Our Mission

To empower aspiring leaders with the essential hard-edged soft skills required to make more intelligent decisions in today’s complex world.

Bringing Our Mission To Life

Through four years of in-depth research, The Center for Third Space Thinking uncovered five critical competencies or soft skills that when successfully combined can complement and extend the two dominant, more traditional strategic approaches offered by engineering and business thinking, in other words a “Third Space”.

These important interpersonal, communications and leadership soft skills include Adaptability, Cultural Competency, Empathy, Intellectual Curiosity and 360-Degree Thinking. They are a counterpart to STEM, which we term ACE-IT. And they are even more important than technical skills, yet are grossly under supplied in the market.

At the Center, we put the hard edge on soft skills by applying greater rigor to defining, measuring and teaching these interconnected skills and talents than has previously been available.

The Center for Third Space Thinking conducts applied research; executive leadership development through customized Third Space experiences and Boot Camps; community empowerment programs for underserved communities; and college courses that equip students with the essential soft skills they need to succeed.

We invite you to join us in the Third Space.

Core Attributes

Based on our research we uncovered five attributes that are critical to success in today’s complex world, yet are grossly under supplied in the market. Those competencies are:

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Adaptability

Demonstrates mental agility and remains comfortable with ambiguous, unstructured environments and flexible in the face of continual change. Willingness to adjust one’s thinking and approach in response to new, unexpected or changing conditions and information.

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Cultural Competency

Demonstrates emotional and cross-cultural intelligence; capable of working inclusively, respectfully and effectively across cultures or organizations that have different values, norms, customs, and language or terminology. Also demonstrates broad, cross-functional thinking, shunning the limitations of structural, geographic, departmental, or other organizational boundaries.

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Empathy

Capable of understanding and recognizing others’ needs, goals, feelings, priorities and perspectives by engaging in active listening and focusing on reflective responses that clarify and strengthen dialogue. Able to effectively interpret others’ viewpoints and integrate these insights into more effective approaches for problem-solving and need fulfillment.

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Intellectual Curiosity

Possesses a hunger for new knowledge, information and understanding that fuels ever-higher levels of learning and performance. Engages in novel opportunities and experiences, strives for measureable growth and demonstrates emotional intelligence and savvy.

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360-Degree Thinking

Takes a holistic, multi-dimensional, analytical approach to problem-solving. Able to convert information into insights, infer implications from data and extrapolate from data to real-world applications and engage in sense-making by “connecting the dots.”

THE CENTER FOR THIRD SPACE THINKING: BRINGING HARD EDGES TO SOFT SKILLS

Q. What is the USC Annenberg Center for Third Space Thinking?

A. Founded in 2017, The USC Annenberg Center for Third Space Thinking is a new, innovative research center dedicated to equipping businesses and nonprofit organizations with the critical soft skills needed to thrive in a communication-at-the-center world.

Q. What is the mission of the Center?

A. The mission of the Center is to empower aspiring leaders with the essential hard-edged soft skills required to make more intelligent decisions in today’s complex world.

Q. Why was the Center created?

A. The Center was created in response to the growing demand for soft skills development in the workplace. It’s the go-to resource for anyone interested in using soft skills to improve individual and organizational performance in a period of high-velocity and widespread change.

Q. What programs does the Center offer?

A. The Center conducts executive leadership development through customized Third Space experiences and Boot Camps; community empowerment programs for underserved communities; and college courses that equip students with the essential soft skills they need to succeed. We also are dedicated to conducting applied research to help people succeed in their careers.

Q. What makes the Center unique?

A: We are university-based which provides us constant access to the latest research and Millennial thinking. We are global, partnering with companies, philanthropic organizations and NGOs around the word. We teach Third Space over the course of an individual’s professional life from high schools, community colleges, universities to their careers in corporations, non-profits and government. Finally, because of our location, we are well positioned to partner with leading industries on the West Coast, including entertainment, media, venture capital and startups.

Q. What is the Third Space?

A. Beyond the important, but limited, conventional approaches and skills of business and engineering lies the third space of communication-centric thinking and its critical soft skills that experts agree are in high demand, but grossly under supplied in the market.

Q. What is Third Space Thinking?

A. Third Space Thinking is a new, research-based communication-driven approach to seizing opportunities and solving problems. It is both a unique mindset and practical toolbox.

