Students learn manners to cut the M.B.A. mustard


COLLEGE PARK -- Ms. Manners has made it to business school.

To help M.B.A. students capture good jobs and win promotions, the University of Maryland's business school has set up a new requirement, a class in "positive self-presentation."

Friday, the first of three groups of M.B.A. students donned their navy and charcoal business suits for a daylong seminar conducted by Peggy Newfield, an Atlanta consultant who specializes in teaching business manners, dress and networking techniques. Some topics: how to shake hands, work a cocktail party and hold forks and knives properly at the dinner table.

"Having observed our students over the years at various functions involving recruiters, I realized how uncomfortable they were," said Leslie Coleman, director of graduate affairs at the business school and formerly its placement director.

There was some snickering when the program, which will be given to all 250 second-year students, began. But by midday, most students said they were picking up valuable pointers for their careers.

"I think it's extremely worthwhile," said Mitch Ferguson, 32, of Bethesda, who plans a career in high-tech marketing or sales management.

Mr. Ferguson, who previously sold computers for Wang Laboratories in Detroit, said good business manners are in such short supply that those who know them have an edge -- particularly in sales.

With 12 years in the business, Ms. Newfield's clients include 70 corporations, as well as several business schools. Many young people haven't learned manners and other social skills at home, so there's plenty to be taught in the classroom these days, she said.

"All the business students are in the same state. They're ill-preparedin people skills," said Ms. Newfield, head of Personal Best Inc.

Among her pointers:

* Use a "tell-all handshake" that involves a firm but not bone-crushing grip. "A firm handshake and strong eye contact give a lot of information about you," she said.

* Go to a cocktail reception with at least 10 questions that could be used as conversation-openers. Stand by the bar or food table and use the questions to meet people.

* Win the psychological battle of "who's in charge" at a power lunch by selecting the restaurant where you and your client will eat. "A call to his or her secretary beforehand will help you establish some of your guest's likes and dislikes, latest achievements or recent rewards,"Ms. Newfield advised.

Americans must catch up to their European counterparts in areas such as table manners -- especially if they want to sell goods and services overseas, said Eszter Szabo, 25, an M.B.A. student from Hungary. "When a foreigner evaluates an American, good manners play a very big part."

Mr. Ferguson agreed. "As the world becomes more competitive, this will help to differentiate you."

But 26-year-old Mel Brown of Bowie, who plans a career in investment banking, said business people should avoid becoming too choreographed in their interactions with customers. "You can't fake the sincerity with your clients or you'll come off as a bit plastic."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad