October 23, 2010

Communicating your way to the top

Good communication skills outrank other core business competencies as the number one skill for corporate recruiters looking to hire MBA graduates. That rather surprising conclusion comes not from communications specialists, but from an organisation that has all the relevant data at its fingertips, The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which runs GMAT testing for MBA applicants.

Every year GMAC carries out the Corporate Recruiters Survey in which the companies, which hire from INSEAD and other leading business schools, state what they are looking for in MBA hires. The survey is published in May and for 2009 communication skills are in pole position.

It is interesting to note that this is no one-off. Communication skills have been consistently ranked in the top three in the last few years and this is not the first year they have been the number one requirement.

The 2009 results came as a pleasant surprise to Steve Knight , a business communications specialist and adjunct professor at INSEAD.

“I was holding my breath when the survey came out. If I was a betting man, which I’m not, I probably would have put my money on (the ranking of communication skills) going down this year because of the economic crisis … It’s changed phenomenally in the last five to six years – off the radar to number one,” says Knight who teaches an MBA course elective called ‘The art of communication’.

The former BBC TV and Discovery Channel broadcaster points out though that good communication skills -- while crucial -- are not the end game.

“You absolutely have to have style and substance, but I think what we’re looking at now is, if you’ve got the double whammy of style, substance and content, and you can deliver it, then you’ve got the winning ticket.”

“You only have to look right now in politics at (US President) Obama and you see that he’s got the style, the content behind him, he’s got the substance; but he has also got this amazing ability to communicate and be all-encompassing and all-inclusive as the speech he recently delivered in Cairo shows.”

On why communication is held in such high regard by recruiters, Knight says it’s because people today expect to be communicated with on a regular basis and, as communication has been greatly facilitated by technology, expectations are higher.

He adds that communication cuts across all levels. “We don’t expect our leaders to be sitting in ivory towers anymore looking over us and we just obey every single word – and that’s changing right across the world. We question, we put (them) on the spot, we want to know why people are doing something, why they’re telling us to do this.”

“Employees are questioning CEOs etc, and quite rightly. So everyone has to be more open and honest and transparent, and be able to communicate with confidence, style and passion to inspire people; because if they don’t, they’re not going to be up there very long.”

One of the tools of communicating is the ever-popular presentation. However, as commonplace as they may be, Knight says few have perfected the art of delivering a memorable and effective presentation.

He has a few pointers to offer: first, assess the audience, preferably weeks ahead of the event. Find out who your audience is and what they will be expecting from you. Then you can fine-tune your presentation to make sure you hit the right notes.

“The biggest mistake is that people often don’t assess their audience. They just go around the country or the continent and deliver the same presentation to different udiences: engineers, call-centre staff, executive directors.”

Knight attributes good stage presence as another clincher to an effective presentation. This encompasses knowing exactly how to command attention from the audience through body language, eye contact, and moving around the stage instead of standing behind the lectern.

One thing he cautions to avoid is what he calls ‘death by PowerPoint’, basically using a standardised deck of slides, irrespective of context and audience.

“It’s the dog walking you, rather than you walking the dog. Your story has got to come first, then you produce your slides to support your story, not the other way round. The slides need to be clear and concise – they’ve got to be short and simple, and they’ve got to be visually interesting and entertaining.”

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