Returning to The Corner Office

The New York Times, Sunday Edition,  has been running a series The Corner Office over the past several weeks. In each, a senior manager is interviewed abou their take on leadership. Today’s interview, with Eduardo Castro-Wright, In a Word, He wants Simplicity points to the known short-comings in many MBA trainings: people skills. He makes the point that business schools are strong on finance, strategy and other such topics, but do little to prepare leaders of people for the sorts of conversations that take up most of their working day: How to talk to someone you’re firing; how to handle an employee who may need time off because of a sick child; how to respond when someone’s performance is being impacted due to divorce pressures.

The sad thing is, such skills are learnable, just not via case studies or power point. It involves being willing to take a look at yourself, to experience how you come across to others and learn how to modify your way of connecting accordingly. By the by, this also helps you to build credibility with your staff, which — as Castro-Wright points out — is key to modern leadership.

However, power point and case studies are easier to teach.

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6 Responses to Returning to The Corner Office

  1. Mike Jay of BCoach and Leadership University makes the point that some people are hard wired to have greater access to Emotional Intelligence competencies than others. Because EI deals with the limbic system which is an open system people may have the intellectual understanding of what to do in a highly charged situation but fall short in execution.

    Two thoughts – one is that EI competency development needs to be supported on multiple levels through time. Business schools or EI training programs will not develop EI through a data dump of any kind. Commitment to development is an important first step with some kind of follow up – coaching, MasterMind or Action Learning groups in the mix to help develop the “observer”.

    My second thought is that we expect people to be all things and don’t focus on designing work so that people can be who they are. I agree that EI is something we can develop but it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Those leaders who aren’t as naturally inclined might do well to design their work flow to eliminate as much demand in this area as possible. This might ease the pressure enough on a stressed system so that they have the energy to deal with whatever does come their way with grace.

  2. Hey bro. Thankfully few MBA courses these days ignore people skills! Many (including the one I took in 2002-03) incorporate both core modules and electives focusing on Organisational Behaviour and Business Leadership. There is an element of the dangerous psychological phenomenon known as groupthink in the number of recent articlessuggesting that MBAs have few or no people skills. No two MBA courses are the same, but all the leading UK courses that I am aware of make sure that these areas are studied in some depth. I cannot speak for US courses, but I’d be very surprised if most don’t address these basic competencies for any business manager or leader. They may well have placed less emphasis on it in decades past, however. It is also dangerous to expect all business skills to be taught and learned in a year or two at business school. It apparently takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to learn how to be really good at something…
    From the current Imperial College Business School MBA core courses description:
    “People and Organisations
    The People and Organisations course will seek to provide students with a framework for understanding organisations and for managing some of their key organisational processes. It will also provide an opportunity for thinking about yourself as a leader and how you can continue to develop your leadership skills.
    Students who successfully complete the course will be able to:
    Apply a variety of perspectives to the analysis and understanding or organisational situations and issues
    Explain the role of power in organisation life
    Explain the value of culture as an explanatory concept
    Describe some of the key issues involved in the recruitment, retention, and development of people”

  3. For a fuller explanation of Eduardo Castro-Wright’s organisation’s estimable people management skills, and the havoc his companies wreak on families and communities around the world, please watch these movies:
    You’ll struggle to find the DVDs in a Wal-mart!
    My own MBA core OB course looked in some detail at the importance of both EI and CRI in business, and examined the reprehensible third world manufacturing policies then adopted by Wal-mart, Nike, Gap and others of their ilk (since dropped by Nike and Gap but not Wal-mart).
    Wal-mart’s brand of leadership may make money for shareholders but does little for most other stakeholders.

  4. Dear Sandy

    many hanks for your throughtful comment. I agree with Mke that not all have the same capacity for EI. Just as with other forms of intelligence. A data dump, however well-meaning and well-written won’t equip someone with improved EI skills. I can’t imagine someone making much progress without experiential-based training – in whatever setting or from that takes place.

    To be able to work on EI development, I believe people need a core skill set, whose acquisition demands practice. First is ability to observe one’s own behaviour and emotions and those of others. The second is to learn to distinguish between observation and interpretation. The third is how to give and receive clean feedback. First steps to improve these skills can be taken in a training workshop. Thereafter, ongoing support is extremely helpful.

    Nobody is strong in all areas. One way to reduce a leader’s effectiveness is to expect this of them. At the same time, redesigning work flow only goes so far. The greater someone’s span of leadership, the more important is their level of EI competence. Partly for this reason some organizations have introduced a career path for experts, so that there is more than one way to advance in an organization.

    Warm regards


  5. Dear Ross

    the debate about how MBAs handle soft skill development of the students has been raging for many years. Henry Mintzberg has taken a strong line in the debate, although what he focuses on is he lack of real-world managerial experience among the students. ( provides a summary of his positions.) I know this was different in the Imperial MBA, as you were not the only person to bring a wealth of business experience to the course. In such cases, an MBA can provide a great tool set and space to reflect on and make sense of one’s experiences.

    The point I picked up on from Castro-Wright’s interview is that many MBAs do not give people hand-on training for dealing with the difficult conversations that make up daily leadership work. Such conversations can be trained in an MBA setting; however it’s economically next to impossible to do it with a large class. I was invited this year to run a leadership module as part of an MBA with a class-size of 10. We were able to work intensively on how to handle such situations in practice. People learned a lot and also gave the feedback that it was the first time that they had experienced such approaches.

    I won’t waste electrons trying to defend how Wal-Mart runs its businesses; I don’t agree with most of what they do. (Neither they, nor Nike, McDonalds and others too many to mention receive my custom because I don’t agree with how they treat suppliers and (in some cases) staff.)
    That an organization has crap policies does not necessarily mean that all its managers adhere to these.

    Hope you’re still having a great vacation


  6. Dear CJ This initiative eloquently contradicts both the “power point and case studies” groupthink and the Castro-Wright attitude.

    Most MBAs I know set great store by people skills, both their development and application. And my corporate experience is that they set greater store by them than many “unqualified” managers, i.e. those who have neither studied management nor themselves.

    Today’s MBAs face enormous pressure in getting into programmes, never mind coming through them successfully and qualifying from them, and indeed finding employment thereafter. In the process they also often learn far more about themselves than they might through work experience alone. They also usually acquire a commitment in the process to lifelong learning and self-development.

    No two MBA courses are alike – I am surprised that the one you refer to did not otherwise provide an opportunity to explore these issues adequately.

    There are also many pressures on course providers – students want to make sure that their skills across the board improve in direct proportion to their earning power, while courses and colleges are rated by the FT, the Economist and many others on different metrics and outcomes for students and graduates – the acquisition of so-called “soft” skills is not always high on the rater’s score card.

    In the final analysis an MBA or MSc course cannot “make” a good manager or leader all on its own. Nor will great people skills alone succeed if they are not allied to a good understanding and experience of many other aspects of good business theory and practice. Plus ça change… and a fascinating discourse!

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