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Man in tuxedo peeking through theatre curtains. (Phil Leo/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Business Education

B-schools help students reveal soft skills Add to ...

In the aftermath of the global recession, Canada’s corporations have asked the country’s business schools to turn out graduates with more abstract leaderships skills – also known as soft skills – because they want leaders that can look beyond the spreadsheets and statistics.

Business schools are aware that it’s no longer enough for graduates to say, “I have an MBA.” Now, a future business leader needs to know how to demonstrate soft skills, such as communication, social awareness and a strong work ethic, to illustrate to prospective employers how and why a person will make a good employee.

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But how does the modern business student take these soft skills learned in their master of business administration program and apply them to the task of landing a job?

Many students are asking this question, which has prompted a more intense collaboration between business students, professors and career centres, explains Kelly Mahoney, director of the career development centre at the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business.

“There’s more of a touch point now with career centres working with MBAs,” she says. “Now MBAs have to have their résumés screened, they have to have mock interviews or other preparatory stuff.”

When dealing with more abstract skill sets, such as analytical abilities and decision making, it can be hard to convey them to prospective employers, but even something as simple as a well-worded bullet point on your résumé could get you in for an interview, Ms. Mahoney explains.

“It’s about creating strong action verbs, defining the scope or the level of your responsibility, and, if you can, I always suggest to try and create quantifiable results. For instance, did you save the company money?” she says. “Because those quantifiable items give weight and substance to your résumé.”

The résumé is a powerful first point of contact and the intent is to hook the reader, like a good book. But with a more personal meeting, “You can expand on the story,” explains Ms. Mahoney.

At the University of Victoria’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, MBA students have the option of doing a co-op work term to help them develop soft skills – which are called competencies by the school and whose 10 core elements include personal management and social responsibilities.

Each student in the co-op program is assigned a co-ordinator whose job it is to check in with the students and evaluate their level for each of the competencies, identifying areas in which the student needs development and how to use the work placement to do this.

“So there’s a very intentional educational approach to their co-op work term, which is all about strengthening and building these soft skills or these competencies,” explains Norah McRae, executive director of the university’s co-operative education program and career services.

But even those students who choose to stay in the classroom are involved. “For those students who don’t do co-op, a similar approach is used for their career development planning,” explains Ms. McRae. “We do a competency gap analysis, identifying wherever you’re headed and what kind of competencies to set … and then a plan is put in place for the student and they work toward that.”

At Queen’s University’s School of Business, the line between the MBA curriculum and the career centre has blurred in recent years as “career services” has become a course for full-time students, explains Brian Marchant, director of the business career centre at the business school.

“We educate our students on what they need to know, but we also enable them to practice and, ultimately, get to the place where they can demonstrate these things very effectively,” he says. “Because I think knowing about something and being able to demonstrate it are equally important.”

As part of their MBA, the students spend an intense networking week in Toronto developing their interviewing, communication and interactive skills with potential employers. At the networking events, graduate students only have a few minutes with each person to mingle and make a good impression – it’s a bit like speed dating meets business networking.

But prior to the Toronto trip, the school organizes mock networking events in its atrium to help “reinforce the soft skills by making them practise the soft skills before they get into the real game,” explains Mr. Marchant.

For these anticipatory events, the school invites alumni to attend and asks them to pose as prospective employers and rate the students on their performance and ability to project their skills. “The guests are actually invited to pull students to the side and give them coaching right on the spot as to how they’re doing at that particular networking moment,” says Mr. Marchant, “and they are able to go back into the fray and practise what I or someone else has told them to do.”

Students have told organizers that this is a high point of the exercise because at a real networking event, the only sense of pass or fail is the contact the student makes or the one he or she loses.

Mr. Marchant stresses that employers are testing for these types of skills in the job selection process so students have to be ready and able to promote themselves and the soft skills they’ve learned in class, which means taking in all the feedback they can get.

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