How Business Schools are Teaching Soft Skills |

How Business Schools are Teaching Soft Skills

By Francesca Di

Updated November 21, 2017 Updated November 21, 2017

Business schools have evolved in the last 20 years. They have gone from being mere educators to partnering with faculty, students, and even recruiters. They do much more than teach the fundamentals, such as strategy, risk management, and financial analysis.

Today, business schools provide incubators for student start-ups, show students how to foster social change through business, and disrupt technologies to make way for the future. They are capitalists, scientists, ethicists, and matchmakers (for business partners and investors). And the key to all this is teaching leadership, the hard to describe characteristics that turn MBAs into bosses.

Time and again, recruiters tell us they need new hires to have soft skills, an ability to communicate, work well with diverse teams spanning the globe, and the wherewithal to motivate and innovate. In their responses to our questions for the QS Jobs & Salary Trends Report 2018, employers expressed high expectations of MBAs across all the board. As in previous editions of this report, the disconnect between expectations and actual performance of MBA hires is most pronounced when it comes to soft skills.

Business schools are trying to narrow this gap in a number of ways. Discover some of the interesting programs business schools offer students that provide soft skills training, whether intentionally or not:

FIELD – Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development at Harvard Business School

Today’s companies need new hires with a global mindset. They have to understand the ins and outs of conducting business outside US borders. But they also have to be willing to live and work elsewhere, often for years at a time. Even if they remain Stateside, MBAs often work in teams composed of people from all over the world.

To prepare MBA students to meet these needs, Harvard Business School (HBS) offers FIELD, field immersion experiences for leadership development. These global experiences have students traveling to global markets. There, they work on a project to develop a new product or service for a real company.

HBS strives to integrate global thinking into the entire program. According to the school’s website more than half of new cases and 40% of faculty research “had a global focus and setting.”


I-LEAD at Stanford Graduate School of Business

Stanford Graduate School of Business consistently ranks among the best management education institutions in the world and is often praised for its teaching of leadership.

MBA students participate in I-Lead, the umbrella label for a number of programs aimed at helping people enhance their communication, teamwork skills, inter-personal relationships, and self-awareness.

For the Executive Challenge student teams face a series of simulated business problems that become increasingly challenging as time wears on. “There is nothing like live action to bring home the message that business is a participatory sport,” says one participant in the GSB video about the 2016 event.

Still, the most famous aspect of I-Lead is the elective, Organizational Behavior 374: Interpersonal Dynamics, which was described as a “rite of passage” by Inc. Magazine. Also known as “Touchy Feely,” the course was voted most popular elective by students for the last 45 years, according to Stanford GSB’s website.

During the three-hour class sessions, students in groups of 12 learn about themselves and their interactions with others through extensive conversations. But it’s all kept top secret because participants agree to confidentiality.


Coaching and Feedback Program at University of Pennsylvania Wharton School

As part of the McNulty Leadership Program at University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, MBA students receive feedback about their behaviors and interactions with others. Known as the Executive Coaching and Feedback Program (ECFP), it provides students the chance to learn what peers and former co-workers really think of them – the good, bad, and ugly.

Students ask those who have experience working with them to respond to a thorough assessment survey. The coach, who has five to 10 or more years of experience, details the findings over the course of five executive coaching sessions during the fall and spring semesters.

The feedback and advice helps them to improve weaknesses and maximize strengths. They can also bring specific challenges to their coach to gain practical guidance they can apply, sometimes immediately. In 2014, Wharton Magazine posted a video of a typical coaching session.

Modeled after executive coaching at top businesses, the program culminates in having students create leadership development plans. The intention is to integrate all you have learned about yourself, define your goals, and track your progress. Again, working on your character and soft skills will give you an edge with today’s recruiters.


MIT Sloan School of Management Action Learning Labs

MIT Sloan School of Management takes a decidedly practical approach. Its Action Learning Labs have students working hand-in-hand with companies and non-profits. Teams of about four to six students address a problem facing their partner organization.

First, the team works with the company remotely from campus. At the end, they spend two to three weeks on-site. While there, they work closely with executives, and they make a formal presentation replete with written recommendations and analysis.

There are a number of types of labs, including the A-Lab in which students use analytics, machine learning, large data sets, and digital innovations to address a challenge facing an organization. China/India Lab and Sustainability Lab (S-Lab) are among the other options. The teams are sometimes quite diverse, even in age and type of graduate degree the students are attaining, says Laura Koller, associate director of Action Learning at Sloan.

Recently, student teams worked with eight start-ups, including Revelator Ltd., ScaleMe, and Voyager Labs, in Israel as part of the Israel Lab. Besides putting students in touch with actual potential employers, it also gives them real-world experience for resume building.

Students are identifying challenges and coming up with solutions, adapting while working, and collaborating in diverse teams, says Urmi Samadar, director of Action Learning at Sloan. They often share these experiences when talking with recruiters and potential employers.

“There are highs and lows of the team experience,” adds Samadar. “That’s the real world.”

This article was originally published in November 2017 .

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Written by

Francesca Di Meglio has written about higher education for two decades. She covered business schools and all aspects of management education for what became Bloomberg Businessweek from May 2004 to December 2013. Di Meglio was the consultant editor for the book Admitted: An Interactive Workbook for Getting into a Top MBA Program (85 Broads Publishing, 2011), which was written by admissions consultant Betsy Massar. In addition, she is a family travel and parenting blogger at the Italian Mamma website


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