Embrace Your "Soft" Skills!

Ok. I admit it's a pet peeve of mine. In so many companies today, all over the world, you still hear the term 'soft skills' referred to by leaders, managers and HR professionals. The so-called soft skills that they are referring to include things like building relationships, communicating so you're understood, building trust, enrolling others into a vision, relating with empathy.

When you stop to think about this, there's actually nothing 'soft' about these skills. They are the absolute hardest thing to do well.

Actually, there is NO such thing as soft skills. You can learn math or engineering or medicine or finances or business and become very competent at those skills, but if you can't get others to consider your ideas or follow your lead, then these "hard" skills won't take you or the organization very far.

I'm not sure why some skills got labeled soft in the first place, maybe because they are hard to teach and/or even harder to measure. Maybe it's because we don't value conversational skills as evidenced by the fact that we don't teach conversational or emotional competency to our kids. Maybe it's because culturally, we have a great deal of trouble with stuff that is less concrete.

Right now, I bet you can think of at least one colleague you work with that is technically competent at what they do but lacks the ability to build strong working relationships or lead others to achieve a mutually defined goal. These missing skills might be jeopardizing the desired outcomes and/or the well-being of the team. They may even derail his or her career advancement at some point. Most of the women leaders I've worked with over the years say that the tough organizational problems they face stem, primarily, from poor communication skills and missing interpersonal skills among the organizational members, rather than from a lack of technical know-how. They talk about how challenging it can be to have a 'difficult' conversation with a superior or to advocate for their position amidst a lot of push back.

If I had to pick the most important skill set of a leader I would say - and this isn't the traditional answer you might be expecting - it's the ability to ensure sure that the right conversations are being had at the right time and in the right mood at all levels of the organization. Consider this question for a moment: What is it that you do in your job every day?

Most answer by describing some task or function that they carry out. Others cite the results they produce measured in terms of sales generated or customer responses or lines of code written.

Consider instead that regardless of what field you are in and regardless of what level you are at in your organization, what you spend your time at work doing is... having conversations. You coordinate action, you plan, you speculate, you make requests, you analyze, you create strategy, you develop alliances, you build relationships, you respond to customers, you open new markets - and you do all of this through conversations. You have these conversations with your colleagues, with your team members, with your vendors, with your customers, with yourself. You have these conversations in your head, through email, in meetings, over the phone, through text, etc. It's so obvious once you point it out yet it is also transparent to us - just like a fish in water.

Consider that all these conversations you have either contribute to and support the results you've promised or your conversations are done poorly and actually get in your way of achieving those results. What do I mean by poorly? The request you made didn't have clear conditions of satisfaction or a due date attached to it. The complaint you made because the deliverable was late was offered in a mood of anger and resentment. The cool idea you suggested to your boss was delivered when the boss was rushing to another meeting and you ignored the fact that it wasn't the right time to make the offer and got upset anyhow. Get the point?

A substantial part of your power, effectiveness and impact lies in your inability to have the right conversation, at the right time, in the right mood that supports your objectives and goals. The success of your team or company depends on how effective the conversations are that they are having internally with each other and externally with customers, vendors and other alliances. To be successful the conversations need to produce shared commitments; they need to result in well-coordinated action; and they need to align the cares of the individual contributors with the cares of the organization. They require your courage, resolve and vulnerability.

Even when powerful conversational skills aren't taught in most traditional educational systems, the good news is that these skills can still be learned. Contrary to popular myth, leadership is about paying attention to the 'soft' stuff. To do it well, they shouldn't be an afterthought. Don't let anyone convince you that they aren't important.