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Can you Teach Soft Skills at MBA Level?

soft skills - teaching

Can soft skills be taught? It’s a pertinent question when you consider how closely they relate to an individual’s personal qualities or character, and all the more so in the case of the average MBA student who, more often than not, will be in their mid to late 20s – an age at which a person’s character is usually fully-formed.

Even so, it’s clear that employers expect an MBA program, and indeed higher education institutions as a whole, to imbue their students with the skills they feel are lacking from the workplace. But, is this the responsibility of the employer or the education provider?

A couple of years ago, an editorial in the New York Times suggested that the so-called ‘skills gap’ was merely a corporate fiction designed to force higher education institutions to train students in areas traditionally reserved for on-the-job training, something that would save them a great deal of money and resources.

Whether you agree with this theory or not, the curricula of business schools is often led by the wishes of employers. After all, you can’t promise an applicant a strong return on investment from their course of study if an MBA student is not graduating with the skills recruiters expect to see – and this, for all its problems of quantification, extends to soft skills.

So, how should we approach teaching them? Having defined four main areas of soft skills in the previous part of this series, this article looks at examples of how an MBA program might help students leave business school with the breadth of skills desired by their future employers.

Teaching soft skills in an MBA program

Strategic thinking is a skill that can be honed through engagement with the curriculum of any MBA program. Leaving aside debates over whether a traditional or specialized MBA is a better fit for an individual, both have core elements that are designed to take students out of the comfort zone of their existing functional expertise and introduce them to the ‘bigger picture’. From this, one can gain a better sense of where the future of an organization as a whole lies and to accordingly think in strategic terms.

Communication and interpersonal skills are skillsets that can be developed on the strength of an MBA program’s cohort. When admitted to a top business school, you’ll be joining a class packed with people of high potential and talent across a number of technical fields. A chief part of the MBA experience, then, is the extent to which students learn from each other and much of this will stem not through lectures, but via teamwork exercises and projects. In these, students are deliberately paired with those from different personal and professional backgrounds to test the existing boundaries of an individual’s ability to communicate and work well with others, and to generate improvements through experience.

To develop leadership skills 'one needs to be a great learner'

Leadership skills, on the other hand, tend to be tackled in ways that are designed to increase students’ awareness and understanding – both of themselves and of those with whom you interact on a daily basis. This could be through the use of case studies designed to kick start conversations or via hands-on activities in which students are divided into learning groups. These create opportunities to assess how a person might come across to others in an organization. In addition, they allow students to reflect back on past strengths and weaknesses through which new insights into leadership skills can be gleaned.

“To be a great leader one needs to be a great learner, thus a lot of the class is about giving and receiving feedback effectively, and about increasing students' ability to reflect about themselves and about leadership experiences, via coaching, with a team and on their own,” Larissa Tiedens, professor in organizational behavior at Stanford GSB, told TopMBA.com when describing the approach she takes in classes designed to enrich students' leadership skills.

However, even as Tiedens strives to put students on the right developmental path, she admits that “it is very hard to gauge someone's leadership ability.” This brings us back to question of quantification.

Providing experiential learning for the MBA student

It’s all very well saying (in a letter of application or CV) that you are in possession of all the soft skills an employer could possibly ask for. Stating it is, however, relatively meaningless. These are skills that must be demonstrated. Writing them down merely tells an employer that you acknowledge their importance.

This is what the idea of providing experiential (or ‘action-learning’) projects with partnered companies and internship opportunities to the MBA student is really about.

These provisions - some of which are required and some optional - aim to simulate the actual workplace experience, so as to better prepare graduates for the reality of management roles awaiting them outside of the security of the business school bubble. Indeed, spending time in the company of a prospective employer is a chance for an MBA student to prove that they have the requisite soft skills to work, lead and communicate effectively with existing members of an organization.

From the employer’s perspective, any try-before-you-buy period is an opportunity to not make a costly recruitment mistake. It’s therefore easy to see why so many MBA internship employers extend full-time offers to graduates with whom they have been suitably impressed.

Of course, for this offer to be accepted the MBA student and intern will also have to have liked what they’ve seen. Part of this decision-making process will also lie in their evaluation of the soft skills they have encountered while there. After all, there’s not a lot of point in oozing interpersonal and leadership skills if the people with whom you’ll be working don’t seem receptive to your ideas and approaches. Then again, some will argue that this is exactly where the challenge lies. 

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Written by Tim Dhoul

Tim is a writer with a background in consumer journalism and charity communications. He trained as a journalist in the UK and holds degrees in history (BA) and Latin American studies (MA).

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