Why Companies Need Managers with Soft Skills Now More than Ever

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Which qualities do you think make for a strong business leader? If the first things that come to mind are financial skills or being a gifted public speaker, what the research shows may surprise you.

In normal times—but especially in times of crisis like the current COVID-19 pandemic—the answer is actually compassion and empathy. Research compiled by McKinsey & Co. shows that compassionate leaders perform better and foster more loyalty and engagement with their teams. Why? In times of crisis, we all feel heightened sensitivity and distress, which can lead to a loss of a sense of security and normalcy that can trigger grief. Organizations whose leadership lacks these essential soft skills cannot adequately manage these feelings. Ultimately such leaders will not help their organizations tap into the creativity and innovation needed to weather the storm and emerge stronger on the other side of the crisis.

Empathetic leadership in the post-COVID era

As organizations grapple with the long-term impacts of COVID-19 and adapt to the new normal, empathetic leadership abilities will rise on companies’ lists of required competencies for their new management hires.

"Empathy as a skill is even more important to leadership in times of crisis,” says Abby Scott, Assistant Dean, MBA Career Management and Corporate Partnerships, Haas School of Business, University of California Berkeley. “Having empathy for your employees and customers is critical, and I have to think going forward it will only grow in importance."

A recent survey of more than 700 global corporate recruiters asked which of 18 specific skills are the most important for business school graduates to possess for their current job openings.

Overall, 81 percent identified interpersonal skills as important—more than any other kind of skill. In the context of the survey, interpersonal skills include the kinds of activities that are elemental to compassionate and empathetic leadership, including active listening, social perceptiveness, coordination, persuasion and negotiation, time management, and management of personnel resources.

What skills does an MBA teach? Use our interactive tool to explore all the in-demand skills that align with the curriculum

A roughly equal share of recruiters in different world regions identified interpersonal skills as important to their current job openings, including 81 percent of US recruiters, 79 percent of European recruiters, and 79 percent of Asia-Pacific recruiters.

Employers expect demand for soft skills to increase in the next five years

According to recruiters, the importance of interpersonal skills will only increase as we move into the new normal post-COVID. As a part of the same survey, recruiters were asked whether they thought demand for the 18 specific skills will grow, remain stable, or decline five years in the future. Overall, 57 percent of corporate recruiters predicted that there will be growing demand in the next five years for interpersonal skills. Only two of the skills received more selections: managing strategy and innovation and managing tools and technology.

By region, recruiters in the Asia-Pacific region were the most likely to say that they expect demand for interpersonal skills will increase in five years (67%), followed by European recruiters (59%) and US recruiters (55%).

Read more of our analysis of employer skill demand in the post-COVID world.

“There’s a growing consensus that soft skills are increasingly important,” says Dr. Christine Menges, Director of the MBA Career Center at WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management. “In a virtual world, it’s really vital that you’re able to emotionally connect with people to understand their needs and their psychology. Emotional intelligence, empathy, and other soft skills are essential to that.”

Business school is the ideal training ground for developing soft skills

In a survey of full-time MBA alumni, 4 in 5 agreed that business school played a meaningful role in developing their soft skills. This is, of course, by design—the business school experience constantly requires students to put their soft skills to the test in situations like team-based assignments and classroom case study discussions.

“In most MBA programs, students are placed into diverse small study groups and this is a real test for incoming students to figure out how to work with people they don’t know and who have different skillsets and backgrounds,” explains Abby Scott of Haas School of Business, University of California Berkeley. “Through that initial experience, students are forced to work out how they’re going to work together successfully. Things like teamwork, collaboration, empathy, learning to delegate—these things are immediately practiced in these small groups and MBA programs are structured to support that learning.”

Overall, 9 in 10 global corporate recruiters say they’re confident in graduate business schools’ ability to prepare students to be successful in their organizations. Are you ready to start your journey to business school?

There are more than 7,000 graduate business school programs for you to explore in Program Finder! Start the search for your best fit program today!

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