As leaders, we are always talking about the soft skills. Saying things like – “the technical skills are your ticket to the event, but it is the soft skills that will determine whether or not you will get the job or the promotion.” We espouse the term like everyone knows what these soft skills are. Sure, we know that is usually means things like team work, problem solving, and communication. But, think about those terms. What are we saying? We are saying something like the elements of salt water are the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, or the South China Sea. These terms are so broad that there are volumes written on them.
So how do we as leaders counsel others including ourselves about the elements of these board topics so that we are highlighting the critical elements of these “soft skills”. And, as the critical elements change; how do we get that across to our teams and mentees? This is a crucial question because it is being able to recognize these changes and being able to articulate them that allows us as leaders to stay relevant. It is what is going to make the difference between being current or stagnant.
Let’s take for example the topic of several news reports over the past weekend about a critical skill that the Millennials seem to be missing. It seemed that no matter what news story you watched, they all discussed an aspect of communication. It is not that the Millennials did not communicate, it was how they were communicating or not communicating. There seemed to be a lack of direct person-to-person communication via telephone or face-to-face. Sure, the Millennials would text, use Instagram, or some other social media tool, but these did not involve a direct person-to-person interaction with the non-verbal clues. Employers are indicating; it is how these individuals are handling or not handling these direct interactions that were costing these individuals, either in terms of not landing jobs or in poor ratings on the job.
Telling a student or mentee or young professional that they need to improve their communication skills may or may not get the point across. These individuals think that they are communicating and don’t understand what is missing. We as leaders have to start really articulating what is missing in the soft skill. In the example, what is missing is that these individuals haven’t had to learn or deal with nuisance or really understand how their bearing conveys just as much of a message as the words they use.
Add to this that some of these “soft skill” areas begin to tread into dangerous territory, the world of perceived discrimination. For those of us that lived in a bit of a different time, where your superior came in and discussed your physical appearance without consequence; we now have to carefully handle these situations in such a manner as to not trip over a regulation or create a perceived negative environment. This makes it a challenge in how we guide or mentor individuals to ensure that get the appropriate guidance. Which is why, we as leaders have to spend the time to think about how to address some of these soft skill issues as well as create safe places and situations where these skills can be learned and practiced.
As soft skills are culturally disseminated, the first thing that we as leaders have to do is become models of the desired behavior. We must demonstrate the professionalism we desire. We need to be open to criticism ourselves. We need to encourage dialog. And, we need to learn how really verbalize areas where the culture is changing and communicate how some actions are perceived by others. We have to develop a new critical soft skill – dealing with sensitive issues in a sensitive manner.