Corporate executives are desperate for MBA grads to finally learn these 5 things

BY Erik ShermanOctober 07, 2022, 5:22 PM
Agnes College graduates participate in 2022 Agnes College Commencement at Agnes Scott College, as seen in May 2022 in Decatur, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

Business schools are in the business of telling companies and executives what they need to do. In response, top executives argue that newly minted MBA students frequently graduate without critical skills and insights—ones they often don’t even know they should have.

“You learn to be a really good manager at business school,” says Joyce Mullen, CEO of Insight Enterprises, a Fortune 500 IT services company. “You don’t learn to be a leader.”

And that’s a problem, as companies need more than mechanical skills and theory. Many MBA graduates still haven’t learned how to get support from other people in a company, practically motivate people, or even understand how all the parts of business have to work together. Here’s where companies say the graduates, and their teaching institutions, need to put more attention.

Generalize, don’t specialize

Already planning to work in finance, data analysis, supply chain, or some other area in an MBA program? Don’t, recommends Brian Napack, CEO of John Wiley & Sons., the education and publishing house.

“I’m looking for raw talent that has been trained in the broad aspects of business, including how to think, how to lead, how to relate to people, and how to achieve results,” Napack says. An enormous problem, he says, is the desire among recent grads to finish school and step into a ready-made career, rather than building competency to be a leader who could eventually enter the C-suite.

“They do specialize, and I think employers are making a mistake if they look to MBAs as vocational schools for doing finished jobs,” Napack adds. “The skills we learn today are out of date in 18 months.”

Foster curiosity and humility

Ultimately, someone can only learn if they remain curious and humble. Those traits will serve MBA grads well once working, says Mullen.

“You come out of a place like that, a really good school, you understand discounted cash flows, but you don’t walk out of there knowing you’re just at the beginning of your journey,” Mullen adds. “This notion of humility and curiosity is all part of a growth mindset and ongoing learning.” If you don’t remember that you’re not the smartest person in the room on a given topic, you’re not going to listen and get the answers and insight you need from the people who are.

Mullen talks about a time when she ran a factory in Cooksville, Tennessee. “The smartest guy couldn’t read or write,” she says. “But he could put his hand on a machine and anticipate a maintenance problem. Or could look around and see where there was a process problem. There’s so much knowledge that comes from experience. You leave business school and you’re 26 or 28 and you really don’t know anything.”

Learn to tell stories

Another lacking skill is convincing people to do something, which is a prerequisite for leadership. Learning to tell a compelling story is how people can gather support and sell ideas—both externally and internally.

People learn the numbers in business school, but not this skill, observes Steve White, president, special counsel to the CEO of Comcast. “Be a storyteller who can paint a vision with a purpose,” he says. “Go back to JFK or Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan or FDR or Lincoln. They could all paint an inspirational picture that people could grasp and understand.”

Moving any business proposals forward requires a dual approach to convince someone why they should care and what impact it will have. “One is to paint a vision and tell stories,” he says. “The second part is to support the stories with a rock-bottom business case.”

Understand relationships

Recent MBA graduates too frequently lack understanding of how organizations actually work.

“They’re often taught in ideal scenarios, but not taught to navigate the scenarios around people,” notes Victoria Pelletier, an Accenture managing director. She thinks a course in human psychology might be in order for MBA programs.

For example, she says many B-school grads don’t understand how compensation is key to getting employees to behave certain ways. Or they don’t see how people move through an organization to advance their careers and the effects that has on motivation and work.

Some of this lack of understanding owes to how schools teach case studies. “A lot of time these studies don’t take you through the baking of the cake,” Pelletier says. “You hear about the best practices and maybe some of the results, but not the process.”

Embrace ‘the power of kindness’

This trait might seem the strangest of all, particularly because many would-be business leaders pride themselves on the need to be tough and even cruel.

“We live in an age where you need to create extraordinary solutions for your users,” says Mauro Porcini, PepsiCo senior vice president and the company’s first ever chief design officer. “Anybody out there can grow and compete with a big brand.”

After 20 years in such large corporations, Porcini says, “I started to realize that there was a bond driving qualities and efficiencies at extraordinary levels to make things.” What creates the bond is “the incredible business power of kindness,” he adds.

“A group of kind people will create a different kind of culture,” Porcini says. “Kindness is an amazing glue to keep people working together. The real reason why we should do it is an ethical reason. We’d live in a better world.”

That motivation often isn’t enough, but there is a practical reason, as well—efficiency and success require collaboration, and that’s difficult to achieve without kindness.

 “Some of the theories of management in the past were based on a Darwinian idea,” Porcini says. “Corporations could do it because they had a lot of wealth; they could afford the waste. They could not today.”

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s degree programs in data science (in-person and online), nursing, computer science, cybersecurity, psychology, public health, and business analytics, as well as the doctorate in education programs MBA programs (part-time, executive, full-time, and online).