills supplement the fundamental education students receive in their programs. Such lessons are growing in popularity, Kasrel says, pointing to a stack of business magazines on his desk with cover stories on leadership and emotional intelligence.
“I think we’re on the cutting edge at Rider,” he says. “If you look at the firms who hire our students, they value this course. It gives new employees who already have a strong accounting or business foundation a leg up.”
Many of his students are encountering the workplace for the first time. “I work with them on how to negotiate that labyrinth,” says Kasrel, who also regularly teaches a cohort of students from SANDA University in China. Kasrel helps them cope with cultural differences as they enter the American workforce and assimilate into U.S. culture.
Lacking interpersonal skills, a working person is handicapped — even if he or she has a sparkling education and a dazzling resume. One of the most important things an employee can do, Kasrel says, is to connect with the company’s movers and shakers, the men and women who are respected and valued. “Success is based on relationships you can develop, especially with people driving organizations,” he says. “You can't sit at your cubicle. You have to go out and connect.”
Learning these soft skills can be hard work. Kasrel believes in active learning, leaning on exercises that are often counterintuitive and contain surprising revelations. He strives to make students recognize ideas that cut against common sense — introverts can make strong leaders; rational decisions often contain biases; failure can be a symptom of innovation.
His class follows no textbook; instead, the professor culls reading materials from articles and books, many of which are lined on a bookshelf in his office. Mentioning, say, the importance of managing stress, he stands up and scans their spines before landing on John Medina’s Brain Rules.
Swiveling in his chair, Kasrel points to a sculpture on a nearby table. A figure holds a piece of twine that is secured to the wall in a zigzagging pattern. It connects at the top of the wall to another figure, its arm stretched high as if in victory. Made by a student, the figure is a symbol of Kasrel’s belief that achieving success isn’t linear and requires a strong base of support.
Now in his sixth year at Rider, Kasrel helps students navigate that maze to the top. Telling stories of watching his students develop and mature throughout the semester, he clearly relishes his role as professor.
“I have the luxury of dealing with the cream of the crop,” Kasrel says of his students. “My course is so different that they tend to be like sponges.”