Soft Skills Matter in Business – Even if Not Measurable

Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to work alongside some brilliant co-workers and clients. Whether it has been inside a public accounting firm, or as an advisor to engineering and construction companies, I am often surrounded by folks with strong technical skills. Since my role has usually involved organizational development, strategy, or marketing and business development, I have heard time and again how “soft and fuzzy” topics such as relationships, emotional intelligence, and creativity and communication are less needful than the technical skills.

Susan Mazza, who writes a blog entitled Random Acts of Leadership, recognizes the dichotomy of “soft” versus “hard” skills in her recent post, “The Power of Soft.” She states in the post that, “the very need to distinguish “soft” vs. “hard” speaks to a paradigm that has long revered hard results as the only ones that really matter. Unless something can be quantified and measured the underlying belief is that it is somehow less valuable and hence of lesser importance.”Soft vs hard skills

Whether I have been in conversations with a CFO, a business owner, or a  VP of operations, I have heard over and again how that which cannot be measured must be insignificant and pale in priority. Mazza references a recent TED Talk by Dr. Brene’ Brown, “Leaning into Vulnerability” in which Brown shares how one of her research professors once stated, “If you cannot measure it, it doesn’t exist.” Mazza observes that many with advanced degrees subscribe to a scientific framework that assumes “measurable” is the only test for “real!”

Dr. Brown’s talk about vulnerability addressed the effort to view “soft” subjects with “hard” data. New insights have prevailed that challenge the long-held distinction within the business world of the value of each category of skills. Mazza’s view of the new awareness is that, “in our relentless pursuit to collect and analyze data, we all too often ignore the most important measure of all – our senses!”

The behavior we see and emotions we feel, according to Mazza, are the source of the most powerful tool we have as leaders and mangers – our ability to observe. She observes the following:

You have probably heard the phrase, “the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife.” Can’t you feel that tension? How much productive work gets done when that kind of tension is present? Yet we often grind through what we see and feel through simple observation, knowing both the experience and the result are going to be less than satisfying.

Would having a mood Geiger Counter to assign the tension a number really make any difference?

By simply observing the mood and the impact it is having on your ability to fulfill your commitments, you are able to take action to make a difference in any moment. How to take that action is, of course, another subject.

The point here is the real power of soft comes from our innate ability to observe. So perhaps it’s time to give up our attachment to measuring all things and the belief that, “If you can’t measure it it doesn’t exist.”  Why not start  learning to better use the tools we have been born with – our senses – as an access to improving relationships, enhancing performance and creating great places to work?

The ability to navigate through tensions, create win-win scenarios, and build esprit de corps comes not from technical, “hard” skills, but from those soft and fuzzy assets that many C-suite executives and business owners underestimate. Think about your own organization and how greater respect for soft skills could make it a better place to work, where senses are valued equally with data and relationships that build goodwill are put on a pedestal.

 

 

 

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My China Shop Needs No Bulls

Too many corporations put “bulls” in executive roles, and surprisingly hope for good things. Hard-nosed tactics may produce some short-term gains. Under the surface, employee engagement often suffers, which can spur greater turnover and undesirable business performance. Peter Friedes, founder of the management think tank Managing People Better, offers a parable to illustrate (below):

Roger the Bull

Roger always “tells,” rarely “asks.” He knows what he wants, demands it, and pushes everyone to adapt to his schedule and expectations. He believes that every second counts and does not view relationship-building as time well spent or a necessary activity for getting great work done.

He is not empathetic or understanding. He rarely changes his mind, even with new information. He operates solely on his own agenda, showing little or no interest in his employees’ opinions. He rejects suggestions quickly, as he knows others’ ideas won’t work. He easily confronts people, often using words that are harsh, strong, or judgmental. He can be arrogant, as if to say he has all the answers. He doesn’t trust his employees to do a good job, so he hovers and corrects them.

