By the time today's MBA students graduate, the world will have changed significantly since they applied. Although career options continue to be broader than in many other fields and the acquired skills marketable in just about any industry, new MBAs are entering a tight, competitive job market. The fine luster that MBAs once imparted often guaranteed a six-figure salary and signing bonus. But the job scene is rough going these days.
What's an MBA grad to do? I asked some experts -- a cross-section of business leaders, civil servants and academics -- for their opinions. The skills they identified as necessary for success are listed in no order of importance except for the first one; everyone I asked included "communications skills" and so I put it at the top of the list.
Communication skills. In a world of 140-character tweets and OMG! texting abbreviations, communicating well in English, both written and spoken, seems to be a dying art. But the ability to speak, write and present succinctly, powerfully and in a timely fashion are critical whether you're leading a team in the office or virtually, working with fellow nationals or across borders and cultures. Aniko Delaney, Marketing Director at BNY Mellon, agrees that communication is by far the most important because it connects all that we do. "At work or at home, leading a team or participating as a team member, promoting yourself or recognizing others, effective communications skills can truly set you apart." Great communications skills also include excellent extemporaneous speaking, the ability to speak and manage body language on video, and using social media effectively.
Resilience. "In today's economy, a successful manager does not have time to be emotionally or intellectually side tracked when life throws her a curve ball," says Liesl Riddle, Associate Dean for MBA Programs at the George Washington University. "The ability to both understand the natural emotions that arise during periods of turbulence and uncertainty and effectively deal with the moment instead of being steamrolled by it will continue to be a critical skill in this dynamic global marketplace." But how do you teach resilience? Learning through failure is one way, but MBA programs can also help develop it in their students by putting them in uncertain situations and debriefing and discussing the experience.
Global Mindset. Having a global mindset requires not only possessing the technical skills necessary for operating successfully in an international environment, but also the personal skills necessary for applying these effectively. "There's an undeniable connection between global economies and business," says Diane Gulyas, President of Performance Polymers at DuPont. "In order for professionals to work successfully across cultures, their worldviews must be informed by more than U.S. business, culture and tradition." The ability to work on global virtual teams and get results is part of the mindset and includes soft skills such as flexibility, influence management, curiosity and an openness to learning new things.
Character. MBA grads can distinguish themselves if they act responsibly and with authenticity, integrity and honesty. "The foundation of success in work and in life is character," stresses Perry Yeatman, Senior Vice President for Corporate Affairs, Kraft Foods Inc, and President, Kraft Foods Foundation. "In the long-run, it's the greatest predictor of anyone's success." The news is awash with political and business corruption, leaders denying responsibility and greedy behavior. We have massive problems as a nation because of it. "The world is looking to business leaders to take the high road, not to feed at the trough, but to hold politicians and each other to higher standards," comments Eric Hirst, Associate Dean for Graduate Programs at the University of Texas. But it won't be easy. "Leaders will need to be able to work with others, appreciate that others may hold very differing views, and know that change is tough to implement," Hirst adds.
Quantitative, Analytical and Strategic Thinking Skills. I've combined these three -- skills that many MBA programs might list separately -- because they are the basic "tools" that MBA grads are supposed to have regardless of the industry or sector pursued. These skills are the basic building blocks of understanding, managing and leading business. They also include data-collection, fact-checking and synthesis skills. "MBA students should move from merely acquiring these skills toward applying these skills with vision and leadership," says Konrad S. Lee, Faculty Chair and Director of the MBA Program at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. "MBA students should not just know something, but strive to become something extraordinary."
Foreign Language Skills. Given the increasingly international nature of the business world, the ability to speak another language -- particularly in-demand languages like Chinese, Spanish or Arabic -- will differentiate them. Knowledge is good and fluency even better as more organizations expand outside the U.S. The ability to do business bilingually is a skill many MBA grads outside the U.S. already have. "You'll never go wrong in a meeting with someone who speaks a language other than English to have a little bit of a conversation in their language," says former U.S. Ambassador Curtis S. Chin. "Even if you're not fluent, the effort that you make to understand someone's culture or someone's language can only help you go further in building relationships that are so important to building a career."
Innovation and Creativity. Innovation and creativity are key to business success whether it's to maintain that competitive corporate edge or finding solutions that develop, improve and expand an organization's operations without harming our planet. "MBA students need to learn to think outside the box and seek inspiration from unexpected and non-traditional sources," says Riddle. Hirst agrees, "Innovation and creativity can help us solve problems in energy use, food, water, transportation, health care and more, but it will take special leadership skills."
Ability to Interpret a New Social World. Today's manager is constantly challenged to understand new social worlds. They work internationally and increasingly in developing markets. Technology continues to radically change the playing field. Managers are tasked with merging divisions within an organization, building creative partnerships with not-for-profits and NGOs, and identifying better buyer penetration. "MBA students need to learn how to exercise their 'sociological imagination,' quickly assessing the values, norms and regulations that bind a social world together, especially when that world is dissimilar to their own," advises Riddle. "To learn to do this, students must stretch themselves and get out of their cultural comfort zone." Students can do this through study, intern and work abroad programs, but learning can also take place by standing in the proverbial shoes of another, e.g., volunteer for an organization focused on the poor, sick, elderly or of a different social group than them.
Today's MBA grads have a great deal to consider and many choices to make. As they work developing these skills before and after graduation, here's a tip offered by several experts: Explore All Industries. Branch out beyond finance, accounting and consulting. There's been a great deal of commentary in the media on how so many brilliant minds go to Wall Street and big-name consulting instead of health care, manufacturing, not-for-profit or government. These sectors need great leaders, too, and students have the opportunity to make a difference and have a great career. The U.S. Government, for example, is the nation's largest employer with hundreds of thousands of boomers set to retire in the next decade. Not-for-profits and NGOs are expanding globally and partnering with many large companies to effect change.
With the right skills, MBAs can make a demonstrable difference in business as we know it over the next two decades.