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Creating the Liberal Arts Profession

Bob Eichinger, CLA alumnus and entrepreneur
November 2, 2015

"Would you like to see my brain?"

Bob Eichinger has been talking about neuroscience, so it’s possible that this is an invitation to review an MRI image—or maybe even a lab dissection. Instead, he produces a glassencased, life-sized, ceramic replica of the human brain. This is a professional national award, as it turns out, prestigious and unique for sure, but hardly alone in the pantheon of awards Eichinger has collected in a career of groundbreaking work as a “behavioral engineer”.

The company: Lominger Limited, LTD
The mission: Leadership development and training

Really, he never would have imagined such an honored career: not when he was growing up in rural southern Minnesota; not when he managed to get into the University of Minnesota on probation after transferring with dismal grades from what was then Mankato State College; and not when he signed up for a class on individual differences taught by the University’s legendary psychology professor Marvin Dunette. That class, though, ignited him.

The “product,” which they called the Leadership Architect, was based on a deceptively simple but scientifically-based premise that learning agility—a combination of traits that include the ability to learn from experience and a zest for the ambiguous and complex—is at the heart of leadership success. That first product was a set of cards, a tool that people could use to assess and improve their leadership skills. The product sold, more products followed, and “Lominger” became a household name in the world of leadership development.Even so, Eichinger still did some meandering: through a PhD as a Dunette advisee, then through several corporate and consulting jobs in human-resources development before finally launching a leadership and talent management business in 1991. It was a risky and naïve move. But he and fellow human-resources professional Michael Lombardo believed they had developed a product they could market on their own. So they pooled their names, and Lominger Limited, Inc. was born.“My entire life has been built around that single course on individual differences,” Eichinger says.

"In an ideal university, there would be
a dean of learning ability." 

By 2006—when Eichinger sold the company to Minneapolis-based Korn-Ferry—Lominger had produced 60+ products, was employing 150 staff, and counted many Fortune 500 companies as clients.

Eichinger says that his soaringly successful entrepreneurial career was mostly an accident, even a mistake. But that’s not really true. He might not have had a head for business, but he knew by instinct, education, and experience—as well as Michael Lombardo’s research—that certain skills lead to success. And he knew how to teach them.

Content mastery and grades don’t matter much to Eichinger. Instead he believes that career success—including the ability to start a business—belongs to the agile, self-aware learner. That’s where a strong liberal arts foundation can be key.

“Liberal arts graduates should be able to go out and solve unique problems,” Eichinger says, “because of their broad-based education, their ability to access information from multiple domains, and their ability to cross functional disciplines easily as they did in liberal arts studies. So there is, in fact, a profession called ‘liberal arts’.”

If so, Bob Eichinger is the role model. “My reward,” he says, “is helping one human being at a time improve his or her effectiveness in work and, therefore, in life.”

What he says:
"The ability to learn from experience and to adjust to each situation: [Theoretically] that's what the liberal arts teach."
"Success is not very correlated with intelligence. Grades have little to do with it."
"My skill is transferring findings into the 'so what?' My partner was good at 'what's so?' I translate something into what's real after we know what's true."