Q. How does Third Space Thinking help individuals and organizations make better decision?

A. Third Space Thinking uses a communication-based methodology to frame and solve problems through the lens of five essential soft skills. The Center has developed a unique mobile app that allows users to solve problems using the five attributes and connect them with a community of like-minded Third Space Thinkers.

Q. What are soft skills?

A. Soft skills, in contrast to the hard skills of science, technology, engineering and math, (STEM) are a group of interpersonal, communication and leadership skills that today are even more important than technical skills, yet are grossly under supplied in the market.

Q. What are hard-edged soft skills?

A. At the Center we put the hard edge on soft skills. We apply greater rigor to defining, measuring and teaching interconnected critical skills and talents that previously have not been available.

Q. What are the most important soft skills?

A. Through our research, we uncovered five critical competencies or soft skills required for professional success – Adaptability, Cultural Competency, Empathy, Intellectual Curiosity and 360-Degree Thinking. They are the counterpart to STEM, which we term ACE-IT.

Q. How did you arrive at the five core soft skill competencies?

A. Third Space Thinking’s five core competencies are based on four years of in-depth, multi-method research around the world, including conversation with 75 global business leaders, in partnership with Korn-Ferry, and combined with deep analytics drawn from other top sources including, McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, and LinkedIn.

Q. Why are soft skills so important and why have they been overlooked?

A. To succeed in today’s complex environment, aspiring leaders need both hard and soft skills, yet colleges and universities have become overly focused on teaching hard skills. Today’s employers seek employees who have the ‘people’ skills required for success in today’s complex world. But they are harder to define, measure and evaluate.

Q. Can soft skills be taught?

A.  Absolutely! Over the past four years we have taught Third Space Thinking to hundreds of students and collected best practices. We have experimented with free standing courses for undergraduate students, and other courses teaching Third Space Thinking modules for graduate and undergraduate students. We teach Third Space Thinking over the course of people’s professional trajectory from high school, to community colleges, universities, and through corporate leadership development. Beyond traditional lectures, we employ scenarios, role playing, site visits and other learning experiences.

Q. Can soft skills be measured?

A.  Yes. At the Center, we have developed a proprietary tool called the Third Space Thinking Assessment that measures the current proficiencies of individuals and teams on each of the five core competencies or soft skills. The assessment is exclusively available to participants at the Center’s Third Space Boot Camps.

Q. Who is the Center’s team?

A. The Third Space Thinking initiative was launched by Prof.  Ernest J. Wilson III, Ph.D., who served two terms as the Walter Annenberg Chair in Communication and Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He is Director of the Center, and also a professor at Jiao Tung University in Shanghai. His articles on Third Space Thinking have appeared in the Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Inc., and he has lectured globally. He developed Third Space Thinking from his experiences at the White House, Capitol Hill, NGOs and many corporations. Shellee Smith serves as the Center’s executive director and also manages Annenberg’s executive education programs with the World Bank, the China Development Research Foundation, and media companies. Our team includes professionals from large corporations including, Sony and Nike, startups, and from multiple industries.

Q. How is the Center funded?

A. The Center is partially funded by grants from the Annenberg Foundation, the Annenberg Trust, other donors and through its program fees from leadership programs. We continue to seek additional partners who share our mission.

Our Team

Ernest James Wilson III

Founding Director of the Center for Third Space Thinking

Ernest James Wilson III, Ph.D., served two terms as the Walter Annenberg Chair in Communication and Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He is also a professor of political science, a faculty fellow at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School, a board […]

