3 Soft Skills You Need to Future-Proof Your MBA Career

Have you future proofed your MBA career with the right soft skills?

The MBA has a long history of equipping future leaders for the evolving needs of business. In today’s quickly changing times, though, catalyzed by technology and the competitive global market, graduates may want to keep their eyes pried for opportunities to work on certain soft skills that will make them more nimble and adaptable to change.

Drawing from experts and research, here are three of the top soft skills MBAs might need to acquire in order to future-proof their post-MBA career, along with some resources to get you started in exploring beyond this page. 

Are you motiivated enough to make the best of future opportunities?

1. Master motivation

Most prospective MBA students are likely to have a great deal of motivation already, given the degree of commitment required to win admission to, and graduate from, a coveted MBA program. However, this is by no means the finish line when it comes to a successful MBA career. 

This is particularly true given the changing nature of the today’s workplace. “The future employee must learn intrinsic motivation and develop a growth mindset and instinct to be successful,” says Betsy Ziegler, CIO at Kellogg School of Management. For one, even the word ‘workplace’, has come under scrutiny, as digital technologies now influence the sense of ‘place’ we attach to our jobs. In fact, it is expected that by 2020, 50% of the US workforce will be independent workers, freelancers, contractors or temporary employees. In an environment where professionals may be increasingly detached from office work structures, culture and tangible reminders that they form part of a team effort, strong motivation and self-discipline will surely be valuable soft skills to have.  

Furthermore, as the Harvard Business Review (HBR) posited some years back, virtual technology will also enable more specialists to ‘go rogue’ and work for themselves. This nurtures the ‘freelancer economy’, as mentioned above, in which many freelance positions will be held by ‘high-end temps’, according to HBR. Stocked with the best and the brightest, this number is likely to encompass MBAs.

Additionally, 33% of surveyed MBA applicants in 2015 saw themselves running their own business or being self-employed consultants 10 years after graduation, paths for which strong motivation and self- discipline are sure to be essential to find success.

For those MBAs who do not follow down this freelancer path, motivating those they employ - whether staff or hired specialists from outside the organization - will also be a growing need. One surefire way to keep people motivated, according to HBS professor emerita, Teresa Amabile, is through ensuring they continue to make progress in their work – “even incremental progress,” she stresses. According to her research, “progress is more frequently associated with positive emotions and high motivation than any other workday event." Most business schools also offer executive education courses in high-level leadership strategy focusing on motivating others, such as Kellogg’s ‘Energizing People for Performance’ and Melbourne Business School’s ‘Motivating and Managing Performance’.

Further reading:

Why Motivating People Doesn't Work...and What Does by Susan Fowler

Fowler, who works with clients including Microsoft, NASA, H&R Block and Mattel, offers a practical guide to motivation, including in-depth research into the psychology of what motivates people – and what doesn’t.

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

Twitter and Square co-founder Jack Dorsey gifts this book to every new Square employee, as advice on how to progress through projects and towards goals with the use of checklists. 

Cultural literacy and Q are increasingly important soft skills in a global workplace

2. Get culturally literate

Technology’s impact on business has increasingly led to more complex – and robust - professional networks that put more emphasis on communication skills, whether for the purposes of collaborating or competing in a global market. However, to truly master communication skills like listening and negotiating, MBAs should tak

e into account cultural context. Given that people in the business world today are converging from all corners of the planet, cultural literacy is increasingly important for ensuring one can conduct business well with the diverse range of people they will come into contact with.

Fortunately, MBA classrooms around the world are highly international with many business schools, such as the International University of Japan (IUJ), boasting more than 40 nationalities in a single MBA cohort. Students receive plenty of exposure to different perspectives in this environment, with benefits that many will attest to.

Whether it be for the negotiation and sale of products or ideas, knowledge of how culture influences business dealings is essential. Culture affects people’s value judgment, decision-making styles, understandings about manager-employee relations and expectations in corporate relations. As such, MBAs would be wise to acquaint themselves with international business etiquette outside their own status quo.

Of course in some instances, one’s ability to detach from cultural biases may also be valuable. Strong awareness of how culture plays a role in business matters can allow for better decision making. One research study, by the Sauder School of Business, found that in some cases (such as in finance for a set of multinationals operating in China who were observed), cultural bias often trumps business logic when managers make decisions, which can lead to downfall.

Further reading:

Culture's Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations by Geert Hofstede

Social psychologist, former IBM employee, and professor emeritus at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, Geert Hofstede examines more than fifty countries through his five ‘dimensions of culture’. This is one of the most comprehensive studies on how values in the workplace are influenced by culture.  

“International Business Etiquette, Manners, & Culture”

An online resource developed by the International Business Centre, with the help of UT Dallas Global MBA graduates, and in which Hofstede has supplied analyses by country.

Self-awareness has been shown to be essential for smart leadership

3. Develop self-awareness

It can be said that we’re moving beyond the linearity of the conveyor belt or job ladder by increasingly exploring depththe purpose and meaning in our work, how we feel and how we consequently behave.

Having the right attitude is essential for MBA career success, says Kellogg School of Management’s dean, Sally Blount, who points to the role of self-awareness in pursuit of what she terms ‘long-distance leadership’. Once the pieces come together – the job, mission and boss - “the task shifts to keeping your focus,” she says, adding that this “becomes even more important when you move into a top job, because if you’re successful, you likely won’t be switching roles very often.” This focus on improving self-awareness, from which one’s attitude, purpose and behavior stem from, is also found in other expert discourses on what improves business practice and makes for strong leadership.  

Blount suggests professionals take periodic breaks to reflect on their work and ‘renew’ their perspectives and strategies in order to make sure they maintain a deep connection and commitment to their work. This type of reflection requires self-awareness, of course, and the ability to honestly enquire into deeper truths about your motivations, passions, strengths and concerns, whether personal or professional (and usually interlinked).

Modern work culture is also arguably moving towards heightening the value of an individual’s unique contribution within an organization. In one part, strong leadership has over recent years become less concerned with leading from the top but with leading across and from within, through ‘conversation’ rather than dictation; “The command-and-control approach to management has in recent years become less and less viable,” runs a line in an HBR article on the subject. This flattening of hierarchy and the softening of rigid work conventions may challenge senior managers to think more closely about what it is that each individual brings and can bring to the table in an effort to improve team performance. In order to do this effectively, some experts advise deepening one’s own self-awareness. By becoming more mindful, a leader may get a fuller picture of problems and subsequently better arrive at effective solutions.

Further reading:

Mindful Work by David Gelles  

A New York Times reporter explores the crossover between wisdom and good management to reveal how ‘meditation is changing business from the inside out’.

Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan

A practical guide to the fundamentals of emotional intelligence (EQ) by a former Google employee who now runs a personal growth program.


It’s worth noting how the development of these soft skills might play out in a carefully designed MBA program. Through a challenging curriculum, applications of the interactive case study method and experiential learning opportunities, reputable programs offer a plentitude of opportunities to practice motivation skills in individual and group work, hone cultural literacy through international exposure, as well as allow participants to become more self-aware by gaining new perspectives on leadership development.


Visnja is a content specialist with a background in marketing and communications. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of British Columbia and a master's in publishing from Simon Fraser University. Her interests include media & technology, personal growth, health & wellness, and innovation, topics that stay top of mind in her writing.

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