Poor Writing Skills Top M.B.A. Recruiter Gripes

Published: Mar 31, 2009

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For Chris Aisenbrey, director of global university relations at Whirlpool Corp., it's a daunting challenge these days to hire literate M.B.A. students who can write a coherent letter or memo. Too often, what he gets from job applicants are collections of rambling thoughts littered with misspellings and grammatical gaffes.

Blame it on email and instant messaging. Mr. Aisenbrey and other recruiters bemoan the fact that technology has eroded M.B.A. students' ability to communicate clearly and professionally.

"It is staggering the frequency of typos, grammatical errors and poorly constructed thoughts we see in emails that serve as letters of introduction," says Mr. Aisenbrey. "We still see a tremendous amount of email from students who are writing to the recruiter like they are sending a message to a friend asking what they are doing that evening."

These days, the recruiter's ideal target is the student who shows promise as an articulate leader, but such M.B.A.s are proving to be all too rare. Of all the complaints recruiters register about M.B.A. students in The Wall Street Journal/Harris Interactive survey, inferior communication skills top the list. Close behind are criticisms of leadership ability.

Recruiters say they can count on students from any of the major business schools to bring solid knowledge of accounting, marketing, strategy and other business fundamentals. What distinguishes the most sought-after schools and M.B.A. graduates are the "soft skills" of communication and leadership that happen to be among the hardest to teach.

Recruiters worry most about declining writing and oral-presentation skills because even M.B.A. graduates who don't demonstrate the leadership potential to win a spot in the executive suite still must be able to communicate to succeed. "The situation will only get worse," Mr. Aisenbrey fears, "because business schools are not emphasizing communications skills enough right now."

Some recruiters stress the importance of communicating financial information in a concise, persuasive manner. "We all work in an environment of data overload, and we value people who can tell a story when presenting financials that engages the audience," says Kelle Vela, purchasing controller at Ford Motor Co. She says it's sometimes hard to assess communication skills when interviewing M.B.A.s, but that Ford's case-based process tends to work well.A business case is deliberately structured so there isn't a right or wrong answer. Success, Ms. Vela says, is based on the job candidate's ability to identify the key information, perform an appropriate analysis, and present and defend the analysis in one-on-one discussions and in a group setting.

Recruiters in the survey say they would encourage M.B.A. students to take advantage of as many public-speaking opportunities as possible to become more comfortable and polished.

"Students seem to think a better grade is assigned based on the number of slides in a presentation," says one recruiter. "In real life, you have 10 minutes to present to management. If you can't get the whole story in that time on two or three slides, you're dead in your career."

Whirlpool is so concerned about communications skills that it recently introduced a new assessment measure to its M.B.A. recruiting program. To evaluate students' ability to communicate in a dynamic manner, the appliance maker's recruiters now ask job candidates to deliver a 10-minute oral presentation of their resume. Some students make quite elaborate presentations, using PowerPoint or overhead projectors, and go well beyond the printed resume to reveal their personalities and accomplishments. But, Mr. Aisenbrey says, "We see a lot of candidates who simply regurgitate their resume in chronological order. This is a simple case of candidates not understanding the audience and what message they want to deliver."

As part of his interviews with M.B.A. students, Darren Whissen, a financial-services recruiter in California, provides an executive summary of a fictitious company and asks them to write about 500 words recommending whether to invest in the business. At worst, he receives "sub-seventh-grade-level" responses with spelling and grammar errors. "More often than not," he says, "I find M.B.A. writing samples have a casual tone lacking the professionalism necessary to communicate with sophisticated investors. I have found that many seemingly qualified candidates are unable to write even the simplest of arguments. No matter how strong one's financial model is, if one cannot write a logical, compelling story, then investors are going to look elsewhere. And in my business, that means death."

Effective communications skills are a prerequisite, of course, for an outstanding business leader. But leadership also means having vision, inspiring and motivating people, taking risks, and driving change in an organization. What's more, integrity is an increasingly important element of leadership in these days of seemingly endless corporate scandals.

Students may indeed get by on their technical and quantitative skills in the first few years on the job, but leadership skills quickly distinguish the stars. To Grant Bauserman, a recruiter and manufacturing manager, leadership is the great "differentiator" among M.B.A.s. "The top schools do a great job of developing managers," he says. "What is needed are more leaders."

Coming Feb. 21: "The Booming Executive M.B.A. Market," CareerJournal's next excerpt from "The Wall Street Journal Guide to the Top Business Schools, 2006" (Random House Reference).