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Shellee Smith

Executive Director

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Rebecca Weintraub

Faculty Advisor

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Jonathan Taplin

Faculty Advisor

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Jaime Carias

Fellow, USC Annenberg Center for Third Space Thinking

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Board of Advisors

David Bishop

President of David Bishop Media, Inc

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Paul Bricault

Managing Partner Amplify.LA and Venture Partner Greycroft Partners

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Bill Chandler

Senior Advisor, Third Space

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Seth Jacobsen

Principal, JCI Worldwide

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Robert Kozinets

Chair of Strategic Public Relations at USC Annenberg

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Ted Kraus

Investment Director at TechCode AI Accelerator

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Tracy Lawrence

Member Board of Advisors at Nile Capital

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Kevin Lynch

Chief Global Officer, Deloitte

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Mauricio Mota

Co-president and Executive Producer, Wise Entertainment

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Thomas Pernice

President and Founder of Modena Holding Corporation

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Don Spetner

Senior Corporate Advisor, Weber Shandwick

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Kirk Stewart

Founder and CEO of KTStewart

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Chris Swain

Principal, Swain Corporation

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Jill Totenberg

CEO of The Totenberg Group

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Gary Wexler

Senior Advisor/Creative

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Resources

Leaders and key faculty from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism have conducted deep dive consultations with 75 C-suite and senior communications executives, from a broad range of industries and from Fortune 50 companies to media start-ups, to better understand the depth and breadth of challenges they’re facing. Read our white paper that further defines the scale and scope of Third Space and its core attributes.

Learn how executives applied the Third Space competencies in Walt Disney’s acquisition of Pixar in 2006.

Additional Resources

  • "Forget coding. It’s the soft skills, stupid. And that’s what schools should be teaching.,"

    The Washington Post, April 20, 2018

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  • "The Surprising Thing Google Learned about its Employees–And what it Means for Today’s Students,"

    The Washington Post, January 3, 2018

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  • "Why soft skills are so important to the future of work,"

    x.ai, November 2, 2017

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  • "Putting Lifelong Learning on the CEO agenda,"

    McKinsey & Company, September 1, 2017

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  • "6 Soft Skills Technical Employees Need To Thrive,"

    Forbes, August 26, 2017

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  • "Tech’s Damaging Myth of the Loner Genius Nerd,"

    New York Times, August 12, 2017

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  • "In the AI Age, “Being Smart” Will Mean Something Completely Different,"

    Harvard Business Review, June 19, 2017

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  • "Why Soft Kills Matter and the Top 3 You Need,"

    Forbes, March 10, 2017

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  • "Why Artificial Intelligence Needs Some Emotional Intelligence,"

    strategy+business, March 9, 2017

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  • "Soft Skills Training Boosts Productivity,"

    University of Michigan News, January 19, 2017

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  • "Why Start Up Leaders Need to Use Third Space Thinking,"

    Inc., November 25, 2016

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  • "Hunting for Soft Skills, Companies Scoop Up English Majors,"

    The Wall Street Journal, October 25, 2016

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  • "Soft Skills Are Increasingly Crucial to Getting Your Dream Job,"

    LinkedIn, August 30, 2016

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  • "Employers Find ‘Soft Skills” Like Critical Thinking in Short Supply,"

    The Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2016

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  • "Employers Find ‘Soft Skills’ Like Critical Thinking on Short Supply,"

    The Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2016

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  • "An unexpected path to business insight: Internal Communications,"

    PR Week, August 19, 2016

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  • "Empathy, not Bureaucracy, Makes Organizations Great-Leadership Lessons,"

    Forbes, July 6, 2016

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  • "The Power of ‘Why?’ and ‘What If?’,"

    NY Times, July 2, 2016

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  • "What the Best Cross-Cultural Managers Have in Common,"

    Harvard Business Review, June 29, 2016

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  • "Companies Try a New Strategy: Empathy Training,"

    The Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2016

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  • "What’s the Value of a Liberal Arts Education in Our 21st Century Digital Economy,"

    The Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2016

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  • "Job Skills Report 2016: What Recruiters Want,"

    Bloomberg Business, February 9, 2016

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  • "The 5 Skills Employers Seek in Today’s Digital Economy,"

    Entrepreneur, January 30, 2016

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  • "Eight Careers Skills You Need to be Competitive in 2016,"

    Fast Company, January 13, 2016

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  • "Empathy is Still Lacking in the Leaders Who Need it Most,"

    Harvard Business Review, September 21, 2015

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  • "The ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket,"

    Forbes, July 29, 2015

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  • "5 Skills Employers Want that You Won’t See in a Job Ad,"

    Fortune, June 10, 2015

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  • "Wrapping up Innovation for Winter 2015,"

    C-Suite Quarterly, January 1, 2015

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  • "Reforming Engineering Education: The Changing Face of Engineering Education,"

    National Academy of Engineering, December 3, 2008

    Read More