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If One in Five MBAs Were Unemployed Months After Graduating From a Premier Business School in 2023, What New Skill Sets Should People Pursue in 2024? A Q&A with Stanford’s Matt Abrahams


Matt Abrahams, a Lecturer in Organizational Behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, discusses the importance for job seekers of investing time on qualitative skills, such as communications.

Matt Abrahams, a Lecturer in Organizational Behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

Matt Abrahams, a Lecturer in Organizational Behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

Matt Abrahams is a Lecturer in Organizational Behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business where he teaches popular classes in strategic communication and effective virtual presenting. He is the author of Think Faster, Talk Smarter: How to Speak Successfully When You're Put on the Spot and Speaking Up Without Freaking Out, and the host of Think Fast, Talk Smart The Podcast. He received Stanford GSB’s Alumni Teaching Award in recognition of his teaching students around the world. Matt received his undergraduate degree from Stanford University and his graduate degree from the University of California at Davis.

Q. As the Wall Street Journal and others recently reported, job prospects for candidates with MBAs from top schools have been dismal, with many reporting placement rates that have decreased for recent 2023 graduates.1 With the focus on quantitative skills sets such as generative AI delineated on many job descriptions; why should these grads, and frankly all other job seekers, invest any time on qualitative (aka soft) skills like communications? As was referenced in one article, “…86% of this year’s grads received job offers 90 days after graduation, down from 95% one year ago, and 80% accepted, down 10 percentage points from last year’s 90%...that’s one in five MBAs unemployed three months after graduating.”2 With this type of job market, what should readers be doubling down on in 2024?

A. Abrahams

The key skill set that I am about to share is what your readership should double-down on regardless of if they are students or working professionals. As Stanford’s program has the lowest acceptance rate (9%)3 and highest starting total compensation package ($275k)4 among top MBA schools, we have some very bright and capable learners. But interestingly enough, several years ago, one of the top pain points for students was not a gap in their understanding in emerging technologies or financial modeling, but a basic key competency, strong communication skills, that employers value and expect.

Students were struggling with speaking in the moment when professors were cold calling them during case study discussions, including simple questions like “what do you think?”5 I was asked by the GSB Deans to create a methodology that would enable all Stanford MBA students, within their first three weeks of joining us here in Palo Alto to take, and which supports their need to communicate in the moment.

And having the skill to be able to think faster and talk smarter in the moment is valuable for the recent MBA graduate up through the Fortune 500 C-Suite leader. From my personal experience consulting to Fortune 500s, including many biopharmas, I have observed the complexity of their global organizations, which have regulatory, compliance, and legal elements that amplify the need for employees to be able to communicate in an agile and effective manner. While generative AI and other emerging technologies can help us recognize patterns for uncovering new opportunities, we still need to be able to communicate such data points and their potential implications for value in a timely manner.

And my findings are echoed by other leading institutions. For Wharton undergraduate students, they are required to take a business communication course where the objective is to help prepare them to succeed at all types of communication, “…spoken and written, formal and informal, prepared and spontaneous.”6 And when executive search firm Korn Ferry shared five key skills for their readership to develop, it was interesting to see “technology” was not listed, but “communications” and “agility” were two of the five skills.7

Q. To think faster and talk smarter, what are your top three recommendations for readers to consider as they strive for career sustainability and expansion? In particular, given continued layoffs across so many verticals in 2024, including biopharmas, what ideas are pragmatic for those who are fearful for their jobs?

A. Abrahams

First, establishing the right mindset is crucial to be able to think faster and talk smarter. For instance, consider the inevitable Q&A sessions that take place at the end of meetings. Some people are fearful that these forums will display their ignorance and embarrass them. But if they changed their perspective so that the Q&A is seen as a gift to potentially secure new valuable insights, to learn, and to collaborate, it reframes the context from challenge to opportunity. Second, maximize mediocrity. In fact, I share this idea during the first day of classes for my Stanford MBA students. And you can imagine their jaws dropping since they have never been told to be “mediocre!”

This philosophy helps us get out of our own way and dial down our over evaluation and judging that we do of ourselves and our ideas. And it is not surprising given today’s never enough culture. A simple analogue is to think of our brains as computers. When we have many apps and windows open on our desktop, there will be a performance degradation because of bandwidth constraints.

Similarly, when we have so many things that we’re trying to process, our cognitive bandwidth is reduced. And the result is difficulty in thinking clearly in the moment and connecting our content to our audience. So, turn down the volume (aka pressure) a bit and give yourself permission to “just” answer the question versus answering perfectly. I end my first day’s lesson by sharing the complete idea: “maximize mediocrity so that you can achieve communication greatness.”

Finally, for those hesitant to speak up, two practical ideas can help. First, the "What? So what? And now what?" approach offers a versatile framework for presenting your thoughts across various situations. Think of it as a multipurpose tool for communication. Second, if you're less experienced, keep the dialogue going by asking questions or restating what has been said in your own words. This allows you to stay engaged without intense effort, freeing up mental space to concentrate on making your message relevant, impactful, and clear on the action you want from your audience.

By doubling down on learning8 and applying these principles in your daily interactions, you will be better positioned to navigate the ongoing changes that will likely continue in 2024 and beyond.

About the Author

Michael Wong is an emeritus board member of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association.


  1. https://www.wsj.com/lifestyle/careers/the-m-b-a-s-who-cant-find-jobs-669cc1fa
  2. https://poetsandquants.com/2023/11/30/harvard-hit-hard-by-the-2023-mba-job-market-offers-accepts-total-comp-all-
  3. https://www.collegetransitions.com/blog/mba-acceptance-rates/
  4. https://poetsandquants.com/2023/12/05/2023-jobs-report-shows-that-stanford-mbas-are-still-the-best-paid-in-the-world/
  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6TsR3y5Qfg&t=131s
  6. https://catalog.upenn.edu/courses/wh/wh.pdf
  7. https://www.kornferry.com/insights/this-week-in-leadership/5-skills-to-develop-right-now
  8. https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/business-podcasts/think-fast-talk-smart-podcast
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