Growing future leaders at our best business schools increasingly involves teaching "softer" skills, and often using personal style assessments. One of the more rigorous and long-standing low-residence courses at Harvard Business School is the nine-week Owner President Management Course (OPM), which spans three years.  Roughly 120 business owners, only half of whom are usually from the US, are enrolled in this course.

Last year, one of the course professors, Dr. Linda Doyle, included The Birkman Method in her "Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness" classes for the OPM, a class that examines leadership styles through case studies.  The Birkman Method is a personal style assessment that identifies a number of traits, and also how those traits manifest in an organization and morph under stress.  Using the Birkman assessment, OPM participants are able to identify and analyze their own authority styles, and the strengths and problems that might develop from those styles.  Harvard has decided to continue the use of the Birkman in this course and is considering including it in other MBA courses.

Yale School of Management has also introduced personal style assessments into its curriculum.  All MBA candidates are now required to take an assessment to help identify leadership styles, strengths and potential problems.

Heidi Brooks, Director of the Leadership Development Program at YSOM and a lecturer in Organizational Behavior, is convinced that these assessments are avenues to self awareness and interactional intelligence that can only improve management effectiveness.  Since most major corporations hire and promote at least in part on the basis of similar types of assessments, having MBA candidates familiarize themselves with the testing process and the information it provides also gives them an early advantage. 

Besides Harvard and Yale, Dartmouth University’s Tuck School of Business, University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business are among the business schools that have heard from alums and companies across the country that it is the softer skills–communication, brokering compromises, managing conflict, developing relationships and leading groups–rather than strategy or financial analysis that are missing in MBA graduates.  And are doing something to address those weaknesses. 

Stamford’s B School revamped its leadership-training curriculum this fall, now requiring all first-year students to take personality tests, participate in teamwork and management-simulation exercises and critiques of their people skills.  Professional executive coaches will watch the simulations and offer advice.

At Tuck, the leadership-development program, modeled on corporate programs, that was launched in 2004, puts all first year students in teams of five.  The groups complete coursework together, help each other with assignments and then rate themselves and each other on how well they operate in a team, including how well each of them "solicits feedback and acts on it" or helps "manage conflict."  Reports on their performance are used to inform the coaching sessions the students attend and to design personal development plans.

Says Warren Bennis, professor at USC’s Marshall School:  "It isn’t just nice–these interpersonal skills.  It’s the stuff that’s necessary to lead a complex organization."

It is only a matter of time, as they say, before law schools recognize the impact of "people skills training" and follow suit.  Not only are lawyers less educated both in school and in the workplace on the importance of developing these skills and the methods of doing so, the data shows that they are as a group psychologically and behaviorally more challenged  in achieving results.  Which makes this sort of training–whether at law school or on the job– even more critical.