Nothing Soft About These Skills
By Jamie Swearingen, appeared in Rockhurst Magazine, Winter 2007
Have you ever worked with someone who was excellent at the specific requirements of his job but who had a hard time dealing with people? Whether it was a problem with communication, working in a team or something else, the person likely impacted the organization’s efficiency and culture.
These are called the soft skills, those personality traits and social instincts that influence not only how well you work with people but are an increasingly important determinant of how far up the organizational ladder you rise.
Traditionally, business school students graduated with a degree in accounting or finance or marketing, and that was enough to land them a solid job in the business world.
But things are changing. The economy is shifting. Companies still need accountants and marketers with specialized skills, but today they expect more. Human capital is the new priority; the quality of your people is of utmost importance if you want your company to succeed. Organizations now are seeking employees who have a strong grasp on language, negotiation skills, cultural sensitivity, teamwork, coaching and social graces.
If employers are talking, Rockhurst’s Helzberg School of Management is listening. Administrators have been studying this trend and are adjusting the school’s approach to keep up with the times and meet the demands of business.
“Employers are looking for people who can get things done, to create results through other people,” says Sylvia Dochterman, director of executive and professional programs in the Helzberg School.
Pat Mosher, ’04 EMBA, director of corporate communications for HNTB Companies, agrees.
“Being a good communicator and having good interpersonal skills to engage your employees and clients is just as important as being able to book a sale,” she says.
While Mosher was in the program, she and her team conducted a project that looked into what skills area employers were seeking in the students they were sponsoring. According to her team’s survey of 16 firms, Mosher found leadership development was ranked the No. 1 focus area they were looking for, followed by financial acumen, strategy development and implementation and change management.
“As for my own organization, we are first looking for technical skills for the desired position,” says Mosher. “But we also screen candidates to see how they would fit within our culture and exhibit our brand. That means we look for people who have excellent interpersonal skills that can be applied both internally and outside our firm.”
The Helzberg executive Fellows MBA program is in a perfect position to adjust to meet the demands of the market. earlier this year, Rockhurst redesigned its curriculum to better prepare executives with the soft skills employers are seeking.
Since its inception in 1978, when it was one of the first executive MBA programs in the nation, the program has helped prepare senior managers and corporate officers from local and regional firms for top leadership roles in their organizations. Students, on average, have about a decade of management experience.
In the new program, students begin with a formal, comprehensive self-assessment and 360-degree feedback that provide insights about their leadership strengths and weaknesses.
“We can’t help them become more effective leaders and managers if they don’t know where they are on the spectrum,” says Dochterman. “Our new curriculum has expanded the emphasis on professional development skills and focused on building self-awareness.”
Students work in cohort teams of six or so on assignments and projects, and each individual is paired with an established executive from the business community who serves as a mentor. The assessment results, along with the student’s specific goals and objectives, are used to carefully tailor a personal and professional development plan. Mentors offer support and practical insights along the way.
This focus on self-awareness and soft skills development doesn’t mean students get to cut back on the quantitative disciplines. The program still includes the spectrum of traditional MBA courses such as supply chain and logistics management, finance, accounting, marketing and economic and competitive analysis.
“You have to understand the marketing and finance, but those alone are not going to get things done,” says Dochterman. “You have to have social intelligence.”
When offered along with a practical executive development curriculum, the program’s specialized mentoring program allows participants to develop a self-awareness that helps them become more confident and effective leaders.
“Those so-called ‘soft skills’ aren't so soft at all, are they?” says Mosher. “They are absolutely essential in business today. It’s one thing to develop a great strategy to grow your business, but ultimately the successful implementation of that strategy will hinge on your people’s behaviors and their engagement with the business.”
Dan Solito, who entered the program this fall, has faced this challenge in his own professional experience. In a company he recently joined as part of a turn-around team, he noticed most of the managers had never received training related to issues such as hiring, team building, employee motivation and working across boundaries
“We saw a tight connection between training them and executing on the vision,” he says. “Companies that recognize this and invest in the right kind of training build loyalty in their employees and can also create a competitive advantage through their people.”
Just as the managers saw value in the training, students have found the cohort format of the executive Fellows program useful for their personal and professional development.
“The team-oriented approach is a critical component of the program,” says Solito. “Where else would people from such diverse industries and functions come together to discuss a business issue and the potential ways of solving that issue?”
Because these cross-functional collaboration skills are increasingly in demand, Helzberg School administrators also are working to make some adjustments to the traditional MBA program.
“People don’t work in silos,” says Al Hawkins, Ph.D., assistant dean for academic affairs. “Our MBA program is moving toward an interdisciplinary approach that will prepare students to work in cross-functional teams and take a systems approach to problem solving.”
According to Hawkins, the changes will prepare MBA graduates with not only a broad-based understanding of contemporary business but the knowledge and skills needed to deal with problems the way they are handled in organizations across the nation and around the world.
“You have to have skills not only to do your job but to communicate well,” says Joe Parrish, who completes his MBA in December.
Parrish, a business analyst for Midland Loan Services, says he’s developing the skills to manage both people and situations and gaining a well-rounded view of the business landscape.
While that business landscape continues to change, soft skills are expected to play an increasingly important role in organizations everywhere. Many stakeholders of the Helzberg School, where leadership isn’t a course but a cornerstone, believe recognizing and capitalizing on the development of these skills will give future graduates an edge.
“These skills are an essential part of leadership,” says Mosher, “and I don't consider what I do be soft at all.”