Two Cheers for Merit

For: Professor G. “Anand” Anandalingam
Dean and Professor of Management Science
Imperial College Business School

The business school ecosystem has lost its way on merit. From the recruitment and admissions process, to the way we teach our courses and design our programs, to the way in which companies select who to hire, we focus much more on personality than ability. The “cop out” is to say that everyone takes merit for granted and that the really important stuff leaders are made of are the soft skills—read: “personality”. Then, of course, we celebrate the leadership of the likes of Richard Branson, Bill Gates, and now, especially Steve Jobs—who are hardly known for soft skills and gentle persuasion.

When I was dean at the Smith School of Business at Maryland, the Hall-of-Fame coach Gary Williams gave a speech on leadership to my students. To paraphrase him a bit, he said that “everyone thinks that the motivator and the cheerleader is the leader in a basketball team. The person who is willing and able to take the last-second shot is the real leader, because he leads by ability and merit.”

By focusing too much on personality and soft skills, we tend to downgrade merit and ability. I used to have constant conversations with the director of my career services office at Maryland that we were admitting too many students based on GMAT scores rather than on soft skills. He was right, of course, to be concerned—corporate interviewers seem to almost always chose the MBA students who could talk a good game, over those who were straight A students with high GMAT scores who did not have shining personalities.

Top business schools have less of this problem because the very best students, i.e. those with really great analytical skills, apply there. Then, the differentiating factor could well be how these students can couple merit with soft skills. Even there, we dumb down our programs to a great extent, and not use the classrooms to elevate the skills of the students who need such help. When I was an associate professor at Wharton taking over a new class on technology strategy, my senior mentor told me that I needed to make sure my class was “accessible” to everyone. When I asked him how I do this, he told me to paraphrase again taking liberties, “never mind how the telecommunications system works, just tell them some entertaining stories.” The standing joke at Wharton was that an MBA student only needed two courses: Finance and How to Get a Job!

In fact, students who wanted to go into the financial services industry received the most rigorous and analytical education, and would willingly sweat through the mathematics and economics to expand their understanding and skill set. It is not a mystery why almost half the engineering class at Columbia University and Imperial College London end up in Wall Street or “the City” respectively. I am not sure that Columbia Engineering and Imperial Engineering spend much time at all on “soft skills.” One cannot hide behind personality and soft skills in the financial world: either you make the right rate of return or the right analyst call, or you are “toast.” The industry values merit and performance is measured strictly—and of course, MBA programs have the pressure to elevate rigour in the finance programs. Parenthetically, it is not surprising that the financial services industry is seeing more and more ethnic minorities who do not do so well in subjective evaluations of soft skills, and there is a cultural different in what is called “personality.”

So the question is this: if rigour, analytical skills and merit are good enough for the financial services world, why are they not the primary evaluation criteria for the management consulting world and manufacturing and services industries? I submit that they should be, and that business schools should take the lead on educating their ecosystem and changing whatever is under their control to enhance analytical skills and differentiate students based on merit.

Admission to a business school should be based overwhelmingly on merit—meaning how well the prospective student did in their undergraduate studies and standardized tests. Interviews, though necessary, cannot be the only way to make “yes-no” decisions. MBA programs should be re-examined and redesigned to enhance analytical skills and introduce more rigorous assessment. Grades in each course should matter, and professors should take grading seriously. The management of the MBA programs should look at the records of each and every student for each and every course, and provide as overall assessment based on performance. (British business schools tend to have “examination boards” that really put in a lot of work on student assessments.) And business schools should proactively work with companies to ensure that they make hiring decisions primarily on merit/performance and relevant analytical skills. If business schools do the right thing in their admission process, the rigour of the program and the assessment process, the companies will get the necessary information to make hiring decisions also based on merit. Of course, they will need to change their mind set whereby hiring is based too heavily on interview skills and personality.

So why two cheers instead of three? Well, I know from my experience in academic leadership positions that, at my level, much of what is expected of me is my ability to manage people. At this level, soft skills certainly matter—and the ability to manage organizational dynamics matters a lot. So, I want to reserve my third cheer for those intangible things that will truly propel the best and brightest to positions of leadership.