Business School Electives: Go Hard or Soft?

Hard or soft

Last week I chose the classes that I’ll be taking for my last quarter at Kellogg. Business school is really coming to an end!

Something that I’ve struggled with over the past two years is how to choose my business school electives. There usually is a vast array of classes to choose from – in areas ranging from finance to supply chain management. However, I usually have insufficient time (and bid points) to take all the classes that I’m interested in, so I have to make choices, and therein lies my dilemma. Should I focus more on taking ‘hard’ classes that teach functional skills like marketing, finance or operations, or should i take ‘soft’ classes that teach behavioral and leadership skills like negotiations, personal leadership and power in organizations?

From conversations with classmates and alums, I’ve come to understand that there are two main schools of thought regarding how to choose business school electives. The first group strongly advocates for ‘soft’ classes that focus on leadership and organizational behavior, and their argument is that when you talk to alums that are now in senior leadership positions, they usually tell you that they wish they had paid more attention to their leadership classes. The second group argues for choosing ‘hard’ classes, and state that they’d rather spend their time in business school learning functional skills like marketing and finance which they won’t be willing or able to learn in-depth after they graduate. Who is right and who is wrong?

I think both arguments definitely have their merits. However, I think the argument for choosing soft courses based on the recommendation of alums might be a bit misleading. The fact that an alum who graduated 10 years ago now wishes that she had taken more leadership classes doesn’t necessarily mean that if she could do it all over again, she would take more leadership classes at the expense of developing functional skills. In my opinion, the mix of functional and leadership skills that are needed on the job varies throughout one’s career. In most post-MBA roles, a greater emphasis is placed on functional skills. By middle management, it becomes more of a balance between functional and leadership skills, and at senior leadership levels, leadership skills become more dominant as one would expect.

What does this mean for me and my choice of electives? In the end, I decided to choose a mix of leadership and functional classes, but to focus more on gaining the functional skills that I need to succeed in my next job. My thinking is that performing excellently in my next job is what will give me the opportunity to move towards the senior roles that will require more leadership skills. Furthermore, I’ve always been a student of leadership, so I know for a fact that my leadership education will continue for as long as I am alive. Unfortunately, I don’t share the same enthusiasm for learning finance and statistics, so I better get up to speed while I still can! 🙂

Image by scottyhdavis.com

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3 thoughts on “Business School Electives: Go Hard or Soft?

  1. Here are a 3 additional pointers to throw into the formula:

    1. All MBA jobs require hard skills and all MBA hiring companies provide direct or indirect opportunities to learn these skills on the job through trainings, teammates etc. Moreover, no business school can provide the exact hard skill training that any of these corporations require past a point given the specificity of those requirements.

    2. Not all companies provide the opportunities to learn directly from their senior leadership. Your assumption that rising through the ranks will provide the same caliber and diversity of soft skills as a top tier B school education is an optimistic one.

    3. All hard skills become obsolete making it a depreciating skill set. All soft skills continue to appreciate in value and impact over the course of a career.

    In the end, while it is important to get a level of technical/ analytical tool competency at a B school, its the intangible that has stood the test of time.

  2. “85% of your financial success is due to your personality and ability to communicate, negotiate, and lead. Shockingly, only 15% is due to technical knowledge.”- Carnegie Institute of Technology

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