To Employers, A Perfect MBA Looks Like This

Ongoing consultation with recruiters is key to ensuring MBA graduates possess the requisite skills for entering the job market, says Betsy Ziegler, associate dean of MBA programs at Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management. When Kellogg conducted a curriculum review two years ago, school officials and staff spent “dozens of hours talking to employers,” Ziegler says. “As we think about what majors we should be offering, and what collection of classes in general, thematically what themes we should be talking about, recruiters are at the core.”

A wide-ranging survey by education consulting firm QS Quacquarelli Symonds produced the following conclusion in the QS 2014/15 Jobs & Salary Trends report: “Business school graduates are still not meeting expectations in terms of their soft skills such as communication, interpersonal skills, and strategic thinking, which are at a premium.” Surveyed employers put leadership skills at close to the same level of importance as communication, strategic thinking, and interpersonal skills.


At Haas, students are supposed to function according to the school’s “defining principles”: “Question the Status Quo. Confidence Without Attitude. Students Always. Beyond Yourself.”

“It’s kind of like Mao’s Little Red Book,” LaBlanc says, explaining that the military veterans among students have bolstered the validity of the second principle. “This ‘Confidence Without Attitude’ works very well in a leadership context,” LaBlanc says.

Employers, according to QS, were satisfied with MBAs’ technical skills, along with other attributes. “Whether it’s academic achievement, computer skills, languages or skills acquired in finance, marketing, e-business, and risk management, employers seem to have few qualms about the quality of MBA graduates,” the report says.

Betsy Ziegler, associate dean, Kellogg School of Management

Betsy Ziegler, associate dean, Kellogg School of Management

From the perspective of Ziegler at Kellogg, the surveys don’t necessarily provide a detailed picture of what employers are looking for in MBAs. Surveyed employers say they value good communications skills, but Kellogg receives more specific feedback: that employers want to hire MBAs with influencing skills, and the ability to apply them “across hierarchies, across geographies.” Employers say in surveys they look for analytical skills, strategic thinking, and problem solving ability, and they tell Kellogg they want to hire people who can deal well with ambiguity, who are “able to manage their way out of a problem and really understand what is the right question to ask . . . how you get to the root of what it is you should be focused on,” Ziegler says.

As at Haas, development of important skills, such as leadership, is incorporated into classes at Kellogg, Ziegler says.


“In every functional course, every course, our students are put in the position of taking the point of view of somebody in a case or somebody in a current event or somebody in fictitious situation, of making a call. You’re in the finance class and you are the CFO and you haven’t hit your numbers for two quarters. What are you going to do?” Ziegler says. “Or you’re in an operations class in charge of a company that has a supply chain in China and something’s gone wrong. What are you going to do? That’s constant.”

With regard to teaching MBA students and hiring MBA graduates, business schools and recruiters have not fully adjusted to the rapid changes in the world that have molded the millennial generation, LaBlanc says. These days, students are not in the habit of learning by sitting down for eight hours reading a textbook, LaBlanc says. “The traditional business school model doesn’t really fit what these students need and want,” LaBlanc says. “A lot of the younger students that are coming out of business schools are coming out with some of their bad habits intact, and some of their good habits unexploited.”


Businessweek‘s survey finding that employers place a relatively low value on entrepreneurship suggests to LaBlanc that employers may misunderstand the way entrepreneurship is taught in business schools such as Haas. “How can you put adaptability high and entrepreneurship low?” LaBlanc says. “If I’m recruiting for Procter & Gamble, or JPMorgan, or McKinsey, I’m going to want entrepreneurship,” LaBlanc says, explaining that entrepreneurship in a B-school context should not be defined narrowly in terms of startups. “It’s about listening to people, trial and error, experimentation, initiative, persuasiveness, the ability to scrap and find resources to make stuff happen, and to question the way things are done,” LaBlanc says.

Employers should also put a high value on disruption, LaBlanc says. “If you’re Citigroup and you’re like, ‘I don’t want any disruptive people,’ then guess what, Square and everybody else are going to eat your lunch.”


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