Soft skills for better business

Adam Bernstein
Friday, October 30, 2020

To run a business, to be successful in life, requires skill, knowledge and plenty of time.

It takes six years to become a solicitor, 10 years to qualify as a GP, while to qualify as a brain surgeon requires 18 years of training and study. And for the world of print? For the Advanced Standard for Print Technician Level 3, as offered by Learn2Print, applicants are required to invest 28 months.

While these spans of time may lead to an individual being able to practice in their chosen field, having hard skills – knowledge – doesn’t necessarily make them a guaranteed success for they still have to be able to deal with people. We’ve all come across an individual that is technically competent but who is irritating because they have poor interpersonal skills. It’s this deficiency that training in the art of soft skills seeks to correct.

A vague definition

Clive Lewis, founder and CEO of Illumine Training, defines soft skills as “one of those somewhat vague terms that means slightly different things to different people. If ‘hard skills’ consist of the things needed to perform a specific job – say, being able to reconcile a bank account as an accountant or fixing security settings on a computer as an IT specialist – soft skills is everything else: the generalities that help most people perform in their jobs and work with others more effectively.”

Putting it another way, Beck Chalmers, director of Holst Workplace Effectiveness, says that “soft skills are ‘nice to haves’ or non-technical requirements for a role, skills such as communication, presentation, creative thinking. In contrast, hard skills might include computer literacy, project management or warehouse management”.

As to what soft skills may entail, they can be generally thought of as good communication skills, being self- motivated, having leadership qualities, being able to take responsibility, able to work in a team, able to problem solve, being decisive, able to work under pressure and time constraints, being flexible, and being able to negotiate and resolve conflicts.

So, whenever the question of ‘when does a soft skill become a hard skill’ is asked, Chalmers answers by saying that it’s conditional on the role. For example, someone in business development pitching for business with high-stakes prospects will need presentation skills and an ability to persuade as a hard skill; it’s a necessity for that kind of role. But for someone in another position, these might be designated soft skills.

It’s of note that Chalmers would never suggest that specific skills tend to be lacking. Rather, she thinks that it’s more about the demands or requirements of a role – “the skills that a person requires to be successful in their job”.

The problem for employers is that everyone is different and so their strengths and needs are by definition going to be different. This means that soft skills can cover a wide range of sub-topics such as the interpersonal skills of listening and rapport building.

Lewis says: “Many people ‘get by’ with relatively low skill levels in some of what they do, but most will benefit from making specific, targeted improvements.”

Chalmers believes that organisations benefit from taking time to identify the main competencies – behavioural and those that are hard, soft or technical – and considering the organisational values that are required for each role. This allows them to make decisions on where to invest. “The key thing to remember,” says Chalmers, “is that organisations fall down when learning – whether in the classroom, online, or by coaching, etc – isn’t linked to organisational initiatives and there is no commitment or support to follow-up or embed sustained change on the job.”

A moving target

Nothing worthwhile stays still and so it follows that the demands of the workplace morph and as a result, soft skills needed also change.

In recent years change has been driven by the world of online. For Lewis, modern ways of communicating mean that “text-speak and spending a lot of time online don’t always equip people for a world of work in which good grammar and face-to-face communication are the norm”. Further, he thinks that some are promoted into supervisory or management roles without having the necessary skills required to manage others effectively.

One of the challenges for management is that what they do is often more important than what they say. Here Lewis thinks that management needs to be able to understand the behaviours that the organisation expects everyone to adopt and “having and demonstrating emotional intelligence would be good examples of this”. He says that getting this right can make a big difference to performance.

Emotional intelligence, by the way, is a typical soft skill and is often identified as a key leadership skill. It encompasses how people manage anger, stress or fear – they all have an immediate impact on their performance. From Lewis’ perspective, training in this area can teach people how to motivate themselves, manage stress and inspire others: “It’s ideal for anyone who needs to be in control of their emotions in order to fulfil their potential”.

Chalmers agrees that skill requirements change over time. She points to agile leadership as an example of this “with its focus on having a growth mindset and value generation... But with coronavirus we are seeing a shift to well-being and resilience”. She said that this makes logical sense because that is what organisations and their people need right now.

But no matter the motive, training still needs to be personal and so a natural question to pose is whether training needs vary according not just to the individual, but their demographic: male/female, young/old, or worker/management and so on?

In response, Lewis says that “gender, age and job role are bound to have an impact but so will recruitment practices, company culture and the industry involved”. The problem is not so much demographic but that invariably there isn’t the budget (or time) to train staff for all situations, needs or eventualities. He says that “organisations need to be selective and need to identify the skill, attitude or behaviour shifts that are likely to have the biggest impact on current and future performance”.

