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Why Your Leadership Skills Won’t Get You Hired (But These Four Other Things Might)

In one recent study, MBA students put leadership at the top of their list of marketable job skills. Recruiters put it at the bottom.

Why Your Leadership Skills Won’t Get You Hired (But These Four Other Things Might)
[Photo: cyano66/iStock]

As a partner at a consulting firm as well as a professor in the University of Texas’s MBA program, I not only team up with some of the brightest young business minds in the country, but hire them, too. And in the process, I’ve come to suspect that their expectations don’t always match recruiters’ needs.

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So to test my suspicion, I recently conducted a survey of over 3,000 students and recruiters to uncover their assumptions about the skills that lead to success in the job market. And the most startling gap that I found had to do with mismatched perceptions about leadership skills.

Why (And When) Leadership Is Overrated

Students considered leadership to be one of the most important traits for getting a good job after earning their MBAs. Recruiters ranked it near the bottom of the list. In business school classrooms around the country (and online), students are taught loads of courses on leadership. They learn plenty of techniques, case studies, and strategies that all focus on what makes a good leader. When they leave with their degrees in hand, many seem to consider themselves pretty well-equipped with leadership skills.

Recruiters, on the other hand, have seen a lot more leaders out in the real world, and they realize one important thing that students often miss: Leadership isn’t a skill to be learned in class; it’s the result of doing other things right.

In professional settings, effective leaders aren’t usually people who’ve spent many hours diligently poring over academic case studies on leadership. Rather, they’re simply people who’ve focused on building their own competence—being really good at whatever it is they do—and subsequently developed leadership skills through that competence.

Recruiters get that. They know that when hiring junior talent–even highly pedigreed, MBA-holding junior talent–being preoccupied with leadership is premature. Instead, they focus on the traits that correlate with competence, like critical thinking, teamwork, and professionalism. My survey data may not be representative of the entire U.S. knowledge economy, but the story it tells couldn’t be clearer. Not only did we ask about the perceived importance of various job skills, we also addressed perceived ability. And that difference was striking.

While students estimated their own proficiency in leadership at an average of 8.2 (out of 10), recruiters rated students’ proficiency at just 5.7. That’s the largest gap between all the job skills we measured–26% greater than teamwork, the second-highest area–in which students rated themselves. Through the data, recruiters appear to be saying to students, “Leadership shouldn’t be a priority right now. Focus on things you can already do well, achieve some results, then use that competence to develop your leadership abilities.”

So if not leadership, what should young professionals be focused on? The survey results suggest there are four main areas that recruiters are looking for: professionalism, critical thinking, teamwork, and communication. Here are some tips for how to exemplify each one, both in the interview and on the job.

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Professionalism

When interviewing young consultants at Infosys, I’m always impressed when they take the time to set clear expectations before agreeing to do a task or make a commitment. Rather than the typical, “Sure, I’m on it!”, they pause, reflect, and then get really clear about what I’m expecting and when I’m expecting it.

Once you’re on the job, take the extra time to make sure all the deliverables are “done done.” Submitting something to your manager isn’t an intermediate step. It’s fine to ask questions and solicit feedback on something you’re working on, just as long as you keep pushing things as far as you possibly can on your own. Everything should be as close to client-ready as possible, so your boss knows she can rely on you without her oversight.

Related: Four Easy Ways To Reboot Your Relationship With Your Boss

Critical Thinking

In interviews, make an effort to show your line of thinking in whatever concepts you’re discussing. You don’t need to have all the answers. Just ask questions to clarify your understanding, and don’t be afraid to express something counter to conventional wisdom. It shows that you think for yourself.

Once on the job, show that you’re capable of being fact-based and quantitative in your reasoning. Try your best to test your opinions and intuition against the data every time. Don’t overlook the communication challenge, either: Practice explaining your logic to others, so you can catch the assumptions underlying your rationale and convey it as clearly as possible.

Teamwork

In your interview, always give credit to others where they deserve it. Don’t pretend you did everything on your own–because trust me, you didn’t. Use “I” only where you’re describing specific steps that you took or ideas that you had. And when those steps and ideas informed collective action, make sure to replace the pronouns with “we” or “our team.”

Once you’re on the job, look for ways to help others be successful wherever possible. You don’t need to do it at your own expense, but keep an eye on what other people want to achieve and how you can help them–especially when that could benefit the whole team. That’s a nascent leadership skill if there ever was one.

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Communication

In your interview, listen actively. This sounds so obvious, but too many interviewees show up trying to prove themselves, with little awareness that the person on the other side of the table is a human being. Show empathy by asking questions that can help you better understand the other person’s needs and perspective.

Related: Four Tips for Communicating Well In Nerve-Wracking Situations

On the job, take the time to tailor your message to your audience. Whether it’s verbal or written, explicitly lay out where the information you’re presenting fits into their work, how they should apply it, and why it matters. This helps you make sure that whatever you’re communicating is serving a clear purpose, and stops most potential miscommunications in their tracks.

If these four other job skills sound pretty intuitive, well, they are. But they’re easy to overlook–or even undercut–when you’re focused on demonstrating your leadership chops. Those will become apparent the more competent you prove yourself, and that’s what recruiters will be looking for above all.


Jeff Kavanaugh is a senior partner at Infosys and an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. He writes about careers, consulting, and the future of work at JeffKavanaugh.net.

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