Critical Skills and the Harvard Business School

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the career world and the road to the C-Suite have changed over the past few decades. No longer do many organizations chart clear career paths for individuals and closely manage their progress. The traditional career ladder has gone by the wayside—it simply doesn’t exist.

Career paths are now largely self-driven by the individual rather than dictated by pre-planned corporate ladders. This poses a major challenge for individuals who must now fend for themselves and manage their own careers.

Visualize the profiles of successful top-level executives as a mural with a mosaic of tiles that represent the skills and accomplishments that they collected along the way to the top. If the picture you see is not crisp and sharp or has missing tiles, then these executives probably haven’t managed their careers. If the picture is crisp and sharp, then this indicates good career management.

When executive recruiters are engaged to find and present candidates for top-level positions in an organization, they systematically look at the skill mosaic of candidates. Those individuals whose mosaic fits (or nearly fits) the position specifications are pursued. Ultimately, one is hired.

Research into executive searches shows that top-level executives in virtually all fields possess a set of “critical skills” that cuts across disciplines. This isn’t theory, it’s a fact…and it has been for a long time.

This is how the critical skills were discovered by the research. Thirty “career capstone” positions were selected for review from the files of top-level executive search firms. For each of these thirty positions, approximately thirty actual searches were analyzed to determine exactly what the executive search firm was looking for in terms of candidate skills and accomplishments.

The results painted a clear mosaic of each of the capstone positions, but they weren’t the most important finding. Of greatest importance was the discovery that there were certain skills that were included in virtually all these positions and no matter what was the particular discipline.

The main conclusion was as follows:  The critical skills are essential in any career path. They offer the keys to advancement and, ultimately, to the top. Accordingly, development of these skills is vitally important early on in career management.

Here are those “critical skills” in order of priority according to the research:


The communications skill is the most powerful skill on the planet. It is the ability to get ideas out of your head and into the heads of others, or alternatively, to get ideas out of someone else’s head and into your own. The quality of the ideas or information (like whether it is true or not) is immaterial when the principal aim is to convince an audience. This is evident in the widespread and often nefarious use of the communications skill by politicians or politically motivated cable news hosts.


The production skill is the ability to take an idea from its conception to reality. In short, it is to “make it happen.” It can be simple—such as a group of high school students having an idea for a float in their homecoming parade and then building it—to something more complex—such as the life-threatening issue Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell faced and then overcame when he said, “Houston, we have a problem.”


The information skill used to be the ability to gather, sort, and process information. This is no longer true. Instead, the information skill is now the ability to sort and extract relevant and true information or data from the vast expanse of the internet.


The analysis skill is basic logic which is formulating a hypothesis (P), testing it for truth and validity, and drawing a conclusion (Q). In other words, its aim is to ascertain if (P) → (Q). (P implies Q) This is what management consulting firms do all the time. They gather data, test it for relevance and factual correctness, develop their findings from valid data, and draw conclusions. From this solid analysis, they make their recommendations with confidence.


The technology skill is not the ability to design technical things like circuit boards. Rather, it is the ability to select the appropriate technology necessary to solve a problem. Examples include an author selecting a word processing program such as Microsoft Word to write a book, or a financial analyst using an accounting software program such as QuickBooks to review quarterly earnings.


The interpersonal skill is often described as the ability to make friends or be liked by others. But that’s not what it really is. In this context, it is achieved by leading or participating in a project of some sort with others, and at the end of the project, being viewed as having contributed in a positive way – being a valued member of a team. It incorporates and makes use of concepts such as emotional intelligence and positive intelligence.

Time Management

The time management skill is the ability to prioritize and devote the appropriate amount of time to the most important things. As an example, you begin the day and realize that you have ten things to do—four are critical, so you focus your time on those first, and do your best for the rest.

Continuous Education

Continuous education is not one of the skills identified through the research. However, as the world is changing rapidly and new technologies and industry sectors are constantly emerging, it has become paramount—even mandatory—for aspiring executives to keep abreast with these changes and modify or acquire new skills relevant to their career path.

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Let us turn to highly successful people and consider how they use the critical skills. If you do this exercise, you will find that in virtually any examination discovers that they need, have, or have utilized the Critical Skills. In fact, the set of critical skills describes any Chief Executive Officer or even the President of the United States.

