Why Soft Skills aren’t for Softies


I have a friend (just one). For the purposes of this article, let’s call him Stewart (his name is actually Stuart).

Stewart is a fantastic manager. Not only that, he’s a brilliant leader. How do I know? Well, because I worked with him for many years, first as his line manager, then as a peer.

Stewart has well developed interpersonal skills, high emotional intelligence, he has bags of common sense, he knows how to motivate and get the best out of people. He’s always positive. He’s flexible, articulate, punctual, has a sparkling wit and a strong work ethic.

Stewart is currently unemployed. He decided to leave his last company, as he wanted to do something different. Oh, by the way, he interviews well, too, he should do, he’s been recruiting people for years.

The feedback he’s been getting from interviews has been pretty good. The standard line is that they loved him but he just lost out to an internal candidate who had better job knowledge/experience/qualifications.

Does this sound familiar?

A recent Harvard University study concluded that around 80% of a person’s achievements in their career are determined by the ‘soft skills’ they possess, all the qualities my friend Stewart has. And just 20% is down to the ‘hard skills’, i.e. the technical abilities and the qualifications.

But, sadly, this still doesn’t appear to be recognized and applied in so many businesses, both large and small. Technical abilities and qualifications are still given uneven weighting and importance when evaluating potential candidates for employment.

Now, to be sure, in some businesses technical skills are very important. You tend to pay particular attention to these when, for example, getting on a plane or going in for an operation.

But without the key interpersonal, social and communication skills, even people in these important professions aren’t the finished article. How much do we appreciate a pilot who is a great communicator, able to help us relax and feel safe in his or her expert hands? And what about a doctor with a good bedside manner, one who can inject (!) a little appropriate humour and provide reassurance, along with their ability to wield a scalpel and scissors?

In business, it is the soft skills, which enable an owner or an MD to take the business forward. Jean Leslie, a senior fellow with the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), highlights these 10 ‘must have’ soft skills for business leaders:

Self-awareness: Having an accurate picture of your strengths and weaknesses.

Learning agility: This is an individual’s readiness, willingness and ability to learn from experience.

Emotional intelligence: This is a variety of abilities that help leaders deal with their emotions and the emotions of others.

Resilience: Bouncing back from adversity.

Building relationships at all levels: Being able to show compassion, sensitivity and have a sense of humour with others — above and below in organizational structure — and being able to cultivate these relationships toward positive business performance.

Political savvy: The ability to influence people to obtain goals. The heart of being politically savvy, according to CCL, is networking, reading situations and thinking before speaking. Not every leader likes politics, but it’s present in every organization.

Motivating and engaging others: How many leaders have been successful when they cannot motivate their teams?

Building and leading effective teams: This is one of the top challenges MDs report, according to CCL. Building trust, setting strategic direction and breaking down silos are some of the micro skills needed.

Creating a culture of trust and respect: This has become a big challenge since the rise of virtual communication, yet trust and respect among team members — and chiefly among leaders — is paramount.

Communication: Voicing goals and inspiring others is vital — but so is listening.

In my many (many) years in business, I have had the privilege of working with, and for, some great leaders. And in every case, it was the so-called soft skills that marked them out as something special. This contributed enormously to my own growth and development and, latterly, my choice to coach others on developing those soft skills to apply in their own business ventures.

So, while technical, or ‘hard skills’ are important and sometimes vital, developing and honing our soft skills is always critical. They’re the skills which we carry for a lifetime and will help us develop as people, both in and out of business.

And, because my friend Stewart has a shedload of these skills, it means he will be a tremendous asset to his new employers when he does finally pick up a new job. Just a shame he’s had to wait so long, although I’m sure his garden is looking fabulous by now…