What Recruiters Tell Me They Are Looking for in MBAs


By Alison Davis-Blake

Earning an MBA is an investment of time, talent, and financial resources. It is a personal investment for our students and is an investment for companies who are looking to hire MBA graduates or send their top employees back to school to obtain an MBA degree.  

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the value proposition of the MBA degree. This is something I discussed recently with Della Bradshaw, Business Education Editor of the Financial Times. Watch the interview.

She asked if business schools are really able to develop MBAs who can bring value equivalent to the salaries they receive - something that is also top of mind for recruiters.

My answer is emphatically yes, and to do so, MBA graduates must develop critical and integrative thinking skills, and we in business education must empower them to do so.

Click to watch the Dean's interview with the Financial Times

New Push from Recruiters

The good news from our perspective here at Michigan Ross is that the job market for our MBA graduates is strong. Last year close to 90 percent of Ross MBAs had job offers by graduation. Not only are the employment numbers strong, the list of top employers is impressive – Amazon, Deloitte, PwC, E&Y, and McKinsey are just some of the top recruiters of Ross MBAs.

However, we are increasingly hearing from recruiters that companies are putting a new emphasis on candidates who can think in a more complex way and not only think about, but solve, unstructured problems. Recruiters are pushing back on formulaic answers in job interviews, and looking to determine if candidates know how to examine a problem, know what data to collect, and know how to evaluate and synthesize that data.

The ideal candidates show an ability to think broadly across disciplines and tap diverse conceptual frameworks to develop holistic solutions.

What’s Changed?

This is not completely surprising.  Business is more complex than ever before. It’s more global, more cross-functional, more integrated, and in general, more demanding. Technical skills are important, however, specific techniques can change over time. Interpersonal, team, and leadership skills, while they take much longer to hone, will always be applicable and relevant. The challenge is there are many things in the educational system today which push against developing some of the most critical skills MBAs need. Siloed courses, an increase in important topics within each discipline, the pressures of recruiting - these things and more can lead to a fragmented educational experience.  

So how can business schools make sure they are imparting not only the technical skills but also, and perhaps more importantly, the ability to integrate lessons, techniques, models, and data to make the smartest decision in the toughest of situations? In my view there are three key elements, outlined below.

Action-based Learning

There is a reason why we’ve built our curriculum around action-based learning and have perfected this method of business education over the past 25 years. It works.  

Just last week our first-year MBAs received their MAP assignments. MAP, one of the most intensive and extensive action-based learning programs of its kind, puts our MBAs within companies and corporations across the globe for seven weeks, where they tackle real projects working with real executives to solve real problems. MAP helps them make tangible connections with the techniques they’ve studied in the classroom and provides a hands-on opportunity to put those lessons into action.  The experience is invaluable for our students and a key differentiator for them in the job market.

Watch one team work through MAP with a project sponsored by P&G

Making Time to Think

While there’s certainly a great deal of learning happening at business schools across the world, students aren’t necessarily always aware of what they’ve learned or how to connect and apply the things that they have learned.

At Ross, we are tackling this issue in two important ways. First, we are giving students more time to think deeply, and secondly, we are asking questions in a different way.

We are developing ways to create structured reflection time for our MBA students as part of the curriculum. This means not only making time to reflect on what they’ve learned, but also asking them about what they’ve learned in a more explicit way.

We’re not just asking “what did you learn this semester?” Instead, we’re posing more thought-provoking prompts such as “tell me about a time this year when you were faced with a challenge that stopped you in your tracks.”

From there, we carry on a guided conversation that helps students unlock their knowledge and make connections between the things they’ve studied and how those learnings are applied to the experiences they’ve had, and will have again once on the job.

Prepare to Lead – in Good Times and Bad

I’m proud of the fact that Michigan Ross is synonymous with leadership.  It is core to our mission to develop leaders who make a positive difference in the world, and infused in our curricular and co-curricular offerings. In fact, we recently received a $20 million gift from Steve Sanger, a Michigan Ross MBA alumnus and former CEO of General Mills, and his wife Karen, to create the new Sanger Leadership Center.  

The new center will incorporate and build on the impressive leadership development programming of the Ross Leadership Initiative, which has proven to be a true differentiator for Ross and our graduates.

As Scott DeRue, Faculty Director for the Sanger Leadership Center has said, “Innovative programs such as our annual MBA Crisis Challenge, Impact Challenge, and the new Leaders Academy, immerse students in a fast-paced and high-stakes environment. We are forcing them to make decisions with little information and a small amount of time to consider important tradeoffs. They must do this while also demonstrating cooperation, composure and poise. These are skills that are necessary to lead in today’s dynamic and complex business environment.”  

This recent article from Poets & Quants highlights the leadership experiences which make Ross graduates ready to lead from day one.

Our graduates are making incredible contributions to the workforce and the world. While the expectations of MBA students and recruiters continue to evolve, the value of the degree is undeniable, and I am proud of the work that we are undertaking at Ross to continually ensure that an MBA degree from Ross has lasting value.

Watch The Dean's interview with Financial Times

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