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The Case for Soft Skills in an MBA

A Graduate Business Blog by Jo-Ellen Pozner, Assistant Professor of Management

When it comes to evaluating the expertise you'll gain in an MBA program, soft skills may not be top of the list - but they should be. Assistant Professor of Management, Jo-Ellen Pozner, makes the case for these invaluable and immediately implementable skills in our newest Graduate Business blog.

I feel very privileged to teach in Santa Clara University’s Executive MBA program. In the three years I have been involved in the program, I have met and been inspired by executives in a variety of industries, from biotech to finance to fast-casual dining. These folks bring experience, perspective, and a depth of understanding of the challenges of leadership to the classroom that never fails to engage and excite me. Students love my experiential pedagogical approach, the highly interactive discussions and activities, and the warm classroom culture we are able to build so quickly.

I teach two courses that bookend the EMBA program: Managing Organizations and Teams, offered in their first term on campus, and Strategic Business Negotiations, taken in their last term. In between my courses, they have courses on analytics, strategic management, economics, accounting, finance, marketing, ethics, innovation – all of the usual MBA subjects. I enjoy seeing how much my students have grown between our two encounters, but I’m not sure that they appreciate the intention behind this particular sequencing of classes.

People like to describe the topics I teach as soft skills – competencies that enhance one’s interpersonal relationships. I bristle at that term for a few reasons. First, mastering these skills is hard! Building expertise in things like exercising interpersonal influence, leading teams, and using culture to encourage innovation may seem straightforward, but they require sophisticated emotional intelligence, perspective-taking, and constant attention and intention to master. Most folks simply do not pay specific attention to those skills as they climb the corporate ladder, focusing instead on the technical proficiency they need to move from individual contributor to team leader and beyond. Going back to the drawing board with a growth mindset requires a high degree of self-awareness and humility.

Second, and more importantly, these skills are not only necessary to lead others with empathy and vision, they are also necessary to accomplish one’s personal strategic goals! When I discuss decision-making biases, I do so with the specific goal of encouraging students to think carefully about how they collect data, how they analyze it, and how to prevent their cognitive blind spots from compromising their decisions. When I lecture about cultural values, my aim is not to spur folks to think about the buzzwords on their website, it is to help them spot the ways the informal rules of their workplace may be compromising – or promoting – their strategic objectives.

Putting these concepts in front of executives before they engage with more technical topics like statistics, marketing, and finance forces them to think differently about what they are learning. EMBA students may get a lot of value out of understanding the fundamentals of social marketing, for example; yet if they approach social marketing with the understanding – based on framing and prospect theory – that the way data is presented affects the way others understand it and how likely they are to act upon it, they will master a more powerful marketing tool. Likewise, if they can think about the changes to hiring and rewards systems that would support the implementation of a new strategic model, they are more likely to be able to put their learning into action, and for that action to be effective in the long term.

In sum, those soft skills are critical to enabling students to move beyond the theoretical frameworks they encounter throughout their EMBA program, turning them into meaningful action items. It is in that action, that implementation, that intention, that the value of the EMBA lies.

In contrast, finishing with negotiation skills could be seen as giving students a fun topic with which to close out their program. I think it is more than that – it is a way for students to put all they have learned into action. Literal action, as they have to negotiate a range of topics with classmates. Can they read the financial data from the case? Do they understand the impact of the macro-economic environment on the deal they want to close? Can they create a persuasive rationale capable of convincing a skeptical counterpart? Negotiating is where the rubber meets the road, and I like to think of my class as the ultimate road test.

You can call them soft skills, I suppose, but don’t underestimate them: the results they will get you are anything but!

About Santa Clara University

Founded in 1851, Santa Clara University sits in the heart of Silicon Valley—the world’s most innovative and entrepreneurial region. The University’s stunningly landscaped 106-acre campus is home to the historic Mission Santa Clara de Asís. SCU has among the best four-year graduation rates in the nation and is rated by PayScale in the top 1 percent of universities with the highest-paid graduates. SCU has produced elite levels of Fulbright Scholars as well as four Rhodes Scholars. With undergraduate programs in arts and sciences, business, and engineering, and graduate programs in six disciplines, the curriculum blends high-tech innovation with social consciousness grounded in the tradition of Jesuit, Catholic education. For more information see

About Leavey School of Business

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, one of the most dynamic business environments in the world, the Leavey School of Business combines academic excellence in the 450-year Jesuit tradition, with an energetic, innovative spirit that typifies the region. Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business offers one of the nation's best graduate business programs ranked No. 13 Executive MBA by U.S. News & World Report, No. 20 ranked Evening MBA by U.S. News & World Report, and No. 40 ranked Online MBA by U.S. News & World Report. Our Undergraduate Business programs rank in the Top 10% in the nation, ranked No. 49 by U.S. News & World Report. For more information, visit


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