Soft skills prepare us for hard lessons

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What are the main things you expect to get out of an MBA? Knowledge, networks, internship opportunityopportunities, exchange programmes, career advancement; did I miss anything significant?

I bet that “soft skills” did not immediately spring to mind when reading the first ­sentence.

Well, that was certainly the case for me. Certainly, if someone had told me in my first week at the Australian Graduate School of Management in Sydney that I would be taking personality tests, playing games and learning how to de-stress, I would have thought twice about the school’s priorities and my reasons for attending.

Instead of overwhelming us with spreadsheets and books from the word go, AGSM sent us on a mandatory week-long managerial skills course, which gave us a blueprint for understanding each other and working together. We had all been assigned into teams of five to six - different nationalities, incomes, industries, native languages, cultures and life aspirations. Talk about potential team problems!blueprint how to understand and work with each other through a mandatory week-long Managerial Skills course.

It is not easy getting ahead in business. After all, you can be an expert in your field, but if you cannot communicate, motivate, empower and give feedback well, no one will want you as a leader. The managerial skills course aims to mould effective leaders from the start, beginning with the soft skills – a focus that may be sacrificed at the highly technical US schools.

Managerial skills is one of four integrative programmes (IPs) that AGSM offers each year between terms. Students must complete it and two other IPs within the year. These sessions are fairly intensive, taking place from 9am to 5pm each day with substantial group work required outside the class.

The course leverages one of AGSM’s greatest strengths: collaboration over competition. I often hear stories from colleagues at other business schools about the cut-throat nature of their courses. In extreme cases I have even heard of sabotage between team members. At AGSM, the focus on teamwork, collaboration and constructive leadership helps to set its MBA graduates apart in the competitive workforce.

There are four personal managerial competencies that the course is structured around. They are: knowledge, problem solving, self-management and relationship management.

The week begins with large group activities within large groups that illustrate represent the diversity that can be experienced both at AGSM and in the workplace, with a special focus on the cultural differences found in today’s most successful companies.

Day two shifts the focus to the individual and his or her personality preferences. For example, the Myers Briggs personality model type indicator is one tool used to quantify questions such as: where do you get your energy from? How do you gather information? How do you approach problems? How do you manage uncertainty?

As an ENTJ (extrovert, intuitive, thinking, judging), I am rational, analytical and committed to my principles but I can also become insensitive and overstressed. While I did not need a test to tell me this, knowing that my team of six all saw the world very differently from me really put things into perspective.

How many times did I try to impose my preferences on team-mates without even realising it, I wonder?

Once we could appreciate other possible views, we addressed effective communication in the context of conflict management. Key lessons centred on giving feedback. well, be it positive or constructive.

Day four was all about the teams we were to work with over the coming term. Belbin team roles – patterns of behaviour that characterise one person’s behaviour to another within a team – was used to illustrate members’ strengths and preferences in a group environment. As an “originator” and “driver”, I like to be heard so I should be mindful of others who want to contribute to a project.

The week ended with us applying all we had learnt to form a group action plan for the term, including applying theories to anticipate how the group might function, what problems could arise and how to deal constructively with them once they happened.

Each team formed a “third culture” that was common to the members despite all the differences we identified throughout the week.

Managerial skills teach people how to be good leaders who can communicate, motivate, empower and give feedback. Due to an individual’s innate preferences this is not something that just comes naturally. Good managers are made, not born. Conscious of that, AGSM starts its ­students off on the right foot with this mind-opening course.

The lessons are not over once the course ends. The executive coaches who taught the course meet each team during the first term to discuss how the teams are working and address any issues. They also provide individual coaching.

The value of managerial skills really came into its own once due dates deadlines for papers arrived and mid-term assessments were causing off-the-chart stress and pressure levels. As one colleague put itsaid: “We were ready to bite each other’s heads off.” It was then that the team turned to the IP and applied the techniques for feedback and debriefing taught on the programme. Six months into the MBA we are still friends, so we must have learnt something.

Now that the third term has begun, we draw on lessons from the IP almost daily. For example, when choosing teams for elective courses many students made sure to balance those identified in the Belbin test as creative people with strong drivers and good finishers.

I find that the principles from the IP are drawn upon in other classes as well, such as Conflict Management, Interpersonal Skills or Leadership. Next term I’m taking Negotiation and Strategy as well as Strategic HR Management, and I have a feeling that the lessons from the IP will help me there, too.

The third term also means that recruiting is in full force and even though we are only halfway through the MBA, everyone is already concentrating on what will happen once they graduate. Managerial skills come in useful here since they taught us how to take in feedback and act on it constructively.

The careers staff has been busy prepping us for interviews by offering a variety of workshops, mock interviews and mentoring opportunities. As we receive critique on our performance in these sessions it is too easy to take things personally. The IP, however, taught us how to receive feedback and use it to our advantage. I feel this is an essential skill that will help me when looking for employment and throughout my future career..

Ultimately, I believe that integrative programmes offera great value for money because of their short duration and intensity. In addition to managerial skills, other IPs offered this year included management in action, business ethics, corporate governance and intellectual property.

Each course resembles a concentrated version of regular offerings at AGSM, but its pass/fail nature means that there is a little less stress for all parties involved.

The ability to communicate, motivate, empower and give feedback well are skills that I will rely on in coming years.It is courses such as Managerial Skills, which expand on the core curriculum, that help to make AGSM students well-rounded individuals, capable of tackling future leadership roles.

Lucy Kellaway’s column returns next Monday

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