Chalmers takes a slightly different line. She worries that seeking a consensus within an organisation is a big challenge and she gives an instance: “People have preferences on presentations, the amount of detail in communications and writing skills is a classic example. A big challenge with writing skills is consensus within an organisation on the use of the active and passive voice. Business writing conventions have changed over the decades and people often hold strong preferences.” By definition this will be viewed differently depending on demographic.

Identifying needs

In some cases, it’ll be known who needs a soft skills nudge. But for others a Training Needs Analysis will be needed. That said, employers that conduct regular performance reviews should already have a great deal of information available to them about the areas where their employee’s shortcomings are having an impact on performance.

For any training to work – soft skills or otherwise – HR (or those responsible) need to collate the information and feed it to senior management who must take ownership of identifying – and doing something about – the skills gaps in the organisation.

But Chalmers offers another option: the testing of staff. But before testing she says employers should actually understand what they’re looking for: “If you are looking to save money with better recruitment choices then assessments such as the McQuaig Psychometric System are perfect, but if you are looking to develop individual or team resilience then assessments such as Resilienceflow are the key.” As she sees it, the biggest benefit of testing is that assessments increase self-awareness, and with that an employer can target the areas that the individual might need to develop for the role.

McQuaig, by the way, holds itself out as building competence by benchmarking a role internally, recruiting to the requirements of that role, developing people based on their strengths, and helping to retain the stars. Resilienceflow, on the other hand, is a psychometric assessment that aims to measure an individual’s resilience with regard to how they approach their job.

But when considering testing, Chalmers warns that employers “shouldn’t use them as a way to punish or as a stick; assessments will only give you the questions to ask, after all, people are more than a set of numbers”. She illustrates this by noting that strong qualities and traits are desirable in many roles. An assessment will tell where that person has strengths. What it won’t tell is to what extent a person is able to manage those strengths in the workplace.

It’s all about the benefits

So, ultimately, what can soft skills training do? Where’s the benefit to a firm investing in them? To answer this, Lewis points to a simple example such as interpersonal communication: “When people in a team listen effectively to each other, and know how to show empathy towards each other, and recognise that ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘inferior’, they will work better together.” He adds that they will accomplish more and there will be the knock-on benefits of staff being happier, more engaged and more productive.

Get the best from the trainer

Training costs so it’s got to count. Done well, skills training can plug gaps in delivery, support periods of change, create succession planning options from within the organisation, build staff loyalty, and attract ‘talent’ as development is often seen as a benefit to people looking for work. And as Chalmers notes: “It can make a company more profitable, productive and position it for greater market share. It can build the overall resilience of the organisation and help ensure the business remains competitive.”

Even so, firms must be careful when seeking out training and should, reckons Lewis, expect to be asked a battery of questions by potential trainers that can help determine the need. He says that when companies come to him with an enquiry about a soft skills course, he wants to know why they are asking about the course. “Specifically,” he says, “I want to know what they want the course participants to be able to do as a result of the training that they can’t do now. Or what would they want those people to do better and why. I want to know what problems the apparent skills gaps are causing the individuals and the organisation.”

Chalmers, alternatively, recommends asking candidate trainers for “pre- and post-learning tips; good training providers will be able to bring this value to a client”. This might sort the wheat from the chaff.

But beyond the training, it’s important to consider what is going to happen after the course – what coaching or mentoring is going to be provided to support individuals when they are back at work so that they put what they have learned into practice? Fail to answer this question and the exercise will be pointless.

Summary

As Monty Python’s Brian points out: we are all individuals. We are each of us different, born with different skills that can be developed. While knowledge can be attained, as the adage goes, ‘people buy people’ – it’s the soft skills that make individuals a success.


Training success stories

Lewis “We’ve been running soft skills training in the UK and around the world since 1996, so we’ve seen how performance can be transformed.

The most gratifying responses come from people who have not previously been helped to understand the impact that their persona can have on those around them.

I’ve seen managers shocked – positively – when they’ve finally realised that by replacing their short and direct (what they saw as decisive and time-efficient) one-word answers to questions with considered questions of their own, their workers felt ‘heard’, valued and empowered – for the first time. As a result of that, staff grew in confidence and became more effective in their roles.”

Chalmers “A motor engineering company (a supplier of powertrains to an F1 team) had engineers with strong orientation to detail who were overwhelming international customers during presentations, leaving them exasperated by technology, multiple languages and too much information. We supplied communication and presentation skills courses.

At a warehouse management systems specialist, we helped set up and implement a best practice standard for internal and external communications.

And at a tech company that wanted to know how best to engage their bright young talent, we delivered a motivation workshop, which uses an assessment, to identify the employees’ motivation drivers.”

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