MBA Soft Skills: A Hard Approach for a Softer Workplace

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Friday, March 3, 2017
By Cynthia R. Mullins
Photo via iStock
For most employers, being “book smart” is no longer enough. Who should prepare business students with the skills to bridge business education to practice?

It is vital to applaud and support business schools’ commitment to integrating classes focusing on soft skills, sometimes called “soft courses,” into their MBA and other business programs. The competitive landscape for competent graduates beyond technical skills continues to grow and be an important factor in hiring. For most employers, being “book smart” is no longer enough, but “street smart” has gained much attention in an ever-evolving business world.

In 2005, AACSB International’s Management Education Task Force called for more communication, leadership, and interpersonal skills in business school curricula, and for business school offerings to be more relevant to the needs of organizations and give students the necessary skills to distinguish them as future managers from their peers.

Unsurprisingly, research indicates that the soft skills, also referred to as “critical skills,” needed to effectively communicate, problem-solve, collaborate, and organize are becoming more important for success as the workplace evolves socially and technologically. Learning the human side of business is deemed just as important as developing traditional business acumen.

Notwithstanding business school curricula’s emphasis on soft skills (self-awareness, critical thinking, attitude, integrity, behavior, judgement, intrapersonal skills, and team building) as well as the long-established skills taught in business programs, there still exists room and opportunity to better equip business students for the real world while in the care of academia.

Given the evidence, what else can be done to bridge the soft skills gap from business education to business practice? Whose role is it to prepare business students with these necessary skills from classroom to workplace? Is it the role of the faculty, employers, students, or others? For starters, there are three key players of influence to help answer these questions.

Faculty. Faculty members have an opportunity to make a difference in their classrooms beyond imparting technical knowledge and to stress the importance of learning soft skills. Adjuncts especially are in an ideal position to discuss real-world experiences with business students. They can confirm how soft skills are valued in the workplace and reference first-hand examples about the capabilities human resources and hiring managers deem most important, beyond technical skills and knowledge. Faculty can incorporate more interactive exercises that include leadership, team building, and collaboration activities in their course assignments. Although soft skills are difficult to teach, as learning through on-the-job experience may be the best teacher, faculty can at least stir up students’ thinking about typical scenarios they may encounter in the challenging world of business. Learning can be achieved by including simulations and role play in coursework.

Career Services. This group of advisors and mentors realizes the importance of soft skills to any organization, and for some, these core values play a key role in driving business results. They are aware of the impactful role soft skills play in both hiring and long-term success at an organization. Career services professionals should be equipped to answer questions like: How does the business school define career readiness beyond technical knowledge? What makes a business student career-ready? What is the difference between “completion of academic requirements” and “career-ready”? What soft skills really matter for organizations conducting on-campus interviews? Which organizational roles require soft skills more than others?

Students. They are the most important group in the key players of influence. Students can ask professors to carve out more class time to discuss “how it really is out there” and confirm that the necessity for soft skills is real. Further, students can request more class presentations from industry practitioners to gain additional information about a particular industry or organization.

Students should further expand networking opportunities with alumni and host open discussions and real-talk gatherings to learn more about organizations and real-life dilemmas they will encounter. Students can ask alumni-probing questions like, “At what point in your career do you rely more on soft skills than technical skills?” “What is a healthy balance between hard skills and soft skills?” Students can explore ways to get involved with curricula enhancements and changes by partnering with alumni to ensure business programs are relevant and support career readiness.

This list of key influencers is not exhaustive; deans, human resources professionals, and others interested in student success could certainly be included. But this is a start—an opportunity to generate a conversation in the career-readiness space about the important role of soft skills.

Organizations will always need individuals who are strong business leaders. Upon graduation, business students who learned and honed soft skills during school instantly position themselves to become high performers and successful leaders in any organization.

Cynthia R. Mullins is a graduate of the AACSB Bridge Program.
Cynthia R. Mullins
Legal and Business Executive, JMW Consultants; Adjunct Professor of Business Law and Management
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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