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What Skills do Business Students Need in Adversity?

What makes a really great business leader? Is it smarts? Creativity? The ability to manage a team? Emotional resilience? Do you have to become the full package to succeed at the very highest levels? Thankfully, the answer to the last question is no! However, as business students, it always helps to know your strengths, as well as those areas where you can improve. But there is one thing that's guaranteed to help any MBA grad get to the top - and that's the ability to solve difficult problems and overcome adversity. So here's what skills you need to overcome whatever challenges come your way.

Apr 28, 2020
  • Education
What Skills do Business Students Need in Adversity?

Surround yourself with smarter people

Knowing -- or feeling like -- you are the smartest person in the room might be good for the ego, but it doesn't make the best businesses sense. Being around smart people will help you think smarter. Intelligent, creative people encourage you to raise your game, explore innovative ideas, and often pose questions that you may never have considered.

Extra brainpower is not the only thing bright people bring to the table. In his book Hive Mind: How Your Nation's IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own, economist Garett Jones outlines decades of research which shows how smarter people are more predisposed to behavior which benefits a broader collective, rather than just themselves. Moreover, Garett asserts that the success of any group is often defined by its average collective intelligence, rather than its handful of super-smart outliers. In other words, you can't do it all on your own -- no matter how smart you are!

Embrace your failures

The world's greatest business leaders and innovators look like they were born for success. They are confident, charismatic, and full of interesting and articulate takes on a wide range of issues. But it is important to remember these people only come to our attention after they have achieved an enormous amount of success. In other words, business students never see the years (and often decades) of hard work that got their idols to where they are now. More importantly, they never -- or at least very rarely -- see them fail.

And as many of these titans will tell you, failure is an essential part of success. Elon Musk is responsible for PayPal, Tesla, and now dedicates his time to designing reusable space rockets. But if you want to work for him, you better get ready to fail. Musk says, "Failure is always an option here. If things are not failing, you're not innovating." Or as Irish author Samuel Beckett once wrote, "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Prioritize your health

MBA students are more health-conscious than ever before. Still, it's hard to over-emphasize the positive effects of regular exercise, a balanced diet, and paying attention to your emotional wellbeing. But all this takes time -- something which top business leaders and entrepreneurs are nearly always in short supply of. So many try to power through long days and weeks on coffee, convenience food, and as little sleep as possible. This can work in the short term, and there will be times when it's a necessity, However, this kind of lifestyle is unsustainable in the long-term and will likely lead to burn-out or one of many other physical or mental health problems.

So now matter how busy you are, taking some time out to exercise, eat well, or spending ten minutes on some mindfulness practice should be as important as anything else on your schedule. See this as a way of investing in your own-wellbeing - something which will pay off huge dividends further down the line. But if you are naturally impatient, then focus on the short-term effects. Exercise and healthy eating reduces stress, raises energy levels, and can even boost your critical thinking skills and creative output.

Learn the value of the soft approach

The history of cinema is populated with ruthless business magnates such as Charles Foster Kane and Gordon Gekko -- the man who encapsulated the 80s yuppie era with his infamous 'greed is good' speech. And while there may be a kernel of truth in these characters (Gekko was based on two very prominent New York financiers), does the hard-nosed approach play out in today's business environment?

Well, according to one expert, it doesn't. Harvard professor Laura Huang details a very different, people-based business philosophy in a book called Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage. She writes of the value of emotional intelligence, which includes a wide range of soft skills such as empathy, flexibility, and teamwork.

Speaking in a recent interview, Huang said, "We tend to think of interacting with other people almost as something manipulative, but it's not...being social also means we have a deep sense of who we are, as well as a deep sense of who our counterpart is, and where they're coming from. When we're able to do that, we're able to influence and interact in a much deeper and much more authentic way."

Embrace the struggle

Things won't always go your way in business during your MBA program and afterwards. And no matter how well you strategize, something can always come along and blow your plans out of the water. The COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example. Around the world, millions of businesses have faced months of uncertainty, with all their plans for the future on hold. So how can budding business students and future entrepreneurs use crises such as the coronavirus to their advantage?

They can start by taking some advice from Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking. He writes extensively on overcoming struggle, arguing one of the biggest secrets to success lies in embracing adversity, rather than avoiding it. Adversity “grows you strong,” he asserts.

Plenty of today's business giants had their own personal difficulties to overcome. Bill Gates, one of the wealthiest people on the planet, failed to make any profit from his first business venture, Traf O Data. And Richard Branson, who has helped set up over 400 businesses, developed dyslexia in his early childhood. The idea of learning difficulties was still an alien concept to many of Branson's teachers, who simply labeled him as a poor student.

Branson's story is a classic example of how we can make disadvantages work in our favor. He says, "My dyslexia helped me think big but keep our messages simple. The business world often gets caught up in facts and figures — and while the details and data are important, the ability to dream, conceptualize and innovate is what sets the successful and the unsuccessful apart." Branson is not the only big thinker to embrace the challenge -- Henry Ford, Thomas Eddison, and Steve Jobs were all dyslexic.

Cultivate great relationships

Whether it's a friendship, a marriage, or a business partnership, great relationships don't happen on their own. After the initial connection, both parties must cultivate the relationship for long-term success. Each person needs to understand the other's strengths and weaknesses, as well as they want and desires. This takes patience, self-sacrifice, empathy, and lots of self-awareness - and especially in the business world. Because working with people you don't necessarily gel with is all part of the game.

So sometimes business people need to put personal feelings to the side, and may well need to bite their lip on more than a few occasions. Just remember, you do not have to win every battle. And if you do get trapped in a battle of egos, take a deep breath, and ask yourself how this is affecting your business objectives.

There is no magic recipe for success. Every road to the top follows a different path, and every MBA student has their unique challenges to overcome. You'll face yours, no question, but you can be prepared for them...

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Ashley Murphy


After graduating with a degree in English literature and creative writing, Ashley worked as a bartender, insurance broker, and teacher. He became a full-time freelance writer in 2016. He lives and writes in Manchester, England.