Roger doesn’t include others before making decisions. While he thinks he coaches his employees, his “coaching” comes across as demands. No one would call him nurturing or encouraging. His language and tone exude frustration and anger. He is extremely unpleasant to work for.

bull in china shopFriedes writes that, while Roger may have flourished as a department of one in the past, his lack of understanding of how to motivate others is a huge drawback to managerial effectiveness. What is recommended are two key skill sets:

  • Relating, which includes relationship-building activities such as asking, listening, including, coaching, and encouraging.
  • Requiring, which encompasses results-oriented activities such as setting expectations, focusing on goals, insisting on excellence, establishing appropriate controls, confronting performance issues, and asserting your views.

Read about Friedes’ experiences in trying to coach Roger-types:

Bulls are the hardest managers to coach. They typically don’t listen well. They often think they have the answers already. Over the years, I’ve tried the following messages, with limited success:

  1. “You are a results-oriented manager. But you would get far better results by asking, listening, including, coaching, and encouraging your people more often, and lowering the volume on how you demand and require of your people.”

  2. “You were an excellent, hard-working individual achiever. But now your success is measured by how well you let others achieve. This takes a different set of skills. Unless you develop these skills, you cannot be effective as a manager.”

  3. “Your goal is fine…to do a lot of excellent work and meet productivity objectives. But the manner you use to get results is damaging our business and sabotaging your career.”

  4. “Our top employees will not work for an over-Requiring, under-Relating manager very long. They will seek a more reasonable manager and leave or transfer. That will require you to start over with new people, lowering your productivity. Over time, the company will not want to give you any new people.”

  5. “You have taught your people to give you exactly what you want, but they no longer give you new ideas or suggestions for how to do things better. You have demotivated them, which is why you see them lacking.”

  6. “I know you don’t need to be liked. But you do need people to appreciate and respect being managed by you. You are not on track to get that respect.”

Since Bulls feel justified in their treatment of others, none of these statements are likely to produce changed behavior. However, being straightforward, according to Friedes, and saying “You are failing as a manager” or “You will be fired if this over-Requiring, under-Relating behavior continues.” may have the desired impact.

(Want to see how Bullish you are? Take a free assessment !)

 

Motivations From Branson’s Mom

Business leaders–whether of start-up or large businesses, should possess certain qualities in order to lead their organizations well. In the domain of emotional intelligence, these characteristics often include empathy, social skills, motivation, self awareness and self regulation. In a recent blog post on Entrepreneur.com, the following question was asked:

 

Q: Is self-motivation an innate quality or is it something that can be learned and improved upon?
– Chris Prior, Liverpool, England

 

Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin (Records, Airways, Mobile, etc) offered the following response:

If you aren’t good at motivating yourself, you probably won’t get very far in business – especially as an entrepreneur. When you’re starting up a company and for the first couple of years afterward, there are a lot of long nights and stressful days, and the workload is heavy. You have to be able to give the job everything you’ve got every day, or it will easily get the better of you.

The ability to tap into your determination and grit is not just an innate skill. You can teach yourself to get up every day and try to keep a new business going despite long odds, partly by structuring your life and job to make sure you are working toward your larger goals.Branson Virgin Brands

(My mother) feels that shyness is very selfish, as it means you are only thinking of yourself, and so she was very insistent that I look adults in the eye and shake their hands, and carry on conversations with guests at dinner and at parties — no excuses. (She) also taught me to dive into situations even if I wasn’t completely sure about my own abilities, and then solve the problems that came up as I went along. When I was almost 12, she once sent me alone on a long bike-riding expedition to another town, knowing that I would be fine, but also that I’d have to find water and ask for directions along the way.

Before I left school at 16, I was already working on launching what became one of my first businesses, Student magazine. Then when my friends and I put ourselves in a position that forced the issue, by moving into a basement in West London that served as both our office and our living quarters, we really gave our magazine everything we had.

There were times when we struggled to pool together enough money to afford a proper meal — that in itself was a great motivator to follow through on calls to potential advertisers. In the larger picture, we were willing to live with such uncertainty because we wanted to give our generation a voice on issues that we felt strongly about, such as the Vietnam War; this shared goal meant a great deal to everyone involved.

It’s important to understand what your main motivation is so that you can focus your efforts on reaching those goals. Then structure your job – perhaps by delegating some work – so that you can spend as much time as possible turning this energy to your company’s advantage.

