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Student Learning Top 10 Skills They Need to Succeed

The 10 Smart Skills of the Future

Posted April 20, 2021 by Loredana Padurean - Associate Dean - Asia School of Business

As a business school professor, I find that students often ask me, “What skills do I need for my future? Should I focus on understanding artificial intelligence, coding, bitcoin, and fintech? Should I work on communication, negotiation, and employee management?” In other words, they want to know what “soft” skills they should work on and what “hard” skills they should invest in.

But I prefer to think of “hard” skills as “sharp” and “soft” skills as “smart.” These words better reflect the roles that these competencies will play in students’ lives once they are in the workforce. While both types of skills are essential for business graduates, the smart skills sometimes are more difficult to master, so those are the ones I am going to concentrate on here.

Identifying Ten Key Skills

I believe that cultivation of ten specific smart skills will help students on their journeys to becoming business leaders:

1. Emotional maturity: the ability to understand and manage their own feelings as well as the feelings of others.

Emotionally mature people are able to regulate their impulses, and they don’t allow a conflict to get the best of them. Even during an argument, they act with empathy; they take responsibility for themselves, and they recognize when other people have different points of view. They recognize that they will need to engage in learning and self-improvement throughout their lifetimes.

2. Validation: the ability to provide or ask for affirmation that feelings or opinions are worthwhile.

Working with people is a constant exercise in validation. Validation can calm fears and concerns, reduce or resolve conflicts, and encourage people to open up to others. In a 2018 article, media personality Oprah Winfrey commented, “I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common: They all wanted validation.” She added that offering validation is the simple act of letting people know: “I see you. I hear you. And what you say matters.”

3. Listening: the ability to focus completely on what other people are saying, understand their messages, and respond thoughtfully.

All of us have been in situations where we felt unheard or misunderstood, so we should recognize that the people around us feel the same. I ask my students to listen more—to focus on the problems before they try to find the solutions.

4. Followership: the capacity or willingness to follow a leader, a mission, or a cause. 

While business schools often promote good leadership, people follow more than they lead, so business programs also should emphasize good followership. Followers don’t blindly accept everything a leader says, but they actively participate in organizational goals, and they help leaders succeed. Even when an organization has a strong leader, if team members aren’t able to carry out the leader’s vision, the organization will fail.

5. Managing up: the ability to develop a good relationship with a superior; the ability to solve problems for a variety of stakeholders.

The first definition is the classic one, and the second is the more modern interpretation. One of the biggest challenges my students identify in their action learning projects is managing a wide array of stakeholders: their hosts, faculty advisors, faculty directors, business coaches, and each other. They often ask me, “Who is the person I should listen to? Who is my ‘boss’?” The truth is that managing up requires balancing the needs of multiple competing stakeholders, often simultaneously.

6. Humility: the ability to recognize your value and the value of others.

People with a sense of humility see that they can always learn more and achieve more—and they realize that others have the same ability to grow. The truth is, most MBAs lack humility. They must constantly remind themselves that, the more they know, the more they will realize how much they don’t know. This knowledge keeps them humble and encourages them to keep learning.

7. Adaptability: the willingness to change with changing conditions.

As Charles Darwin said, the only species that survive are the fast and adaptable ones. Have you seen any dinosaurs lately? If humans don’t evolve, they will disappear, too. Professionals with strong adaptability skills will survive. The rest will probably spend their time in Jurassic Park

8. Cultural and ethical literacy: the competence to recognize and respect differences between people.

These might include differences in background, race, religion, or country of origin. Every group will have its own set of attitudes and values, so professionals must be able to identify moral and ethical contexts and dilemmas. This particular smart skill is more critical than ever because of the global expansion of the workforce.

9. Strategic and critical thinking: the process of conceptualizing, analyzing, synthesizing, and applying information.

Critical thinkers evaluate and deploy knowledge to reach a goal and develop a plan for execution. They are able to solve complex problems in the absence of blueprints and standard operating procedures. Whenever I ask employers what skills they value most, strategic and critical thinking come out on top.

10. Cognitive readiness: the mental preparation to sustain competent performance.

Cognitive readiness encompasses the skills, knowledge, motivations, and personal dispositions people need to operate in unpredictable environments. Leaders and their teams have to be prepared to face unpredictable and ill-defined challenges in situations that are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. This is a hard skill to master, and it requires professionals to be prepared on a constant basis.

Photo of Loredana Padurean, associate dean and faculty director for Action Learning at the Asia School of Business in Kuala Lumpur, and international faculty fellow at the MIT Sloan School of ManagementLoredana Padurean is the associate dean and faculty director for Action Learning, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Asia School of Business in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The article was written with editorial input from Charles Fine, CEO, president, and dean of ASB.