Employers Say MBAs Delusional About Abilities

You have to be pretty good to get into a top business school. Their hallways are packed with prodigies who’ve amassed long lists of achievements, posted lofty GMAT scores, and won praises wherever they went. Chances are, their two years were more of the same. So you’d probably wager that these graduates are ready to dive in and make an impact immediately, right?

Not so fast…at least that’s what a new study of employers are saying.

Last week, Jeff Kavanaugh, a managing partner at Infosys and adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Dallas Jindal School of Management, dropped a bombshell on big-headed business students everywhere. In a sweeping survey that covered 10,000 recruiters, 3,000 business students, and 500 B-school career center leaders, Kavanaugh found that all three constituencies had very different perceptions of what’s important and where they stand.


How different? Let’s start with student proficiency in eight key skills. On a ten-point scale, with 10 representing the highest score, employers placed greater emphasis in five categories: critical thinking, teamwork and collaboration, oral and written communications, professionalism and work ethic, and IT. Notably, there was a wide gulf between students and recruiters in teamwork and collaboration, professionalism and work ethic, and IT. Overall, employers regarded critical thinking and professionalism and work ethic as the most important skills.

In contrast, students valued leadership, creative thinking, and career management to a higher degree. That’s right: Despite programs like the University of North Carolina and Carnegie Mellon pouring heavy resources into leadership development, recruiters paid little heed to leadership. In fact, it ranked next-to-last in importance above just career management.

Of course, this is nothing really new. Human resource staffers have urged business schools for years to do more in teamwork and collaboration, communications and professionalism–and business schools have done just that, making heavy investments in these areas for at least a quarter of a century. So why is there this persistent belief that these are problematic issues? In part, it’s a result of who gets surveyed. The market for higher-priced MBAs is largely made by no more than 250 companies who can both afford MBAs and know how to put them to good use. These also are the companies that most MBAs want to work for.

Surveying 10,000 recruiters is a sure way to get negative opinion from HR staffers who don’t hire MBAs, can’t afford them, can’t attract them–and don’t know how to get the most out of them when they are hired. Still, some of the criticism may be justified and the disparities in opinions among students, recruiters and career center professionals is often startling.

Do the results mean that schools are on the wrong track obsessing about leadership skills? Not necessarily, says Kavanaugh in an interview with Poets&Quants. Instead, he contends, it is a reflection of business students falling short in meeting other employer needs.

“I don’t think they’re ignoring leadership as much as they’re desperate for the ones they called out like critical thinking and analysis and work ethic,” he claims. “They need people to hit the ground running. They need people to be successful. They can’t make too many mistakes. They don’t have that luxury. I think that’s what they’re highlighting.”


In Kavanaugh’s study, employers deliver the most damning message when they rank the skills that business students are missing. Across all eight categories, students gave themselves far higher marks than their prospective employers. How deep was the division? Employers doled out an average score of 7 in just one category — IT (talk about faint praise).

Compare that to students, who gave themselves an average of 8 or above in six categories, reserving their lowest marks for themselves in IT and career management. On average, students rated themselves two points higher than employers in every category. The biggest discrepancy came in — you guessed it — leadership, where the difference was almost three points.