Business schools are tapping into their “soft” side.
Melissa Korn and Joe Light: This fall, students at Columbia Business School will be invited to learn the art of meditation. Emotions will run high in Stanford Graduate School of Business’ long-running “Touchy Feely” course. And professors at the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business will try to teach students to rein in their type-A personalities, lest they upset fellow classmates.It’s all part of a continuing push by business schools to teach “soft skills”—such as accepting feedback with grace and speaking respectfully to subordinates—that companies say are most important in molding future business leaders.
Although business schools have traditionally excelled at teaching “hard skills” like finance and accounting, those skills become less relevant as an employee ascends the corporate ladder and moves away from crunching numbers to overseeing employees, companies and experts say.
However, with classes often resembling a group therapy session, it is hard to quantify what students actually learn in the softer classes.
A recent study by DePaul University researchers found that managing workers and decision-making—two subjects that require softer skill sets such as being sensitive when delivering feedback—were most important to acting managers. However, those subjects were covered in only 13% and 10% of required classes, respectively, in a study of 373 business schools, said DePaul professor Erich Dierdorff, one of the study’s researchers.
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Part of the difficulty might be that soft-skill classes aren’t respected as much as “hard” courses, like finance, according to professors and students.
“[They’re] very easy to parody,” said Michael Morris, director of the Program on Social Intelligence at Columbia University, which started in 2006 and coordinates the business school’s soft-skill classes.
Mr. Morris said the Program on Social Intelligence deliberately doesn’t brand itself on classes and keeps a low profile to avoid turning students off from the courses.
One such class is a course on “personal leadership,” in which students are tasked to set goals, spend time on introspection and even use meditation techniques to alleviate stress, he said.
Columbia also requires students to take a class on determining their leadership style, teamwork and “self-awareness” during their first year. They’re also paired with executive coaches to assess their problem areas and how to improve them over the course of the next year.
Part of the restructuring at many top programs is in response to feedback from recruiters, who say that business school students have always been good at technical aspects of managerial jobs but unrefined in leadership areas.
In recent years, BASF Corp., the North American unit of chemical company BASF SE, has trained managers who interview M.B.A. candidates to assess soft qualities like leadership capability, customer focus and creativity, said head of staffing Michael Kannisto.
Previously, the company looked for expertise in functional areas, like engineering and chemistry, but found that job candidates with proficiency in softer skills ended up leading better, no matter their functional background, he said.
When interviewing job candidates, managers from Deloitte LLP assume that M.B.A. candidates have technical prowess and focus almost exclusively on assessing candidates’ soft skills, said Kelly Marchese, a principal in Deloitte’s strategy practice.
In one round of interviews, for example, Deloitte has candidates work in groups to solve a business problem and monitors how they interact with each other and deal with disagreements.
“Those are tough things for an MBA program to teach,” she said. “Some of it you just have to learn through experience.”
In response to recruiter feedback, this fall the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California plans to double the length of its mandatory Management Communication for Leaders class, which currently lasts eight weeks.
Employers want to see that prospective hires are comfortable presenting to a large group or working one-on-one with peers or subordinates, said James Ellis, the business school’s dean.
So far, the redesigned course has paid off, Mr. Ellis said. Recruiters say that the students come across well in interviews, which he thinks is helping them land jobs and internships earlier than in previous years.
The Haas School of Business also has beefed up its course catalog to focus on skills, such as the importance of influencing subordinates, peers and outsiders without pulling what Dean Richard Lyons calls “the authority card.”
To be sure, soft-skills training isn’t new everywhere. Stanford introduced its optional interpersonal communications class, affectionately nicknamed “Touchy Feely,” more than 40 years ago. It is now one of many soft-skill classes at the school.
In the Touchy Feely course, small groups of students learn how to give and receive constructive feedback and control emotional responses to conflict.
Rather than use role-playing activities, Carole Robin, a lecturer in organizational behavior at Stanford, has the students learn from actual interactions. Starting with casual chats on topics of the students’ choosing, they get to know one another’s strengths and weaknesses, such as who dominates a conversation too aggressively or who comes across as weak for being too deferential.
They are then taught methods for identifying and critiquing those characteristics, and ultimately improving them. Tears are commonplace, and even hugs, as students accept feedback and share their feelings.
Former Touchy Feely student Arnulfo Ventura, who received his M.B.A. from Stanford in 2008, filled his schedule with classes about exerting influence, marketing messaging and leadership development. He said those courses were key to his success in launching Cobá, a Los Angeles-based natural beverage company.
“The real reason why I chose Stanford over other schools was the leadership aspect of it,” said Mr. Ventura, 32 years old. “The analytical side, you can get anywhere.”
Mr. Ventura said his deeper understanding of interpersonal dynamics helps him connect with prospective customers, distributors and financial backers.
Still, not everyone is enamored of formal soft-skills training.
“Having a professor that’s never led an organization teach me leadership out of a book, really doesn’t do anything for me,” said Mike Marchak, a program manager at Google Inc. and 2008 graduate of Columbia.
Mr. Marchak, 32, said he learned more from interacting with classmates in study groups and leading team projects than in classes intended to teach leadership strategy. “I felt like they were too abstract,” Mr. Marchak said.
And perhaps that’s because soft skills are some of the hardest to teach.
“At the end of the day, it’s relatively easy to teach people how to run financial models,” said Eric Hirst, associate dean for graduate programs at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. “What’s challenging is to lead change, to manage.”