Much has been written in blogs, journals and magazines that outline the “skills corporations are looking for.” Generally, these lists are based on recent surveys or, in some cases, just the writer’s notion of what is relevant at the time. Some “skills” aren’t really skills at all but may more appropriately be called “attributes,” like vision and confidence. Some attributes may be learned, while we are born with others.

In contrast, the critical skills are “learned skills.” An individual is capable of learning these skills at any time in their lifetime – especially at an early age. Skills are learned primarily through practice and repeated use over the years. Later on, acquiring these skills can be expedited through workshops, seminars, webinars, and similar teaching formats.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, the Harvard Business School is in the business of teaching the critical skills. In a sense, the curriculum of HBS is the critical skills.

Surely, through analyzing the many case studies they are exposed to at HBS, students learn current analysis methodologies and ways to look at marketing, financial, production and organizational issues. But face it. The core of the curriculum and experience is to enable students to practice the critical skills in front of others.

Think about it. As a student, you are placed in a group of seventy or so peers, many who are smarter than you. You are given a case study of about forty or fifty pages concerning some business or organizational issues. You read the case and sift through all the information that is presented—much of it irrelevant. You identify the important issues, the relevant information, develop your findings – what the information means — and draw your conclusions. Then you decide what the executive who is facing a challenge in the case should do based on the evidence.

Then you go to your class. The professor doesn’t stand in front and lecture. Instead, the professor might point a finger at you and ask you to, “Start us off today.”

Gasp! There you are! Now you have to mobilize your best communications skills and articulate your case analysis in front of the seventy or so classmates who are sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to argue with you about your findings, make their points, and essentially debate the essence of the case.

This is what a Harvard Business School student does three times a day for two years! Is that practicing the critical skills? You bet!

While there are many other excellent business schools that employ the case study method, the Harvard Business School (with its entire focus on the case study method) stands out. It has been in the past, currently is, and most likely will remain near to or at the top of the heap. It’s no surprise that Harvard Business School provides the essential foundation for success. Basically, after completing their studies at HBS, the critical skills etched into a student’s DNA.

It is important to point out that effective use of the critical skills doesn’t mean that someone uses just one of them. In fact, they often piggyback on one another.

Looking back over two hundred and thirty years ago, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay made effective use of piggybacking the critical skills as they persuaded the citizens of the state of New York to ratify the Constitution of the United States.

They used their communication skills to write persuasive essays – now called the Federalist Papers. They used the current technology of the day—a quill, paper, and the newspapers; and they were effective with their production skill as they successfully persuaded those citizens to make it happen – to ratify the Constitution of the United States.

On balance, many factors contribute to success in your career. Near the top of any list of those factors, the critical skills are prominent. If they are strong, your chances of success increase. If they are not strong, however, don’t be surprised if others with those skills pass you by. That’s why the importance of developing and using the critical skills throughout your career cannot be overemphasized. They are proven learned skills and will serve you well.

I published an entire book about the critical skills which is available on Amazon. The title is: WANTED: Eight Critical Skills You Need To Succeed.

I have a podcast ( that not only describes these skills, but includes interviews with prominent individuals who have successfully utilized these skills as contributing significantly to their success.

Here are some final thoughts and tips:

  • Recognize and embrace the fact that learning and mastering the critical skills will help you advance in your career.
  • If you are a current student at HBS, recognize the value and importance of the critical skills, understand that HBS is where you can learn and practice them, and don’t be a “back” Participate actively in every class no matter how uncomfortable that may make you feel. That’s the way you will learn the critical skills.
  • If you are graduating from any college and are evaluating several attractive job offers, take the job with a high-quality organization where things are done right, work as hard as you can, and concentrate on learning the critical skills.
  • Throughout your career when you are offered opportunities for training, choose those that will help you exercise and build your critical skills.
  • Finally, encourage your children to begin learning these skills at an early age. Encourage them to participate in class, to participate in such extracurricular activities as debate and speech, teamwork activities such as sports and the performing arts. Give them an early start toward success in their lives.

Best of luck to you as you embark and transverse the often-crooked path in today’s career world!




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