Ross Geraghty looks at the growing importance of soft skills for MBA graduates and the rise of courses that offer to teach them.
In business schools across the globe, core features of the course, which provide skills highly valued by employers, will invariably include strategy, marketing, finance and leadership. While nobody disputes that those core elements will remain central pillars of the business school education system, a 2008 QS report shows that ‘soft skills’ rank increasingly highly in importance with recruiters. And yet this is a key area in which MBAs are falling short.
The teaching of soft skills at business school is contentious. There are those who believe that it is a waste of time. A significant percentage of MBAs say that they can’t see the value in spending time on communication or man-management skills when they already have too little time to get to grips with complicated finance, accounting or marketing models.
Recruiters disagree and, particularly at the turn of 2009 as the world enters what is now being described liberally as a recession, soft skills are becoming more and more essential. In the QS Recruiter Survey 2008, 489 of the world’s major international MBA recruiters (including Goldman Sachs, Boeing and Motorola) ranked communication and people skills higher in importance than the traditional skill sets. “We tend to focus less on academic or technical skills,” says Phillip Cho of Lehman Brothers Singapore, “and place emphasis more on communication, interpersonal skills and leadership traits.”
According to many recruiters, too many business school graduates hit the job market lacking essential skills that go beyond a mere qualification. Mitch O’Brien of Emissary Pharmaceuticals in Australia says, “MBAs represent an interesting pool of potential business leaders with broad business skills, however they often come with an arrogant expectation of career progression. I would like to see more emotional intelligence taught and realistic career counselling provided.”
What are ‘soft’ skills?
Sean Hewitt, a careers advisor, notes the following nine soft skills: “Keep a winning attitude; be a team player; communicate effectively; exude confidence; hone your creative skills; accept and learn from criticism; motivate yourself & lead others; multitask and prioritise your to-do list; see the big picture.”
Easier said than done? Perhaps. Wendy Lyons, Managing Consultant at London’s Human Assets, and an expert in the field, says a mere list is not that simple. “For employers, getting the right people means identifying people with the right skills and qualities to fulfil the role and contribute to the organisation’s success and it’s really important to be aware that different roles have different requirements. You might need to be an amazing communicator for one role but not necessarily for another so it’s important to recognize what is needed by the role in question.”
She continues, “Whichever quality you’re looking to develop, it helps to seek out feedback, observe role-models, reflect on your behaviour and to try out new approaches.”
Basic soft skill development techniques
Whatever role the MBA graduate is aiming for, improving all areas of their leadership personality, including their soft skills, can not harm their career progress. The following is a list of suggestions on how to adapt successfully to a role and to learn a better approach to communication, man-management and leadership.
1) Get specific feedback from colleagues and peers (and clients if you can) on the qualities that are important for the role – consider ways of capitalising on your strengths as well as focusing on areas that need development
2) Identify somebody who you think is particularly successful at demonstrating the skills you want to develop – talk to them/sit in meeting with them and gain an insight into their approach
3) Think back to a recent time when you weren’t very successful at influencing or convincing an individual. Ask the individual how you came across and what you might have done differently to be more successful.
4) Develop the habit of critically reviewing the impact you have had after any meeting. Consider ways to increase your impact and put this into practice.
5) Take opportunities to regularly network (within your organisation and externally) – don’t just approach people when you need their help.
6) Spend more time with people who you find difficult to deal with. Don’t just think about your feelings about them but think about how they might view you. Try out different approaches with them to see if you can develop a more effective relationship with them.
Honing soft skills can help MBAs to differentiate themselves in the recruitment process. Developing external interests and placing more emphasis them on your CV will bear fruit both on a professional and personal basis.