What skills do employers want most?

I teach courses and executive programmes in leadership and management and, as part of my introduction to the class, I explain to participants why what they are there to learn is vitally important: these skills are among the most important keys to lifelong career success.

Regardless of the country, industry or job they work in, leadership, the ability to work well on a team and communication skills – among the package known as ‘the soft skills’ – are what will make the crucial difference in their career.

While some business schools screen for these soft skills through admissions essays, recommendations and interviews, we need to go further in developing these skills. In most business schools throughout the world, the emphasis is on the ‘hard skills’ of economics, accounting and finance rather than the soft skills.

At the same time, many business schools use teams in a wide variety of courses, yet few teach much about how teams really work (for instance, beyond forming, storming, norming and performing) or how to ‘unstick’ a stuck team – important skills for much of the work our graduates will do over the course of their careers.

I’m not alone in thinking this, either. Several recent studies with employers also point to leadership and other ‘soft skills’ of graduates as being in very high demand – and in short supply.

Bloomberg research

On the premise that business schools should be producing graduates who have the abilities companies need most, Bloomberg set out to find which skills employers most covet in business school graduates – and which of these skills are hardest for them to find.

Recruiters, 1,320 of whom from more than 600 companies responded, picked the five qualities that are most important to them in hiring MBAs, as well as the five that are hardest to find, from this list of 14:
  • • Ability to work collaboratively
  • • Adaptability
  • • Analytic thinking
  • • Communication skills
  • • Creative problem-solving
  • • Decision-making
  • • Entrepreneurship
  • • Global mindset
  • • Industry-related work experience
  • • Initiative/risk-taking
  • • Leadership skills
  • • Motivation/drive
  • • Quantitative skills
  • • Strategic thinking.
The most desired and hardest to find skills in today’s MBA market? Communication, leadership, problem-solving and strategic thinking skills were the most desired and hardest to find skills.

GMAC research

The Graduate Management Admission Council, or GMAC, has also done a study on what recruiters seek in graduate management students and found:

“Of five major skill sets employers consider most important when hiring recent business grads for a mid-level position, communication skills top the list, followed, in order, by teamwork, technical, leadership and managerial skills.

"With the exception of one industry – manufacturing, where leadership skills were in greatest demand – this finding was true across all world regions and employers, regardless of industry or company size.”

AMBA's Employers Forum

According to the Association of MBAs or AMBA's Employers Forum 2014:

“‘Hard’ skills of analytical and strategic thinking are still important, but soft skills such as oral and written communication, presentation skills, adaptability and the ability to negotiate are becoming increasingly important… A recurring theme throughout the event was that employers are in desperate need for MBA graduates with ‘soft’ skills.

“As the 2014 GMAC employer survey demonstrates, the days when the ‘hard’ skills of analytical and strategic thinking dominated are over, and it’s oral and written communication, presentation, adaptability and the ability to negotiate that industry is asking the schools to teach their students.”

NACE research

The desire for students who have leadership, team and communication skills goes beyond those hiring only business school graduates. The US-based National Association of Colleges and Employers, or NACE, asked employers what they look for on a recent college graduate candidate’s résumé in order to screen for those they will interview and potentially hire.

The results? Employers are looking for leaders who can work as part of a team and communicate effectively. The importance of candidate attributes sought in screening résumés, listed in order of the number of respondents who chose them, across recruiters, are:
  • • Ability to work in a team (77.8%)
  • • Leadership (77.8%)
  • • Written communication skills (73.4%)
  • • Problem-solving skills (70.9%)
  • • Strong work ethic (70.4%)
  • • Analytical/quantitative skills (68%)
  • • Technical skills (67.5%)
  • • Oral communication skills (67.0%)
  • • Initiative (66.5%)
  • • Computer skills (62.6%)
  • • Flexibility/adaptability (62.1%)
  • • Interpersonal skills (60.6%)
  • • Detail-oriented (57.6%)
  • • Organisational ability (42.4%)
  • • Strategic planning skills (35%)
  • • Friendly/outgoing personality (29.1%)
  • • Entrepreneurial skills/risk-taker (25.1%)
  • • Tactfulness (23.2%)
  • • Creativity (18.2%).
Dilbert, too

Even Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoon series, seems to agree that our business grads need a refined skill set.

One of my favourite Dilbert cartoons lampoons business schools for focusing instruction on the hard skills like economics, accounting and finance rather than many of the ‘softer’ skills needed for success in the workplace like identifying and hiring good people, business writing, negotiation and motivating employees. If Scott Adams creates a cartoon about it, it must be true.

Margaret Andrews is an academic leader, instructor and consultant. Academic leadership positions have included vice-provost at Hult International Business School, where she managed a global academic team across five campuses in four countries; associate dean of management programs at Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education or DCE; and executive director of the MBA Program at the MIT Sloan School of Management, USA. She teaches a variety of leadership and strategy courses at Harvard DCE and Hult and is also the managing director of Mind and Hand Associates, a boutique consulting firm serving a global higher education clientele. You can reach her at