Friday Rant: Soft Skills Are Essential — But Can They Be Taught?

Here at Spend Matters we have a significant archive of business school beefs. The latest recruiter hot button, according to yesterday's WSJ, appears to be focused upon newly minted MBA's personal preparedness to manage. Not the core brain trusts of accounting, finance and statistics, but people. The core curriculum is well established and candidates for hire are presumed to have a mass of quantitative hard skills to unleash. The new value added attribute that corporations are looking for among their recruits is that these hard skills not be accompanied by cold, rude and arrogant behavior toward co-workers and staff -- personalities that impede a productive social infrastructure.

Specifically, a "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." The Journal quotes DePaul University researcher professor Erich Dierdorff who claims that "Business schools are falling short where it matters most..." Mr Dierdorff worked on a DePaul study that found subjects like "managing workers and decision-making... most important to acting managers... were covered in only 13% and 10% of required classes, respectively, in a study of 373 business schools."

Forgive me if I'm missing something here -- and I agree that soft skills are immensely important to achieving corporate goals -- but how is it that the "percentage" curriculum focus on personality and people skills has anything to do with producing effective managers? Let alone claiming that b-schools are somehow "falling short" or neglecting their charge.

Business school is a huge investment of time and money that typically returns substantial life time earnings to those who choose to attend. Requiring students to take a high number of courses, "often resembling a group therapy session" from disciplines like "Program on Social Intelligence", is way too paternalistic for my money. To wit, Mike Marchak, a program manager at Google Inc. and 2008 graduate of Columbia is quoted saying "Having a professor that's never led an organization teach me leadership out of a book, really doesn't do anything for me..."

Exercising and acquiring great interpersonal and managerial skill is irrefutably important to individual and organizational success. It's about relating to others as you wish them to relate to you. Being calm, patient, and focused isn't always easy but the return is substantial in terms of effective leadership. If one has difficulty listening, being civil, polite and pleasant, or seeing oneself through the eyes of others, that's a personal problem that requires work and possibly even individual coaching or counseling. These issues can't be resolved or reversed in a class room.

In the event that a person chooses business leadership for a career and is not sufficiently self aware, a course or two might well point them in the right direction. The Journal notes that "Columbia ... requires students to take a class on determining their leadership style, teamwork and 'self-awareness' during their first year ... [and are] paired with executive coaches to assess their problem areas and how to improve them over the course of the next year." Great, and corporations would be wise to offer similar coaching. But it's not any organization's responsibility, nor is it possible, to manufacture great managers in a classroom environment -- no matter how many classes are mandated.

Now, let's talk about parenting. On second thought, it's a gorgeous day. I think I'll go fishing instead.

- William Busch

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