Skip to main content
soft skills

Hard skills such as data analysis and financial management might be building blocks in business school, but they’re hardly enough to launch a successful career. Soft skills are what distinguish one candidate from the next; even more important than leaders’ IQ is their EI, or emotional intelligence.

In fact, with the coming of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its advanced robotics, emotional intelligence is one of the top 10 skills people will need to thrive in the work force in 2020, according to the World Economic Forum, along with judgment and creativity.

Teaching soft skills such as confidence, communication, and empathy may be less straightforward than getting students up to speed on Excel or the stock market, but it’s no less important.

With this in mind, some university business programs are offering ways to build students’ soft skills.

The Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary offers an elective adventure leadership course that subtly hones in on the intangibles. Organized in conjunction with Haskayne’s Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business, the five-day backpacking outing in the mountains involves problem-solving and leadership assignments, along with wilderness and survival training.

“There’s a lot of mindfulness and personal reflection in the leadership expedition,” says Sherry Weaver, associate dean of Haskayne’s undergraduate program. “They’re learning how to rely on each other, which is something they may not be quite used to. We’re really trying to get that self-development piece.”

In 2020, first-year Haskayne students will take a course on resilience. Learning how to bounce back from adversity seems to be desperately needed, says Ms. Weaver, who has worked at the business school for close to two decades.

“The one thing I notice is that students are much less able to deal with small setbacks,” Ms. Weaver says. “The setbacks seem much bigger to students nowadays and it can be debilitating. You can take an A student, and for the very first time they get a C, and it absolutely changes their world view of themselves.

“I think in years past, students had more resiliency, and they were able to take a look at the situation and be able to assess it, make changes and move on, whereas now it becomes a source of stress, anxiety,” she adds. “We want students to be successful and part of that is learning how to deal with failure.”

Emotional intelligence will give future leaders a competitive edge, particularly with the development of artificial intelligence, says Martina Valkovicova, assistant dean of the Hari B. Varshney Business Career Centre at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

The centre works with RocheMartin, a London-based company headed by corporate and clinical psychologist Martyn Newman that has been hired by Fortune500 and other companies and sports organizations around the world to develop emotionally intelligent leadership using science- and research-based tools.

The Hari B. Varshney Business Career Centre’s staff have been certified by RocheMartin in emotional intelligence training and assessment. All of the school’s 5,000 or so students complete the firm’s Emotional Capital Report, which assesses individuals in 10 attributes, including self-actualization, straightforwardness, relationship skills, empathy, self-control and optimism.

Their results are benchmarked against a database of high-performing global leaders and students get practical strategies to improve in all those different areas.

“I wish our industry and higher education and even employers would stop using the word ‘soft skills’ because there’s absolutely nothing soft about them; they’re actually really, really hard,” Ms. Valkovicova says. “An overwhelming majority of employers say they value so-called soft skills more than the hard skills, because they know people are coming from a good university and know that they can train them in processes and in their platforms, but attitude and self-control and communication need to be developed as way of being for your entire life.”

Negotiating, speaking with confidence, ethics, etiquette and work-life balance are all integral to success, says Michael Maier, associate dean of Masters programs of business at the University of Alberta’s Alberta School of Business.

To help students develop skills such as non-verbal communication and decision-making, they take part in exercises such as mock interviews and recruitment simulations.

“The soft skills are the hardest skills to teach,” Mr. Maier says. “They’re not skills you can teach from a traditional book sense; it has to be done in a much more experiential way.”

Experiential opportunities are one of three elements of SmithEdge, a program at Smith School of Business at Queen’s University; the others are self-awareness and resilience and insights into human dynamics. The program is intended to develop students’ personal capabilities to help them succeed in the work force.

New to Smith’s full-time MBA program this year is a mandatory series of workshops designed to help students develop their interpersonal skills. The sessions address topics such as coaching, active listening and managing challenging conversations.

An optional but recommended program is offered in partnership with former Canadian Special Forces personnel at Reticle Ventures Canada Inc. The Smith-Reticle Resiliency Challenge includes a 24-hour boot camp in a remote location where students learn survival skills and must work in teams to deal with a crisis scenario, such as a hostage situation or imminent terrorist incident. The exercises help students learn to manage adversity, solve problems, work as part of a team and overcome seemingly impossible obstacles while being out in all kinds of weather.

“The Smith-Reticle Challenge is part of a series of initiatives that Smith delivers to enhance team-based learning and coaching experience,” says Matthew Reesor, director of MBA at Smith School of Business. “The concept behind the challenge is to help MBA students work through decisions in an ambiguous environment to make them better leaders in the business world.”

Smith also partners with Michigan’s Cultural Intelligence Center to give students greater skills in working with diverse teams.

At the Rowe School of Business at Dalhousie University, there is a mandatory personal and professional effectiveness program for MBA students that includes training in skills such as design thinking, navigating complexity, facilitation skills and emotional intelligence.

“We look at team dynamics, managing conflict in the workplace and developing communication skills,” says Dan Shaw, Rowe’s director of MBA programs. “A lot of these students are in the early stages of figuring out who they are. A big theme is giving and receiving feedback, and I would say the focus is mostly on receiving feedback – on being coachable.”