You need a lot more than an advanced degree to climb the old career ladder. Corporate recruiters are looking for newly minted MBAs to show leadership potential, ability to work in diverse teams, and communication skills. These tools in the MBA toolbox fall under the umbrella of soft skills and were not actively taught by most business schools until relatively recently.
Why? To please employers, of course. Eighty-nine percent of recruiters in the just-released GMAC 2015 Corporate Recruiters Survey Report said that communications skills are a “critical factor” when selecting whom to interview, second only to “Proven ability to perform” and ahead of “Strong technical and/or quantitative skills.” “Strong writing skills” are fifth with 56% of recruiters saying they are a critical factor.
That’s why applicants are also becoming more interested in what’s on the soft skills menu at their dream schools.
“As we recognize that content, such as marketing and strategy, has become increasingly accessible, applicants are discussing what kinds of skills they will pick up at school,” says Dan LeClair, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the accrediting organization, Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).
Many applicants will tell you they are looking for a program in which they can “grow,” which is code for becoming a better leader. While they are not choosing schools based solely on their trust exercises, obstacle courses, or group therapy sessions, they are looking for something in addition to being able to read financial statements.
For example, when applying to business schools, James Rapuzzi says he was less impressed with rankings and core curriculum than the leadership training schools provided.
“I was more focused on finding out, ‘What are you going to teach me that I don’t already know?” he says. “And who will I be surrounded by and what can I learn from my classmates?’”
In fact, Rapuzzi, who graduated from the Notre Dame University Mendoza College of Business’ full-time MBA program in May 2015, says his greatest lessons came from group projects and communication coursework that had him giving speeches and writing in a professional manner. He recently moved to New York City, where he’ll be working at an investment bank in its financial sponsors group, and he credits his communication and networking training for helping him get interviews and later a full-time job offer.
“Recruiters are vetting you throughout the job search,” adds Rapuzzi. “They are looking at you and asking, ‘Are you the type I can put in front of a client? Is success part of your DNA?’”
Octavia Costea, who graduated from Babson College’s F.W. Olin School of Business in May 2015, shares a similar story. She sought programs that would help her with strategy, analytics, and entrepreneurial endeavors, she writes in an e-mail. She too picked up soft skills nonetheless and adds she found herself taking advantage of resources that weren’t required but helped her develop as a manager.
When Costea was facing challenges with her cohort, she turned to the school’s sessions on improving communication. “I tend to be direct, lay the problem on the table, talk it out and move on,” adds Costea. “However, non-confrontational people don’t respond well to that approach. The speech center helped me understand that.”
For some schools, soft skills are old hat. Stanford Graduate School of Business has been offering its most popular elective, “Interpersonal Dynamics,” which was long ago nicknamed “Touchy Feely,” for more than 40 years. Columbia Business School has the Program on Social Intelligence, which includes a roster of courses designed to hone leadership skills. Other schools have begun offering retreats, lessons in meditation, and workshops with improvisational actors. The list goes on.
Swimming through the information available on all these programs can be overwhelming for applicants. LeClair suggests applicants search for transformative experiences by asking business schools about opportunities for hands-on learning, personal coaching, and examples of how they demonstrate to potential employers the so-called softer achievements of their graduates.
Today, soft skills are at the “heart of the value proposition of an MBA education,” says LeClair.
“The world is changing,” he adds. “Our success will depend less on what we know than our ability to frame and reframe problems, communicate, and think creatively.”