I recently traveled to London for a University of Pittsburgh alumni event, where I presented our Distinguished Alumni Award to Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, deputy secretary general of the Commonwealth of Nations. During my trip, I met with Della Bradshaw, business education editor at the Financial Times. Our interesting interview started with a discussion of the current job market for MBA students and the skills students need to succeed in their careers.
I told Ms. Bradshaw that placement outcomes at my business school have improved in each of the past four years. Our success in career services would be impossible if not for our emphasis on generating stronger admissions results. It may seem strange, but we see our MBA program from a supply chain management perspective, as an operation comprising procurement, manufacturing, and distribution components. We must procure the correct and necessary student inputs. We must manufacture the inputs through a strong curriculum and other associated activities. And we must distribute the finished products to our employer-customers.
Through this lens, I’ve observed a trend that is problematic to business schools all over the world. Students are doing much better academically, that is according to their test scores, grade point averages, and practically every other numeric achievement measure. Advanced placement credits are enabling top students to score above the maximum GPA level and students are studying more difficult subjects earlier in their career than was the case for my generation. As a result, students are acing tests today.
Yet, at the same time, and as I noted in my conversation with Ms. Bradshaw, some students show a lack of polish in what I will call the “soft skills.” Many students struggle in their ability to work with others, interpersonal communications, management of relationships, and their critical thinking skills. I have no doubt this shortcoming is evident in academic disciplines beyond business because the shortcoming is a result of an American education system that prioritizes the measurement of test scores.
Let’s contrast students’ dearth of soft skills with my school’s distinguished alumna in London, Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba. She displays a wide set of skills. She interacts effectively and networks effortlessly with people in many different positions of society. Her ability to negotiate, solve conflicts, and communicate with others is how she built a strong career with executive and government positions before her appointment at the Commonwealth. On a daily basis during her term, Mrs. Masire-Mwamba practiced the skilled diplomacy and politics necessary to navigate issues and problems faced by 53 member nations and to represent the diverse viewpoints of the Commonwealth’s professional staff.
Intelligent people do not automatically possess emotional intelligence. Too often, extraordinarily bright students fail in their interviews because of deficiencies here. In some cases, students seek guidance on how to overcome the gap. In others, students fail to perceive the problem or believe it is caused by others. Ironically, they are behaving precisely how our educational system has trained them to behave.
Beginning with K-12 education, the American system is focused on rewarding the students who ace tests, despite the fact that high test scores, in and of themselves, don’t provide the requisite skills for passing interviews. That the system’s focus prioritizes learning is fine. But learning is too often measured exclusively by test scores and standardized results — and this approach is disconnected from the end goal. Test scores alone fail to yield the ultimate outcomes of the educational system: the development of competent adults who are prepared to engage in gainful employment and contribute to society. More importantly, our system stresses that it is bad – no, worse than bad – to fail. Ever. Perhaps this is why there seem to be so many sore losers today or why society is so polarized. It may also explain why we do not generate as much entrepreneurship as the country needs.
If we are to generate desired outcomes, we must more effectively connect the educational system’s focus and the results it intends to achieve. At the University of Pittsburgh’s business school, we emphasize experience-based learning (EBL) as a way of linking the class experience and the outcomes that students — and their parents and society — expect after graduation. By creating practice fields and opportunities to apply concepts discussed in class, students experience the connection between theory and practice. They are placed in real world situations to practice what is discussed in class and to make mistakes. That connection is what is necessary for our ever-smarter students to succeed in their interviews and careers. It will also propel them to the level of success we expect of our distinguished alumni, people like Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba.