ICYMI: The Value of Timeless Leadership Skills

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Tuesday, February 20, 2024
By Sharon Shinn
Photo by iStock/Parradee Kietsirikul
Although students must gain technical proficiency to succeed in the workplace, they won’t be leaders unless they develop human-centric skills.
  • One of the most essential competencies is the ability to communicate—in person, in writing, in politically charged situations, and in times of turmoil.
  • Another critical skill is the ability to build relationships with co-workers and clients, especially in challenging conditions under tight deadlines.
  • When students develop active listening skills, they will become stronger negotiators and better team players.

As advancements in technology transform the workplace, today’s business students need to master a range of technological skills so they are prepared to be tomorrow’s top executives. But while these technical abilities will become increasingly necessary, traditional soft skills remain just as crucial.

Finding the right balance between the two has been an ongoing theme for AACSB Insights during the month of February. One author who explores that balance is Karina Ochis in her article “Navigating the AI Revolution.” While she believes students must understand the basics of artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science, and cybersecurity, she also stresses the importance of “durable” skills such as critical thinking, communication, and ethical judgment.

Her list aligns with the competencies identified by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), which regularly surveys companies to learn what qualities they look for in new graduates. In NACE’s April 2023 report, the top answers were problem-solving skills, the ability to work in teams, a strong work ethic, analytical and quantitative skills, communication skills, and technical skills.

Over the years, contributors to AACSB Insights have discussed the importance of these and other business competencies. In case you missed them, here’s a recap of a dozen recent articles in which authors suggest specific traits students should cultivate—and outline actions schools can undertake to help learners become leaders.

Be Adaptable

In an era of rapid social, economic, and technological upheaval, everyone must be prepared to handle change, writes Oscar Ybarra in “Teaching the One Skill Employers Desire Most.” Yes, tomorrow’s managers will need to cope with large external forces. But they’ll also have to deal with “smaller internal shifts in the workplace” that include ill-defined challenges, ongoing resource constraints, and shifting leadership roles.

Ybarra encourages students to cultivate adaptability by adopting a four-part framework in which they learn what they can do, what they will do, what they can do alone, and what they must do with others. He says, “The more adaptable employees are, the more they will be able to respond to the diverse and dynamic changes that occur across projects, collaborators, technologies, and time horizons.”

Communicate Clearly...

One of the most essential skills leaders must possess is “The Power of Communication,” say Caron Martinez and Sara Weinstock. This skill is particularly important for two groups: leaders who are explaining sustainability benefits to stakeholders and entrepreneurs who are describing their new ideas to potential consumers and investors.

Communication skills are especially important for leaders explaining the benefits of sustainability and entrepreneurs describing their new ideas.

To help students develop their powers of communication, the Kogod School of Business at American University has launched the Center for Professionalism and Communications. Through the center’s offerings—which include design-thinking workshops, coaching and feedback sessions, and service project opportunities—students develop their skills in critical thinking, creativity, communication, and empathy.

…Especially in Writing

In “Plain Language Is Best for Business Communication,” Meg Geddy, Ward Risvold, and Micheal Stratton outline a business communication course offered at the Georgia College & State University’s J. Whitney Bunting College of Business and Technology.

Students learn that when they write documents in plain language, they will meet the needs of the audience, produce accessible materials, present information in a transparent manner, and build trust. They also practice writing for different audiences, including co-workers, customers, and potential mentors.

“We know that writing in plain language isn’t easy,” say Geddy, Risvold, and Stratton, “but reading and understanding our business communications should be.”

…Even When It’s Difficult

Communication is particularly important in a contentious world, where co-workers and business partners might hold deeply divided opinions on major issues. In “Talking Through the Turmoil,” James H. Johnson Jr. and Allison Schlobohm describe a class they teach at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In this course, students are split into two groups on opposite sides of a complex issue. They must practice holding “courageous conversations,” in which they argue their assigned position even if it doesn’t match their own beliefs. “By teaching them to find comfort in discomfort,” the authors write, “we prepare them to lead in a highly politicized and polarized business environment.”

… And Particularly During a Crisis

In “Teaching Communication in an Age of Disruption,” Dan Laufer shares the best strategies CEOs can use when they have to speak publicly about situations that have gone awry. “Effective communications can reduce the chances a crisis will occur, minimize the harm if it does occur, and facilitate learning that will prevent a similar situation in the future,” he says.

When schools offer crisis communication courses, Laufer recommends that they take four steps: Collaborate with practitioners, incorporate current events into classroom activities, use multimedia simulations, and create assignments that are related to students’ work environments. In these ways, instructors can engage students more deeply in the topics under discussion.

