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Student athlete and student leader Christie Lang earns social capital along with her degrees. (Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail)
Student athlete and student leader Christie Lang earns social capital along with her degrees. (Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail)

QUALIFICATIONS

Social capital: Looking beyond the bookworm Add to ...

Christie Lang spent years in curling rinks, throwing and sweeping polished granite rocks down icy sheets. Curling was a big part of her life, but few people would believe her if she told them this is what helped her earn an MBA.

But it’s true. As an undergrad, the Regina native didn’t know what she wanted to do, so she completed a
Bachelor of Arts degree: anthropology with a minor in psychology. “Very employable after graduating, right?” she laughs with some sarcasm. These were exploratory years for the former McGill University student. Like many undergraduates, Lang wasn’t sure what she wanted to do in her work life, so she choose a degree that interested her.

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“I did not know exactly what I wanted to do with the degree, but I understood that an arts degree on its own would not be sufficient,” she says. “I pursued it with the intention of completing further education down the road.” Lang used her time in Montreal to delve into the social aspects of university life.

She had the right idea, because it led Lang into her MBA at Dalhousie University. Her grades were good, but it was the role she played launching McGill’s varsity curling team, the hours she spent running her own curling program and her volunteer work at the local hospital that clinched it.

Future employers and graduate schools are looking beyond the bookworm to seek students who have built interpersonal, communication and problem-solving skills through activities outside of the lecture hall. Sociologists and educators refer to this as “social capital,” the idea of people building communities around them based on trust and responsibility.

The notion of social capital is not new, but it has been gaining popularity in the past decade. Harvard scholar Robert Putnam published a book in 2000 titled Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which argues that people are more isolated, belong to fewer organizations and, as a result, are more disconnected from each other. The book theorizes that these connections are necessary for a successful society and individual. Simply put: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Employers and graduate school admissions, too, want to know who you know, says Scott Comber, director of the corporate residency MBA program at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He says Lang’s time at the curling rink made her application stand out. “We’re looking for extracurricular activities, we’re looking for varsity athletes, we’re looking for people who have shown the ability for discipline, and those who have taken any type of initiative around leadership,” Comber says. “We look for coachability and employability, primarily.”

Skills gained from sports, clubs and social networks are what make a candidate succeed in the program and in the corporate world, Comber says. “It’s everything from confidence and grace to a straightforward handshake, the ability to build rapport quickly, and the ability to think from multiple perspectives.”

Social skills are held on par with academic achievement in this 22-month MBA program and even provide the edge needed to be accepted over someone with higher grades. “We’ve refused people with a 720 GMAT,” Comber says. “They could actually get into Harvard no problem and we haven’t taken them because they don’t have the social or emotional skills they need.”

Today’s social media tools make it convenient for people to form virtual relationships, but just because it has “social” in the description does not mean it helps students with their interpersonal skills. In fact, applications such as Facebook have been proven to have an off-putting effect in the work world, Comber says. “One of the things we’ve seen is that they become too familiar too quickly in person,” he says of students who have developed many of their relationships in the virtual world where little, yellow-faced emoticons and acronyms like “lmao” are the norm.

Users of online tools can enhance the social capital they have already built, but people who socialize almost exclusively in the virtual world run the danger of becoming isolated. “I think one of the risks of social media in today’s environment is that you can avoid direct dialogue,” says Aidan Tracey, chief executive officer of Mosaic Sales Solutions, one of the largest marketing companies in North America with clients such as Coca-Cola, Sony and Labatt. Businesses want employees who can navigate the virtual world but ultimately still favour talking over texting. “Face-to face value trumps everything,” Tracey says.

The dynamic of business has changed as companies become “flatter” – meaning fewer layers of management – and as a result supervisors are given more people who they have to manage.

He also sees more corporations putting recent graduates into roles that traditionally would have taken years to achieve. All of this means students have to come into jobs with more advanced interpersonal and people management skills.

Lang agrees that building one’s social capital is a process, one that she is still working on as she enters her second year in her MBA at Dalhousie as president of the MBA students’ society.

“This is a network of people that will stay with me the rest of my life,” Lang says. “And when you consider what we are all setting out to accomplish, this could potentially be a very powerful network one day.”

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