I was recently present when the CEO of a mid-size technology company was addressing a group of high potential leaders in her company.
She said to them, “Your technical skills generally get you your first management or leadership role. But a large part of your success after that will be based on the strength of your soft skills.”
Her comments struck a chord with me. The best leaders are often those that demonstrate a capacity to work closely with people and build teams, all while demonstrating a healthy capacity for self-awareness.
It’s hardly a new idea. After working with thousands of leaders over the years, I’ve come to the undeniable conclusion that it’s the strength of your soft skills that will make or break you as a leader.
However, soft skills are proving to be even more critical today and certainly into the future. The Adecco Group recently released a white paper called The Soft Skills Imperative. They argue that although technology is quickly taking over all aspects of the world of work, the ability to understand people – largely through soft skills – is a huge competitive advantage.
Soft skills are a force that, once harnessed, can be leveraged to drive optimal performance at a personal, team and organizational level. There are many current examples of this strategy at work. One very interesting example comes from World Series champion, The Chicago Cubs.
After having been labelled a laughing stock in Major League Baseball for going 108 years without winning the World Series, the Cubs finally triumphed in 2016. A good part of the team’s success could be attributed to a focus on recruiting and developing players with certain soft skills.
In any professional sport, athletic skills are exceedingly important. But Cubs General Manager, Theo Epstein, also looked deliberately for players that demonstrated character and resilience. As a Chicago Tribune feature on the Cubs championship put it, Epstein deliberately built a team based on “low maintenance, highly motivated players.”
The result was a team that was so in sync, so closely knit, they could not be beat.
The Cubs offer us a great example of how soft skills are defined in baseball. How then do we define soft skills in the business world?
The Adecco Group report includes things such as the ability to express empathy, communicate persuasively, seek common ground with stakeholders and engage people so they feel invested in the company.
A recent LinkedIn study conducted by economist Guy Berger also identified the top ten soft skills that companies were seeking in their job candidates: communication, organization, teamwork, consistent punctuality, critical thinking, social skills, creativity, interpersonal communication, adaptability, and a friendly personality.
What the study also found was that close to 60% of companies in the United States cannot find talent with strong soft skills. That’s why they have become an imperative for many companies.
In my own work, I find the issue of soft skills almost inevitably comes up when I talk with companies about a leader that is failing in his or her role. When I probe to find out the root causes of a particular leadership failure, I will likely hear that the leader in question has impeccable technical skills but has trouble communicating or motivating the people he or she leads.
When I hear this narrative, I have to admit to having some sympathy for the failed leaders. Either they were promoted into a leadership role without the appropriate soft skills, or they were not encouraged or supported to develop them. Either way, the soft-skills gap is caused just as much by bad leadership development as it is by ineffective individuals.
Every leader needs to make a sincere commitment to developing strong soft skills to accompany the technical acumen they possess. If we ignore the soft skills necessary for effective leadership, we run the risk of becoming irrelevant and, ultimately, unwanted.
Organizations need to do their part as well. The expectations around soft skills must be communicated clearly, and appropriate development and support must be available to cultivate those skills.
The importance of soft skills is only going to gain in importance. In fact, Alain Dehaze, CEO of The Adecco Group, believes that in years to come leaders will be measured more for their ability to cultivate soft skills rather than technical expertise.
How are you doing when it comes to your own soft skills? Are you confident you have built and demonstrate the soft skills you will need to be a truly successful leader? What are you doing to build the soft skills of your team?
This week’s gut check asks: how good are your soft skills?