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MBA: Lead by example

Team work and leadership skills are just as important as learning business theory, discovers Emma Haughton
TEN YEARS ago, MBAs were much like degree courses. The emphasis was firmly on what you knew, rather than how well you could apply it. Not surprisingly this led to criticism from employers that the qualification was too theoretical; managers needed skills as well as knowledge, they argued.

In many schools this prompted a review of what students should gain during an MBA. The result at most schools was a shift in emphasis towards softer skills, and nowhere more so than at Durham University Business School. Although the amount of time students spend on knowledge and theory has not declined, Durham has had to find extra time to give a much broader skills base, says Dr David Stoker, director of development with responsibility for MBA programmes. "After all, the MBA is generalist in its nature, and our aim is to turn out someone who is both rounded and employable.

"An MBA is nothing if it's not broad, so we try to improve on these areas by offering things like speed-reading, presentation skills, or how to use PowerPoint presentation software - things that people are usually very poor at. A lot of people, for instance, write badly, so we offer them appropriate writing techniques for memos, reports and dissertations."

Durham is also one of the few schools that thinks that numeracy skills should not yet be dropped, says Stoker. "We still do the forms of statistics that MBAs will need most commonly in business. We also took computer literacy very seriously at the beginning of the 1990s, but we find that more and more people are coming in with these skills already."

On top of these basics Durham adds a more sophisticated layer of personal and career development. On the careers side, it offers training on areas like interpersonal skills, taking psychometric tests, and how to network with head hunters, while in the area of personal development it does a lot of work on leadership and team building.

Part of Durham's package is a weekend of outdoor development, delivered by Brathay, a charitable foundation based in the Lakes. "It's not particularly physical, but it's about practising leadership and team work," says Stoker, "and enhancing their learning through experience."

At Strathclyde, where the emphasis of the MBA is firmly on team work, the MBA is designed to be as integrated as possible. "On the one hand there is the academic content, but within that there is also a strong emphasis on management and interpersonal skills, team working and so on," says Professor Chris Greensted, director of the graduate business school.

This year, for instance, the class on international business environment looked at genetically modified foods from the perspective of international chemical company Monsanto. "We were hypothesising what they should be doing about genetically modified foods," says Greensted, "and told students to go and find out about the environment in which they are operating, which involves a lot of group work. They also do a lot of case studies in teams of five within the mainstream classes on areas like strategy."

Strathclyde's aim is to give each individual the confidence to work together and to understand different viewpoints. With some 75 per cent of its MBA intake coming from abroad, this is essential.

Henley, on the other hand, uses a tailored approach to personal development and skills training. All MBA students begin the programme by using a competencies framework, a personal development diagnostic tool which identifies each person's strengths and areas they need to develop. "Basically we're trying to work out where they're at," says Maureen George, programme leader for the modular MBA.

Alongside developing personal skills, Henley offers practical workshops on areas like presentation, negotiating and study skills, voice coaching, time management, and report writing to surround the harder academic content. The voice coaching, where students learn to practise breathing, stature and voice projection, is particularly popular. "It's about how to make their voices sound more attractive," says George. "Non-UK people often find that particularly interesting and helpful; they can see when and where they're perhaps not being clearly understood.

"We are responding to what we perceive is required by the marketplace," says George, "You have to reach certain academic standards, but more and more employers are looking for more than that. As interpersonal communication becomes more of a theme, MBAs need these sorts of skills if they're going to get anywhere."

That said, not everyone finds the process of acquiring such skills easy. "Receiving feedback on a presentation, for instance, can be tough, although most accept it pretty well," says George, who tries to filter out people out at the application stage if they're clearly not going to feel comfortable with these ways of working. "There's a group session which gives a mild flavour of the things they will have to do if they come here. That way, you find out early that if you don't want to work in a group, a Henley MBA is not for you."