When hiring young managers, employers appear to value one skill above the rest: the ability to communicate clearly. The trouble is, communication skills these days seem to be in short supply.
Corporate recruiters ranked communication skills ahead of teamwork, technical knowledge and leadership when assessing MBA graduates for mid-level jobs, according to a survey last spring of 565 global employers by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which administers a widely used business school entrance test. Respondents rated communication skills ahead of managerial ability by a two-to-one margin.
Similar conclusions about the value of communication skills came in a national management education survey published in July by Leger Marketing in association with the Schulich School of Business at York University and other Canadian business schools. The online survey of 845 business executives identified leadership and effective communication as the two most important management competencies – and the two most in need of improvement.
"I take out CEOs once a month and they all tell me the same thing," said Alan Middleton, marketing professor and executive director of Schulich's executive education centre. "'Whatever happened to the ability of someone, in less than two minutes, to state what they want me to do, state the rationale and how to do it?'"
Several factors explain why employers put a premium on the ability to convey ideas when speaking, writing or presenting, he said.
Today's companies have moved from a command-and-control decision-making style to a flatter corporate hierarchy, with team leaders at every level expected to share information with peers across the organization. Moreover, an increasingly diverse work force requires clear language to convey key ideas with accuracy and nuance.
Not only that, Prof. Middleton added, the competitive job market gives prospective employees little time to make a positive impression. "You may have as little as five seconds, and maybe up to 30 seconds, to make that initial impression so someone engages with you," he warned.
Based on the Leger survey, he said his executive education centre will further emphasize communication skills in the leadership training of mid-level managers and executives. "In modern business, it is becoming all about the relationship," he said.
However, he and others acknowledge that e-mail, text, video and social media have encouraged more online, and fewer face-to-face interactions among those raised in the Internet era.
"What we are seeing with this generation is that [communication] is much more transactional," said Sharon Irwin-Foulon, director of career management at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario.
She argues that successful managers must develop an aptitude for listening and reading body language when seeking to influence a co-worker or boss. "This is a relationship, this isn't a transaction," she said.
"Students who have grown up with texting and Facebook are forgetting to look someone in the eye and watch for the emotional intelligence cues," she added. "These are the real differentiators that make them promotable."
Increasingly, she said, corporate recruiters complain that students look great "on paper" but fail to impress in person, a failing that has caught the attention of business school career counsellors.
Students are sometimes skeptical about the need to hone personal communication skills, Ms. Irwin-Foulon said. In her experience, they don't see much merit in face-to-face meetings with alumni or business contacts on the assumption they can glean what they need to from the Web.
Not so, she argued, likening corporate networking to a date. When considering potential hires, she said recruiters look for clues beyond academic grades about the motivation, attitude and demeanour of candidates.
With an eye to convincing a skeptical digital generation about the power of face-to-face interactions, Ivey developed a pilot program for its current cohort of MBA students. Earlier this year, days before a school-sponsored networking event with Ivey alumni and business leaders in Toronto, students participated in a simulated networking session.
About three-quarters of the class – 80 students – signed up for the voluntary two-hour session to meet the top executives of Emerald Inc., a fictitious office supply company. Students knew the company was fake, but Ivey tried to keep the experience as realistic as possible with a 37-page background report on the firm and LinkedIn profiles for the executives, who were played by actors.
Actors also pretended to be MBA students scheduled to join the class in a few weeks. The pseudo-students tried to monopolize conversations during the informal portion of the networking session, forcing the real students to figure out ways to connect with the potential employer. At the end of the simulation, the actors and Ivey career coaches provided feedback to students.
Ivey MBA student Ryan Wong, 26, says the exercise taught him "how to get your point across and to quickly jump into the conversation." Like others, he conceded that "technology has really allowed us to avoid some of the face-to-face contact."
His classmate, Tarika Menezes, said the simulation drove home what she views as a core component of effective communication. "You are not just there to network with a [business] card and information," she said. "It is about how you set up a conversation."