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More Than Soft Skills: Career Services Advisors Share What Companies Are Looking for in MBAs Post-COVID

When it comes to what companies are looking for in MBAs, the answer is both uniformity and distinctiveness. While soft skills like communication and critical thinking and technical skills like marketing and finance are important assets for all MBAs to have, it’s an individual’s unique background and perspective that companies truly value. 

This is according to Lisa Bradley-Kern, director industry relations at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and a member of The Consortium’s Board of Trustees. “They value the uniqueness of what each person brings,” Bradley-Kern explains. 

She believes this focus among companies is based on an understanding that these MBAs will be what carries their business into the future and will inform how the company engages with its customers.

Lisa Bradley-Kern
Lisa Bradley-Kern

“I think most companies like the fact that not everyone has a similar background prior to coming into business school,” says Bradley-Kern. “With those unique backgrounds and what they pick up during the two years of the MBA program, I think that’s the beauty of what companies are looking for now [in MBAs]: ‘What would they be adding to the existing structure that we have in place?’”

However, that’s not to downplay the importance of skill. 

Soft & Hard Skills

Jeff McNish, assistant dean of the Career Development Center at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, breaks skills down into two categories: soft and technical. The latter, he says, are “the business basics that organizations will use with their employees to help them drive results” — things like marketing, operations and accounting fundamentals.

Jeff McNish
Jeff McNish

“Whether it’s building a model or a discounted cash flow, or whether it’s using a strategic framework to shape an idea, those business fundamentals and the knowledge of how to create a model or a framework are really important,” McNish says. “Companies want to bring in the latest thinking in business.”

Yet soft skills — those like communication, teamwork, persuasion, negotiation and critical thinking — make up the crux of most roles, regardless of the company or industry. 

“In reviewing essays our students wrote regarding their summer internships, the number one skill they say they used during their internships is communication skills,” says McNish. “They learned how to present complex ideas. They learned how to persuade leaders to pursue one direction or another. They learned how to negotiate ideas and influence stakeholders.”

But that’s not all that employers are seeking in MBA hires. Analytical skills as well as the ability to think strategically are also important, Bradley-Kern points out. 

“I would add the quantitative skills,” McNish notes, pointing specifically to data analytics. “Having a strong skill set [when it comes to] quantitative thinking and ability is another way an MBA makes a difference during their summer internship.”

The combination of the two skill sets, he says, allows MBAs to make their mark on an organization. “When you combine those, the technical skills with the soft skills — you create a framework or a model and you communicate it effectively — you’re driving home results for an employer and for an organization,” McNish says.

Sought-After Qualities

There are several qualities that — although companies have always sought them to some degree in MBAs — the need for which has been further accentuated by the pandemic. These qualities include the ability to stay on one’s toes, so to speak.

“Companies look for MBAs to be more agile and flexible, [more] able to adapt to business trends,” says McNish. “The MBA experience — where you’re with a group of people for two years, studying and going through the different experiences that an MBA offers — encourages graduates to be flexible and [enables them] to pivot quickly when they need to.”

As part of this, MBAs need to be comfortable with ambiguity, says Bradley-Kern, and able to work independently, with little direction or instruction. “We saw a lot of that pre-pandemic, but I’m sure it’s even more so now,” she notes.

McNish has witnessed something similar, with the pandemic forcing everyone to adjust. “It has tested everyone in terms of being flexible,” he says, noting that this is where he’s seen the biggest change with regard to what companies are looking for in MBAs. “I would argue if it’s not data analytics or data visualization, it’s the flexibility or agility to navigate the changing and complex business [world].”

Last, but not least, is mobility. McNish believes many companies prefer to hire new MBA graduates because they tend to be early in their careers, meaning they are often more mobile than individuals who are more advanced in their careers.

“That’s another thing for prospective students to think about, which is, ‘How mobile are you? Are you willing to relocate in support of a business’ operations? Or, are you ready to settle down?’” he says. “There are some sectors that are more mobile than others, but the more flexible the student is, the greater the opportunity.”

Work Experience

While most business schools require that MBA candidates have at least two years of prior work experience, companies often prefer those with even more.

“The people who bring three, four, probably four to six years of work experience at a minimum are the ones who really take full advantage of the MBA job market,” says McNish. “Companies like that level of experience.”

However, this isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. Some level of work experience, which McNish defines as at least three years, coupled with a promotion, can be equally as powerful.

“If you have that level of work experience and you’ve been promoted at least once during [your] post-undergrad work experience, if you’ve had an increased level of responsibility over time, those are two things — in addition to the skills I talked about earlier — [that] really motivate employers,” he says.

The Importance of Diversity

Among companies, diversity has long been a highly sought after quality in MBAs, but it’s increasingly becoming the guiding principle.

“It’s always been in the top three reasons why companies look at business schools for talent, but more recently, it’s the number one reason that we see here at Darden,” McNish explains. “Every company has a diversity, equity and inclusion strategy, and most of the strategies include tapping business schools or MBA programs to help them meet their hiring needs.”

At Ross, Bradley-Kern says they’ve experienced something similar, with a growing number of companies placing more focus on diversity recruiting and expressing a desire to tap into the school’s diverse talent.

“They’re asking us, ‘How can we get in touch with your diverse students?’ For those who are part of The Consortium, they already know,” she says. “The summer Orientation Program & Career Forum (OP), for example, allows a lot more companies to begin that conversation before classes start, and we’re starting to see companies saying, ‘Hey, what’s going on? I don’t see your diverse students.’ [And we’re] like, ‘Well, they’re gone. They’ve already started connecting.’”

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