This week, I provided a reference for two former employees. One was a phone call from the prospective employer, and one a form to complete on behalf of the applicant. I was struck by the number of questions which related to what we have come to call “soft skills”
When I was VP of Operations some years ago, an employee in the finance office, Susie, came to my office, quietly closed the door and blasted off, “Sam, has zero emotional intelligence”. She was clearly frustrated with Sam, not because he was an incompetent or unskilled finance manager, but because he lacked soft skills such as listening, commitment to understanding, collaboration, and flexibility. Susie soon left our employ and joined a similar organization. Today, she is the CEO of that company. Soft skills are very important in the work place.
In a recent survey, the Graduate Management Admission Council, the folks who own the GMAT exam, reported that although MBA’s were strong in analytical aptitude, quantitative expertise, and information-gathering ability, they were sorely lacking in other critical areas that employers find equally attractive: strategic thinking, written and oral communication, leadership, and adaptability.
Similarly, LinkedIn reported this year on the importance of soft skills, “…of the 2,000 business leaders surveyed, 57% identified soft skills as the most important to them.” 1
Seth Godin clearly claims the value of soft skills in a classic article on his blog, “Along the way, we’ve confirmed that vocational skills can be taught (you’re not born knowing engineering or copywriting or even graphic design, therefore they must be something we can teach), while we let ourselves off the hook when it comes to decision making, eager participation, dancing with fear, speaking with authority, working in teams, seeing the truth, speaking the truth, inspiring others, doing more than we’re asked, caring, and being willing to change things.” 2
While no one would deny that the hard skills are totally necessary and important for most jobs, such as electrical engineering, and software developing, as well as for being a systems administrator, architect, research analyst or auditor, it is time to recognize the importance of soft skills, often ignored perhaps because they are less able to be measured, quantified and proven.
The following listing of soft skills is by no means exhaustive, but perhaps it will help all business leaders to think more often and more profoundly on this important element in the work place.
1. Communication and Interpersonal skills: LinkedIn ranks communication as the second most important skill an employer looks for in recruiting new candidates. It includes the ability to extract clear expectations from the manager, and effectively convey ideas to coworkers, bosses and clients. Good communicators can motivate, encourage, and express themselves in writing. Employers look for it because they know it increases productivity if the employee can express the who, what, when, where, why and how of a project.
Wise managers and start-up BAM entrepreneurs will look for colleagues and employees who have good interpersonal skills. When they have someone on the team who is lacking, they may have to seek ways for them to improve such as communication workshops or mentoring. Most all managers and owners need to demonstrate this skill.
Example: I observed Barrington general manager, Kirk, practice this with his foreman as he showed them how to resolve a conflict right on the factory floor. He addressed the issue of the day directly but delicately; clearly communicating to every party. On the other hand, one IBEC client regularly ignores emails from the consultant, but when he is in trouble or really needs help, the consultant receives an “urgent” email. This business is not likely to flourish.
2. Teamwork and Collaboration: Every business is the composite of everyone on the team working toward a common goal. When this is done in a collaborative way, many talents are synthesized, and a healthy work environment is much more likely, and workers will have personal satisfaction. In short, working well with others is fundamental to the final outcome in any industry. The importance of various gifts and skills is foundational to biblical examples and principles such as building a tabernacle (Exodus 31:2-5) or a wall (Nehemiah 3) and the multiple gift sets described by the Apostle Paul (Romans 12: 4-8).
Example: Some years ago, a videographer and I interviewed the workers in a kingdom business in Indonesia. One of the questions I asked in the interview was how they liked working for Dave, the owner. They immediately related how much they loved being there since Dave made them feel like a team by working them into jobs they were most skilled at; and by taking them on camping trips to build team camaraderie. I Peter 4:10 explains this; “…as each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”
BAM business owners will need to work at this trait, demonstrating it from the top down – providing help to a worker in need, building rapport by helping them develop and grow or by rewarding those who most demonstrate a team effort.
3. Adaptability and Flexibility: Career coach Kathy Robinson says, “successful leaders are the ones who know how to be flexible when problems arise.” We all know that things never go as planned, and flexibility is required to change plans as necessary and pivot to find alternative solutions. Adaptable employees are often also innovative, an important quality in today’s rapidly changing business environment. They know how to respond to setbacks and find alternative solutions all the while remaining positive and encouraging to others.
Example: One time while we were enduring a massive software change, Carol came to my office and after slamming the door, blurted out “why can’t we stop all this change around here?” Carol was not a flexible employee, but she had many other important qualities, so I patiently helped her understand the importance of our changes and the advantage to her and others, keeping her connected and on the team. For myself, I have tried to never talk to others about “the good old days” unless they want to know, but to expectantly look to the future and what positives that holds for us.
One of our IBEC consultants was working with a company in India. The owners were determined to produce a clothing line as part of a wider vision. The consultant worked patiently with them to see that it could not be profitable, and helped move the business to a domain where there was a clear customer base for specialty tourism. After some tears, the owners agreed to pivot, and within three years the company was profitable.
4. Critical observation and thinking and problem solving: While these soft skills are independently unique, they are related as well. Critical thinkers are decisive, insightful, innovative, and come up with creative answers to problems that arise. Data is only relevant if one knows how to interpret it, and envision patterns and related topics. Using data which is insightfully interpreted is the beginning of the problem-solving process. Most people tend to complain when something goes wrong, but employees will get noticed if they propose some positive action.
Example: Georgia noted a problem relative to the customer base in their tour company in Asia. There were a considerable number of handicapped people interested in some of the tours. Rather than complain or quit, she proposed a way to solve the problem. Before long, the company had contracted with hotels with handicapped facilities, found travel vans with lifts, and agreed to help build ramps at certain preferred restaurants. She was a problem-solver and it benefited the customer and the company’s bottom lines.
Coach Robinson says, “always approach your boss with a solution, not just the problem”. Bosses and employers also can create an environment which promotes and encourages creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
There are plenty of other soft skills such as leadership, management, time management, ethical living, and decision-making. Let’s not forget to give attention to building into ourselves and our colleagues the all-important soft skills.
Larry Sharp, Director of Training, IBEC Ventures