Functional skills are just a start
When I made the transition from managing director of Campbell Soup in Asia to the role of career director of HKUST’s MBA school, I had one primary mission. That was to transfer my understanding, gained from 30 years in business, of what is critical to company success and to prepare local MBA graduates to meet the challenges of major corporations.
Two years later, I wrote a book on managerial and leadership skills for young people, setting out what I had learned from my associations with the MBA programme. A key chapter on “What the business school doesn’t teach” highlighted the gap between some parts of the academic curriculum and the needs of the real business world.
The conclusions I drew were based on observation of real-life situations, as well as relevant research on at least 65 corporations regularly hiring graduates. Among these were top multinationals and leading financial institutions. The findings showed that, for the organisations involved, the top three criteria when recruiting were communication skills, interpersonal skills, and cultural fit with the company.
Separate feedback from senior executives, who graduated from the programme more than five years ago, echoed these results. In their view, the top development needs for up-and-coming managers were communication skills, strategic thinking, and interpersonal skills.
The similarity in answers was almost astonishing. And for me, it clearly demonstrated that business education was not yet meeting the needs of the workplace as effectively as it could.
From my unique standpoint, I was able to see things from the perspective of a recruitment decision-maker, educator, and career coach assisting candidates in their search for the ideal job. There were steps each side could take to resolve issues and narrow the gap.
For business schools, it means going beyond the transfer of functional skills and focusing more directly on what employers actually need. Executives should be taught critical success techniques to help them build interpersonal and managerial skills. Such soft skills make it easier for future business leaders to develop stronger personal relationships at all levels. They also become more adept at influencing others and, in due course, fostering cohesiveness in cross-cultural teams.
With excellent people skills, executives can inspire trust, win over potential customers, and close deals. Graduates can’t expect to get to the top of the business world relying solely on functional expertise.
For HR managers, I have delineated three skill types – individual, managerial and leadership – they should identify when hiring. The first group includes intellect, ethics, values, and perseverance. But to recruit “real talent”, HR managers must become better at assessing each individual’s potential to lead, build teams, motivate and, if necessary, act as a public face for the company.
HR can start spotting these characteristics in the recruitment process. And of course, all these skills can be developed to a greater or lesser extent through in-house training, on-the-job experience, and coaching. Knowing their importance, though, business schools should consider how modules that teach these attributes can really change individuals to create the “ideal” staff employers want to hire. In that way, they will be meeting demand and giving graduates a better shot at being future chief executives and leaders.
Among graduates and candidates, a common complaint is the difficulty of standing out from the crowd. I accept that competition for certain jobs is far fiercer these days than it was 20 or 30 years ago. But once you understand the real needs of the corporate world, it is not that hard to stand out from your fellow applicants.
In short, graduates must be able to look, act, and talk like a manager in order to earn the confidence of others. If they absorb those lessons at business school along with their course material, they will be well on the way to senior management roles.
Adolf Ho, director of Classic Management Consultants, was previously head of Campbell Soup in Greater China, and was appointed an adjunct associate professor at HKUST in 2010