Do Your Soft Skills Suck? by Carolyn Tang Kmet for INSIGHT MAGAZINE


Do Your Soft Skills Suck?

Without a handle on the softer side of leadership, your success will be pretty short-lived.

By Carolyn Tang Kmet

Winter 2014

There are natural-born leaders and there are self-appointed leaders. Either one can navigate a team to greatness, just as long as they have the single most important, not-so-secret ingredient: Superlative soft skills.

These skills have nothing to do with technical expertise and everything to do with human relationships. Think empathy, communication, loyalty and motivation.

“Soft skills are what make it possible for a leader to connect with group members, and to motivate and elicit their best performance,” says June Chung, a group supervisor with the Social Security Administration. The way Chung sees it, soft skills are what keeps an organization “in harmony, focused and driven towards goals.”

In contrast, hard skills are associated with technical ability and functional mastery: Analytics, problem-solving, decision-making and strategic planning, for example. They’re used to enforce necessary corporate procedures through positional hierarchy and rank.

While leaders tend to be promoted based on their technical expertise, which usually is rooted in hard skills, “The higher someone progresses within an organization, the more important soft skills become because leaders spend more time dealing with people than they do executing tactics,” says Vickie Austin, business and career coach and founder of Wheaton, Ill.-based CHOICES Worldwide.

In the finance and accounting industry, the hard-versus-soft-skill distinction is amplified even further. “The nature of the work is about hard skills,” explains Tina Cantrill, president and principal consultant at Oxford & French Consulting Group Ltd., an organization specializing in building sustainable growth through high-performance environments. However, as Austin points out, leaders in the finance industry build teams as well as court and serve clients, both of which require soft skills. Partners in accounting firms are typically people who generate business through networking and referrals, and business development is all about building relationships.

To illustrate that point, here are three scenarios in which soft skills make all the difference between leadership success and failure.

Scenario 1: Your company was acquired and you’ve inherited new additions to your team. There is little interaction and a strong sense of resentment has emerged on all sides.

Dawn Armstrong, a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur and author, believes that in most companies, soft skills represent the best, easiest and sometimes the only way to achieve a specific business objective.

“Soft skills are the grease that allow the necessary cogs of corporate procedure to move smoothly and steadily, while keeping working relationships intact and in good standing,” she explains.

This is especially true in today’s business climate, heady with the constant flux of mergers and acquisitions, strategic partnerships and global expansion. Soft skills are absolutely necessary to ensure a company’s continued forward momentum and a staff’s continued high performance.

“In both startups and global companies, a leader is likely to be working with small to medium cross-departmental and crosscultural groups made up of an array of personalities,” Armstrong explains. Which means clear, concise communication, availability of support, guidance and intelligent questioning are essential.

“People who know what is expected of them and feel supported in achieving their goals, including being allowed to make mistakes, will go to the ends of the earth to achieve (those) goals,” says Cantrill.

Scenario 2: In every employee’s annual review, you clearly define specific goals, both technical and financial, yet performance is poor and your turnover rate soars.

Some leaders focus on the hard deliverables so greatly that they neglect to form an actual relationship with their employees. It’s as simple as keeping a hardworking team’s morale up with gestures as small as bringing donuts to a weekly status meeting, or providing a private space to conduct personal calls if an employee experiences an unexpected family emergency during work hours. Such actions build trust and inspire loyalty, and will quickly travel through the company grapevine.

Why the soft skills hurdle? For some, says Chung, it’s the perception that such skills make a leader appear weak. “However, I think this ignores the fact that human beings naturally seek connections to others. We want to see a human side to our leaders, some way to associate ourselves with them,” she says. “I think good leaders recognize a need to connect with the people they work with.”

“Vulnerability and humility…manifest as intense self-assuredness and therefore an amazingly strong character, not weakness,” Cantrill adds. “For someone to feel confident enough to be vulnerable and humble amongst those he or she leads requires incredible personal strength and self-awareness. Leaders who exhibit vulnerability and humility engender trust, which in turn creates an environment where people feel able to focus on goals and to take risks to achieve them.”

Balance is important, however. “If a leader shows too much leniency to people who may take advantage, then the leader risks not only missing important deliverable goals, but also losing the respect of more responsible colleagues,” Armstrong warns.

Finding that balance is particularly difficult for new leaders, who, Cantrill explains, tend to impose exacting standards on their people without creating an environment conducive to extraordinary performance. And then, when teams fail, they wonder what it is they did wrong.

In the absence of a strong mentor, new leaders tend to drive the “hard skills agenda” until they burn out or face a mutiny, she contends. Certainly, they excel in execution, but not in inspiring those around them to execute in concert. “They continue to play in the orchestra rather than conducting it,” she says.

Scenario 3: It’s time to close the books for the year, but no one on your team is willing to work the extra hours you need.

Treat your employees as resources, and they’ll treat their jobs as a means to an end. By taking an interest in your employees as individuals, you engender in them a sense of ownership and responsibility, and they’ll be more likely to put in the extra time when you need them to. The last thing you want is for one of your key people to be on vacation, walk out, or call in sick at the close of a financial period. Soft skills help to drive that dedication.

“Finance leaders will have the best chance of success if they foster teamwork and inspire their workers on a regular basis,” says Armstrong. “This will require having firm working guidelines, meeting regularly with the team, and consistently reinforcing appreciation and expectations.”

“Employees and clients both thrive on relationships where the leader or partner demonstrates an interest in them, a curiosity about what’s important to them and an understanding of their needs,” Austin adds. “All of those behaviors, including the ability for a leader or partner to communicate ‘I care,’ are soft skills.”

6 Tips for the Soft Skills-Challenged

Tina Cantrill, president and principal consultant at Oxford & French Consulting Group Ltd, offers these key tips to fine tune the softer side of your skills set.

Be vulnerable. Seek feedback from direct and indirect reports, and be prepared to listen and act on what you hear.

Get a mentor. Find someone who is a strong and trusted leader and observe them closely. What do they do? How do they do it? How do they communicate? What words do they use? How do people respond to them? Then model their behaviors.

Stop thinking of them as “soft” skills. Instead, see them as vital skills needed to create an environment where people can be extraordinary.

Coach your employees. A great way to learn something is to teach/coach it. Seeing the behavior in others reinforces it in you.

Include soft skills in your development plan. What gets documented gets done.

Do your homework. Read articles about the importance of these skills in creating a healthy culture. And quote them to others, as well as to yourself.

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