What’s Really Harder Than The Soft Stuff

Many of my classmates seem to derive some pleasure from falling asleep with a five-pound Mergers & Acquisitions textbook at night. I do not. I came to Booth precisely because it excelled in the fundamental financial and quantitative skills that I do not consider my strong suit, but unfortunately that desire doesn’t make it any easier for me to absorb the subject matter. It is satisfying to learn the material, but it often feels to me like it might as well be written in Chinese!

It can be discouraging to struggle with the vocabulary when others are debating the deeper nuances of the capital structure and financial architecture of whatever deal was in the WSJ that morning. That being said, I know far more than I did a year ago and certainly enough to make more informed decisions on finance and accounting measures, exactly what I wanted out of the program — and I’m only halfway through.

As I mentioned in my last post, we are all very much looking forward to our summer quarter because of the change of schedule and opportunity to travel to our overseas campuses, but I am also excited about the variety in subject matter. I find the reading that we are doing for marketing and managerial decision making fascinating. Sure, it’s lighter to read than statistics or financial strategy, but why is it that these subjects sometimes get dubbed the “soft skills” and aren’t taken as seriously as more quantitative areas. Is it that they are easier to master?

I think not. Quite the opposite actually. Even though it may not come naturally to me, with practice, I can learn to do a reasonably accurate valuation of a firm. There is some intuition and creativity involved in this calculation, but there are also a lot of formulas and good old-fashioned number crunching which anyone can learn over time. Can the same be said for the art of communication or leadership?

This brings us to the familiar question; Are great leaders born, or made? I am certain you have your own opinion on the subject, but I am of the mindset that people are usually born with some kind of innate talent to lead. Certainly those skills must be honed, practiced and refined, if one is to be truly successful. But the great leaders I know seem to have a certain personality and intuitive sense for motivating and inspiring others.

I acknowledge, however, that there is a psychological science behind the art of leadership, management, negotiation, and decision making. I am certain that we will learn far more of this in classes at Booth than what you find in the pages of the pop psychology books I have read before. Perhaps it is possible to learn these skills even if they don’t come naturally to you, just as I can learn (and all too often, quickly forget!) how to do a regression analysis.

As with anything in life, one thing is certain however. You get what you put into it. This subject mater may not require you to sharpen as many pencils, but it does require you to rethink (and let go of?) some of the basic premises of your communication and decision making instincts. Certainly, this is not any easier that memorizing formulas.

Furthermore, these skills are fundamental to the success of any company or endeavor. What good is it to have raised millions of dollars for your new start-up, but have a leadership team that isn’t able to work together, negotiate the inevitable challenges that will arise, hire the right people, formulate a strategy for growth, motivate the team to keep pushing in the same direction, assuage angry clients and negotiate with demanding vendors?

A business, team, expedition or even a family for that matter, doesn’t function very well when attention isn’t paid to these areas. They may be “soft” but they certainly aren’t easy, and I look forward to telling you about how Booth professors approach them in the coming weeks.

Elizabeth Rogers, an Executive MBA student at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, blogs about her journey through an EMBA program for Poets&Quants. Her earlier posts:

Introducing Elizabeth, an EMBA Student at Chicago Booth

Finding Your Rhythm

School’s Out For Summer