Skills Business Grads Need Early In Their Careers


Skills that business graduates need to succeed include a number of ‘invisible’ skills that are not taught by their B-schools.

As a long-time professional management consultant, I’ve had the pleasure of hiring and working with very intelligent people in India, Europe and the USA. Most of them had MBAs, some from prestigious brand-name schools, and others from so called ‘second-tier’ schools. And over a period of time I saw their performance and their careers normalize.

The employees who built outstanding careers exhibited a few key skills and behaviors early on, which propelled them ahead of their peers, regardless of whether they came from a brand-name school or a second-tier school. I’ve listed some of the ones which I feel allow a new employee to turbo-boost the first few years of their career by increasing their value to the organization. So here they are (in no order of priority):

Writing Skills – Make sure you can write well

Too often qualified people get undervalued and overlooked because they can’t make an impact through verbal or written communication. While schools train their graduates in technical skills and polish their verbal presentations, far less attention is paid to the quality of writing, as well as important aspects such as body language, cultural nuances, etc.

Analytical Skills – Question till you understand

Question till you understand, then obsessively identify issues – Try to understand problems by examining the underlying assumptions. Too often new employees accept problems as brought to them and don’t provide the fresh uncluttered perspective that is a big part of the value of bringing in fresh blood. Kipling’s ‘Six Honest Serving Men’ are as good a place to start as any – What and Why and When And How and Where and Who – these are the questions to ask. Once you have a grasp of the problem, then lay out issues. A useful skill here is to be able to develop Issue Trees which are an underrated, underused but powerful tool to select courses of action. Just doing the exercise, even if not thoroughly, helps in clarifying a team’s thinking about issues. Familiarity with the concept and its usage so as to be able to contribute to creation of issue trees can be a huge plus point.

Filter, filter, filter (but only the junk)

Information overload is the bugbear of our times, so anybody who can filter and prioritize information is somebody to prize. A good set of skills would be the ability to research a problem, distinguish critical vs interesting material then be able to organize it, select key facts from different data sources and make logical inferences if information is insufficient.

Be escalation-savvy, not just deadline-oriented

Employees are expected to meet deadlines and quality expectations as a matter of course, but few realize that they are also expected to know when and how to identify issues, ways to resolve them and when to escalate them. There’s nothing more annoying than somebody who keeps quiet about problems until it’s too late because they don’t understand that the purpose of an escalation is to increase the firepower aimed at the problem, not to admit defeat.

Know how to analyse the process

A surprisingly invisible element. Since so many times new joiners get handed routine process-oriented work it’s a great opportunity to make an impact by improving the process. This requires a basic familiarity with process analysis – documentation of process flows, gathering and analyzing data on as-is processes, use of basic statistics to support analyses and identify common process inefficiencies (mean, mode, median, variability).

Understand how to change people’s at-work behavior

Understanding change management and how it can be used in any situation involving selling a point of view. Ideally, it helps to be able to apply elements of project and program management AND be familiar with basic components of change management and its relation with projects and programs.

What B-Schools Must Contribute

Apart from the above, B-schools need to orient graduates to exhibit ‘real-world’ behaviors that provide value to themselves and to organizations. Some key ones are:

  • Understand that success is achieved through other people – Schools just aren’t training graduates for influencing or supervisory roles, just to be goal-driven individual contributors. Graduates rejoin the workforce at supervisory levels without understanding how their role has changed, and continue as individual contributors rather than team builders. They don’t come to jobs understanding the ins and outs of working through people from different cultures, education and genders to achieve results and thereby success. They have to learn that lesson on the job, a very expensive proposition for employers.
  • Humility and Inclusion @Work – Schools need to ensure that graduates understand that they will be working with people with diverse backgrounds. Each person is able, willing and eager to contribute and shouldn’t be written off due to the absence of a particular skill, experiences, or education. Too many newly-minted and newly-hired MBAs don’t have significant real world experience in dealing with other people, and act impatiently, superficially and exclusively goal-focused – which loses them the opportunity to connect at a personal level with other people and develop deep connections with other functions and across levels who can help them navigate their career. You need to treat colleagues, sales partners and support functions in a fair and open manner, engaging them and building support.
  • Buyin equals Personal Branding – As a consultant, or as a supervisor of less qualified staff, it’s easy to use the position, especially in hierarchy-conscious company cultures, to force a point of view or a course of action for immediate benefits such as completing a work stream, or an urgent project. Caught up in the scramble of getting ahead, you lose the opportunity to get peoples buyin and support by adopting their views, and build a reputation of being trustworthy, open and fair.
  • Understand what collaboration requires – Collaboration requires a ‘group think’, a whole new mindset from that of the individualistic thinking students learn to idolize in B-school. When you know how to collaborate with others to address work requirements you end up being a valued part of the greater whole.
  • Behind-the-scenes thinking, or 360-thinking – Even fresh graduates should understand the larger picture in their employer’s environment, what that is driving the industry and affecting the company. Without that they are unable to contribute in a meaningful way to developing strategy and solutions. Most schools require the aspiring graduate to do that analysis and reach that understanding on their own. However, it would be incredibly useful if schools provide an in-depth understanding of the industry-agnostic forces driving change (digitization, demographics, climate change, sustainability, etc.). This allows graduates to be abreast of evolutionary changes before they arrive on the scene and start grappling with their employers products, solutions or services.
  • Reach up and reach down – Know how to connect with your alumni in the same company, from before and after your batch. That’s a great way to build a following by mentoring junior alumni and getting guidance from seniors.

Graduate schools, especially the second tier, can give their students the mix of skills and orientation that allows them to be better connected at work, more useful employees, and turbo-charge their careers from the very outset, rather than through a painfully slow learning process called experience.