Conventional wisdom: An MBA offers your best ROI

On the contrary: Innovative companies need employees with a well-rounded education

A recent study claimed most hiring managers would rather hire a candidate with no degree than one with a humanities or liberal arts degree.

The market is definitely down on liberal arts majors, and I don't understand why. For business owners looking for an intelligent and quick-thinking employee, an investment in an art historian or anthropologist might give you a better ROI than some hot-shot MBA.

I admit I'm biased, but I am also proof positive that someone with a liberal arts degree (in my case, an economics major with a history minor) can be very successful in business, no MBA required.

Buy Against the Market

In HR, buying against the market doesn't mean getting employees for less--that's bad for business and bad for morale. It means putting aside the cookie-cutter formula of matching business majors to sales jobs and marketing majors to public relations jobs.

One of my best salesmen is an English major. We hired him years ago, when no one actively recruited graduates with that degree. We put out a call, didn't restrict ourselves to business- or sales-related degrees, offered the same perks and benefits that the tech companies offer, and had our pick of the best.

I've always tried to hire well-rounded people who can think on their feet and have a depth of interests, knowledge and experiences. More often than not, these characteristics appear in people with well-rounded liberal arts educations. That's why you should expand your candidate field to include applicants who deliberately chose not to obtain professional or technical degrees (despite their parents' protests).

Overqualified and Undereducated

Ten years ago I needed mechanical engineers for agricultural and industrial applications. Today we're in the residential market and involved in smart home technology. The employees who have stayed with us through that change are the ones who can adapt to new things--and one of the problems of hiring narrowly-trained candidates is they're often undereducated about topics outside of their field.

I've talked to the best engineering and marketing candidates from top universities, but despite their skills, they don't have the sense of perspective you get from reading widely, learning languages and studying art. The traditional path for an engineer or a finance professional can make for very two-dimensional characters.

Aggressive Curiosity Propels Your Team

At Big Ass Fans, or any fast-growth company, we try to go places where people haven't been before with new markets and new products. If your employees have no creativity, no imagination and no historical perspective, they can get stuck applying the same comfortable approaches to new problems.

Of course I need engineers and accountants, but I don't want an entire company of engineering and accounting majors. I want a workforce full of people who are intellectually curious, dynamic and who can hold their own in conversation.

From my perspective, what defines employees' success isn't what they know when they join the company, but rather what they're interested in. I'd take one aggressively curious religion major over three well-trained, but complacent, engineers any day.