The Case for Soft Skills

Why more MBA programs should integrate soft skills training into their curricula.
A Case for Soft Skills

TO LAND A JOB in a secure, lucrative leadership position, business school graduates once had to check off all the technical skill boxes. But these competencies are no longer enough to dazzle recruiters—and MBA students know it.

Today, it’s the soft skills that are much in demand. Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Wharton, the London Business School, HEC Montreal, and many other business schools are offering courses that focus on the soft skills. For instance, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California, I teach ‘‘Leading with Mindfulness and Compassion,” which covers how students can leverage teamwork, cooperation, mindfulness, and compassion to achieve personal fulfillment and success in their careers. The course is consistently waitlisted as 100 students hope to secure one of 30 spots in the class.

It's been at least since 1972 that some organizations began identifying and prizing soft skills. That’s the year that the U.S. Continental Army Command used the phrase in a training manual, which defined soft skills as “job-related skills involving actions affecting primarily people and paper, e.g., inspecting troops, supervising office personnel, conducting studies, preparing maintenance reports, preparing efficiency reports, designing bridge structures.”

Other organizations have labeled this set of competencies as “people skills,” “essential skills,” and “emotional intelligence.” No matter what the term, it encompasses skills that are nontechnical in nature, such as teamwork, creativity, problem solving, and adaptability. In fact, the Graduate Management Admission Council has created an infographic called “10 Soft Skills Needed for Career Success,” in which it cites innovation, operational thinking, decision making, collaboration, interpersonal intuition, resilience, drive, strategic self-awareness, valuing others, and strategic vision as the skills that will ultimately shape the success of MBA graduates.

But why is soft-skills training so popular right now? One reason might be, as I’ve observed at Stanford, that today’s students are rallying against the traditional fiercely competitive corporate culture. Another reason is that more employers than ever are demanding these skills. A 2016 survey in The Wall Street Journal found that 92 percent of executives consider soft skills and technical skills equally important. In its Job Outlook 2018 survey, which polled more than 200 employers, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found the skills employers most desire are problem solving, communication, and the ability to work in a team. LinkedIn confirmed the importance of these abilities in a 2016 survey of 291 hiring managers, where 58 percent of the respondents stated that the lack of soft skills in leadership greatly limits company productivity levels.

COMPOUNDED RETURNS

Why do firms care about soft skills? Because employees who possess them can directly impact a company’s bottom line. The Indian Department of International Development recently evaluated the impact of soft-skill training on factory garment workers in Bengaluru. Researchers Achyuta Adhvaryu, Namrata Kala, and Anant Nyshadham followed nine months of such training and found that the net return was approximately 250 percent.

Individuals who develop soft skills also tend to reap personal rewards and be happier. A 1992 article from Massey University, “On the relation between meaning in life and psychological well-being,” shows that when an organization is built around a sense of purpose, employees experience more satisfaction, greater psychological well-being, and deeper emotional ties with others; at the same time, they feel less psychological distress, negativity, anxiety, and depression. And organizations that promote increased communication and teamwork among their employees go a long way toward fostering cultures of creativity and purpose.

In some contexts, soft skills are emerging as being not just on par with technical skills, but even more important. Education writer Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post recently reported on insights from Google’s Project Oxygen, which tracked trends in the company’s hiring and firing practices. The seven top characteristics of success at Google, Strauss writes, are all soft skills: “being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others’ different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.” According to Project Oxygen’s findings, science, technology, education, and mathematics surprisingly ranked last in terms of importance.

And that demand for soft skills is only likely to grow. According to the 2017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report, a study of more than 10,000 HR participants, companies are actively seeking to assemble adaptable and “team-centric” workplace teams in order to meet future needs. The report states, “New organizational models also require a new approach to leadership. Leaders of networked teams in agile organizations require such skills as negotiation, resilience, and systems thinking.”

SOFT SKILLS IN CLASS

Business schools have taken note of the demand for soft skills, and many are responding with their own courses. For instance, the Yale School of Management in New Haven, Connecticut, recently introduced “Global Virtual Teams,” which focuses on teamwork, particularly in asynchronous environments where people use technology to connect across time zones and cultures. “One of the big problems global teams face is in how they hand off and coordinate information— when you’re not always working together in real time,” notes professor Amy Wrzesniewski in an article on Yale’s website. “You need to be sure the team has what it needs to execute without interruptions, questions, or delays.”

Columbia Business School in New York City offers the Leadership Lab, in which “activities are grounded in a proven blend of empirical assessment, experiential learning, and executive coaching,” according to the school’s website. The combination helps students sharpen their self-awareness, judgment, and decision-making skills, while expanding their abilities to solve problems.

Soft skills also are highlighted at Hult International Business School, which has locations in the U.S., the U.K., the UAE, and China. A few years ago, the Hult School redesigned its MBA program to focus more on traits such as self-awareness, cross-cultural competency, teamwork, critical thinking, and communication. The school identified these competencies after conducting interviews with 90 C-suite executives, managers, and academics. Through its think tank Hult Labs, the school also released a white paper on its findings, called “The Future of Business Education & the Needs of Employers.” One observation: “The needs of employers are changing constantly, and business schools have no choice but to respond if they want to stay relevant.”

At Stanford, the Graduate School of Business offers a course called Interpersonal Dynamics, which students affectionately call the “touchy-feely” course. This is in addition to my own course on mindfulness and compassion. Both of these courses offer lessons that are far more substantial than their names might imply. (See “A Softer Experience” below.)

MORE WORK AHEAD

The case for investment in soft skills is hard to dispute: Employers express a strong demand for them, and both companies and individuals see positive returns when those skills are developed. Yet many MBA programs don’t do enough to teach these competencies to their students. (See “Still a Gap” below.)

It seems clear that technical skill sets alone will not fulfill the talent needs of top employers. To stay relevant, business schools will need to offer more courses that provide students with a deep understanding of how to apply soft skills to their future careers.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's January/February 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.