MBAs Need Soft Skills and Adaptability to Thrive in 2021 |

MBAs Need Soft Skills and Adaptability to Thrive in 2021

By Linda M

Updated February 22, 2021 Updated February 22, 2021

Report reveals 2021 will be a crucial year for MBAs to position themselves as leaders in the job market by:

  • Proactively developing soft skills and adaptability
  • New ways of working
  • Ensuring they engage and network

87 percent of businesses and b-schools believe their leadership strategies were profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, new research by the CEMS Global Alliance found.

The report, which surveyed over 1,000 business representatives, b-school faculty and alumni, revealed that 2021 will be a crucial year for MBAs to position themselves as leaders in the job market.

In fact, the majority of managers surveyed believed that the changes that will be implemented in companies and industries worldwide in the upcoming months will determine the future of business and the job market long-term.

TopMBA caught up with Professor Greg Whitwell, Chair of CEMS and Dean of the University of Sydney Business School, and Bianca Wong, Global Head of Reward at worldwide manufacturing firm Hilti, to find out more.

New ways of working

According to Whitwell, while the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we work, the industries most MBAs tend to work in will return to some form of normalcy in the future.

He said: “The pandemic has accelerated a number of megatrends that were already very much in existence. There’s no doubt, for example, that it has accelerated digitization and led to a higher rate of adoption of digital, cloud, AI and automation.

“As a result of these trends, views on work and how work is conducted have changed, and this will remain the case. Whether it necessarily means that most employees in sectors such as finance and consulting will continue to work from home, I very much doubt. People still crave company and the unexpected insights and pleasures that come from corridor conversations and chance encounters.”

However, while he recognizes that in-person activities might not resume to the same extent as they did pre-pandemic, Whitwell also believes hybrid models will become increasingly common across sectors.

He said: “While many people are rightly celebrating the advantages that working from home bring – for example, not having to endure long, boring commutes and being able to spend more time with family – there are also disadvantages.

“My view is that the shift in attitudes caused by the work-from-home experiment will have an enduring impact, but we are likely to see some kind of hybrid model where people are alternating between working in the office and working from home, and where travel and face-to-face visits resume but occur less frequently and with a more acute analysis of whether the visit is necessary and a clearer articulation of what it will achieve in terms of building and sustaining relationships.”

Bianca agrees.

She said: “There is no doubt that wherever feasible, more organizations are catering for greater flexibility in conducting work. This has significant long-term implications to work, workforce and workplace.

“Workplaces potentially will play a different role fostering teamwork and co-creation, and face-to-face interactions have to be curated to be more meaningful.”

The importance of soft skills and adaptability

While b-schools have been able to effectively pivot their operations to online and remote delivery, research findings show that businesses are expecting business schools to give MBAs a very specific skillset that combines soft skills with adaptability.

Whitwell said: “We are understandably preoccupied with the global pandemic, but we should not lose sight of the fact that we are in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution. In these circumstances we certainly need STEM skills, but we also need so-called soft skills.”

In fact, when asked which skills would matter the most within the workplace, an overwhelming majority of surveyed employers chose strategic vision, communication abilities, empathy, emotional intelligence, cultural awareness, and resilience.

Bianca said: “COVID-19 has taught many industries and companies that resilience, adaptability and quick innovation are some of the main factors they need to thrive. The world has learned the scale of unpredictability which may accelerate the speed of change. 

“Therefore, the ability for an organization and its workforce to face adversity and challenges with high emotional intelligence, and empathetic leaders who are able to work with their team members in learning from fast failing, will continue to be important soft skills.”

The need for student engagement

Data shows employers believe business schools should be arming their MBA students with the skills necessary to become better leaders in an uncertain economy.

However, Whitwell believes students should proactively work on developing soft skills and adaptability throughout their degree if they want to succeed.

But how can students ensure they engage with education in the right way?

Whitwell said: “Students should take every opportunity to practice their communication skills, to be confident and persuasive presenters of ideas and insights. They also need to be good listeners, able to ask probing questions that help to elicit an understanding of what is being explicitly or implicitly assumed and unconsciously taken for granted; as well as to know how to engage with a large group of potential collaborators and problem-solvers.

“I would strongly recommend that students become involved in clubs, societies and volunteering. These experiences offer the opportunity to make greater connections, to meet more people with diverse views, and they provide valuable networking and leadership opportunities.”

He added: “Those students who already have professional experience often comment that they hadn’t realized the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to teamwork and problem solving. Most have reached high levels of subject matter expertise, but upon coming to the MBA they understand how diverse perspectives are fundamental to making sense of complex situations and ensuring that they are able to thrive in the face of ambiguity.”

Bianca, who has worked across multinational firms, believes cultural sensitivity is another crucial ability MBAs should aim to develop.

She said: “I would highly recommend that MBA students leverage the international exposure they can gain from business school. B-school is a great platform for students to meet diverse people from different backgrounds, and it offers a safe environment in exploring differences and building empathy and cross-cultural awareness that will be valuable post-COVID.”

This article was originally published in February 2021 .

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Written by

Linda is Content Writer at TopMBA, creating content about students, courses, universities and businesses. She recently graduated in Journalism & Creative Writing with Politics and International Relations, and now enjoys writing for a student audience. 


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