Display Leadership During Adversity

While communication is essential during times of turmoil, so is leadership. In “Crisis Leadership: Preparation, Not Panic,” Lynn Perry Wooten emphasizes that when disaster strikes, CEOs must move quickly, take bold risks, and manage what comes next.

Leaders should constantly scan the horizon for clues about the next big upheaval.

To make sure they’re always well-prepared, leaders should check in with their direct reports to learn about any potential problems, meet with colleagues outside their own industries to get fresh perspectives, and constantly scan the horizon for clues about the next big upheaval.

Wooten says, “If we want to address smoldering crises before they become sudden ones, we need to start working on them earlier. Which means we have to ask ourselves those big societal questions.”

Build Relationships

Another critical leadership skill—particularly in hybrid and geographically distributed workplaces—is the ability to interact smoothly with co-workers and clients, writes Natalie Longmire in “The Art of Building High-Quality Connections.” These connections often have to be created quickly because teams of strangers must come together to achieve short-term projects under tight deadlines.

While many people find it awkward to try to build relationships, Longmire suggests they practice three basic interpersonal skills: small talk, mindful listening, and empathy. For instance, students can learn to be great (as opposed to merely good) listeners if they make others feel “that they are being not only comprehended, but also validated and supported in what they are seeking to convey.”

Develop Teamwork Skills

It’s not just leaders who need to know how to build relationships—all employees in today’s workforce must be able to work in teams. To help students develop this skill, Baruch College recently launched its Teaming project, which Molly Kern, Allison Lehr Samuels, and Sara J. Welch describe in “Team Is Also a Verb.”

The initiative includes a website that offers a platform of collaboration tools. Students who are embarking on team projects are encouraged to complete three tasks: Develop a team mindset, create a team charter that outlines roles and responsibilities, and discuss communication styles. By engaging with peers in the classroom, students gain the teamwork skills to be successful in the workforce.

Appreciate Other Perspectives

Working on diverse teams and cultivating rich relationships can be especially challenging in multicultural business environments where people must “share ideas and work together toward solutions,” says Hakan Ozcelik in “Developing Wisdom, Increasing Impact.”

To encourage academics, artists, employees, and students to learn how to bridge their divides, Sacramento State University in California has created the Wisdom Studio, which holds live events that spark dialogue across disciplines.

Working on diverse teams and cultivating rich relationships can be especially challenging in multicultural business environments.

Recordings of each event are edited into 15-minute video episodes that are offered as playlists on the school’s YouTube channel. As diverse participants share their thoughts and experiences, writes Ozcelik, “they generate wisdom and translate that wisdom into solutions that enhance happiness in our society.”

Learn to Negotiate

Group interactions require yet another durable skill: the ability to conduct a “civil interaction with at least one other party,” writes Suzanne de Janasz in “Why Gen Z Needs to Learn How to Negotiate.”

She acknowledges traditional negotiating strategies, such as setting clear goals for the outcome, gathering pertinent data, and having in mind a “best alternative to a negotiated agreement.” But she encourages leaders to take four additional steps: Choose whether this is the right time to engage in a negotiation. Take time to prepare before discussions begin. Engage with other parties by listening closely and understanding their perspectives. Reflect on what you’ve learned that you can apply to the next situation.

De Janasz describes proactive and rational negotiation as a problem-solving skill that should be a lifelong practice, because it “can open up entirely new possibilities for personal and professional success.”

Become a Good Listener

Austin Okere agrees that close listening—what he calls generative listening—is a must-have leadership trait. In “The World Needs Visionary, Courageous Leaders,” he emphasizes that leaders must “listen intently, with curiosity and openness, to what each person has to say. … [They create] spaces where others can feel heard, valued, and understood.”

To become empathetic listeners, he adds, “leaders must quiet the voices of judgment, cynicism, and fear and open themselves to the expectation of discovering something new. They must step outside themselves, realizing that the truth is more conditional and experiential than their lone egos can fathom.”

Finally, Focus on ‘Smart Skills’

Loredana Padurean reinforces the value of all these human-centric competencies in “The Ten Smart Skills of the Future”—and adds a few of her own. Her list? Emotional maturity, humility, adaptability, cultural and ethical literacy, critical thinking, cognitive readiness, listening skills, the ability to provide validation for others, the ability to “manage up,” and the willingness to follow a leader or a cause.

Her best advice for how to impart them? Through in-person learning projects, “where students first go on-site to tackle complicated problems, and then reflect on what they’ve learned in the process.”

She adds, “People are complex algorithms, affected by factors such as mood swings, hunger pains, and external circumstances. We must develop our smart skills as a way to augment our own humanity.”

Sharon Shinn
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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