Above all, you should work on building a business you’re proud of. This has always been a motivator for me, from my Student magazine days, through to our latest start-ups today. I have never gone into any business purely to make money. If money is your only motive, then I believe you shouldn’t launch the business at all.

Once you know what your own motivations and aspirations are, talk to your employees and colleagues about theirs, if you haven’t already. Then structure their jobs in a way that allows them to tap into this energy, too. With you and your employees approaching your work with renewed energy and commitment, you’ll find that there’s little that you can’t accomplish together.

Good advice, indeed, from one of the most successful serial entrepreneurs on the planet. Branson understands what it takes to be successful. As you evaluate your own level of motivation and how you inspire others to be self-motivated, hopefully you can take notes from him on some best practices and the proper mindset.

 

When Less Polish is Better

 

The week before last, I stopped by one of my satellite offices to visit with my team mates. Unfortunately, none of them were there as all had outside appointments. What I did encounter, however, was a leftover Christmas gift. A referral partner of mine had dropped an envelope off for me and I hadn’t been by since he did. Inside the envelope was a book and a very kind note. The book’s title, Getting Naked, caught me off guard, but the contents were a very pleasant surprise.

The author is Patrick Lencioni, famous for his previous work, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Lencioni is well known for teamwork, leadership, and organizational health expertise on the speaking circuit. The book is told as a type of fable, with narrative mixed in with didactic lessons. First person narrative is used to show a change of heart from a traditional approach to client service to one that is very vulnerable, transparent, and self effacing. Excerpts from the book are provided below to give you an overview of its themes and principles.Young consultants

Lencioni writes that most service providers are susceptible to three fears that prevent them from building trust and loyalty with clients:

1. Fear of Losing the Business

No service provider wants to lose clients, business opportunities, or revenue. Ironically, though, this fear of losing the business actually hurts our ability to keep and increase business, because it causes us to avoid doing the difficult things that engender greater loyalty and trust with the people we’re trying to serve.

2. Fear of Being Embarrassed

No one likes making mistakes in public and having to endure the scrutiny of spectators, especially when those spectators are paying us for advice or counsel. And yet, like a fifth-grader, we know that the only thing worse than raising our hand and having the wrong answer is failing to put our hand up at all (and realizing that more often than not, we did indeed have the right answer). This fear, then, is rooted in pride, and it is ultimately about avoiding the appearance of ignorance, wanting to be seen as smart or competent.

3. Fear of Feeling Inferior

Like the previous fear, this one has its roots in ego, but there is an important difference between the two. Fear of feeling inferior is not about our intellectual pride, but rather about preserving our sense of importance and social standing relative to a client. 

Lencioni makes several great points.  It is so easy in a client facing role to withhold information that we sense the client may perceive to be bad news. There is almost a subconscious thought that the client will think less of us because we can’t control the outcome. Instead, we are exhorted to be frank and sincere because in so doing we will win confidence and trust. In the long run, we are more believable for having let our guard down–not less! In addition to being willing to say tough things, the thought of asking crazy questions without worry about how we will be perceived is very freeing. When a service provider is not afraid to make the client look good at her own expense, she has the right view of how the relationship should be structured. We ar to be there for the client’s needs–not the reverse.

 

 

Innovation: Spurred By Introverts or Not?

introvert v extrovert

We are all familiar with the stereotypes surrounding introverts. Yet, Stefan Lindegaard at 15inno.com, in a blog post today, while acknowledging that he is an introvert and prefers to be alone, looks at the unique role introverts can play in innovation.  He projects that, in terms of innovation, more innovation will happen in communities either in the b2c form of crowdsourcing or in the b2b form of innovation networks, alliances and challenges. He sees the communities as not just virtual/online, but also in person. Some of Lindegaard’s observations about introversion as it relates to innovation are below (he doesn’t perceive the shift to synchronized collaboration to be one that will exclude introverts from innovation.)

Reflection is an important, but forgotten capability. It is often said that introverts get more energy through reflection and that it dwindles during interaction. Well, we need more reflection. There is too much action in this fast paced world and when it comes to ideas and innovation, the best results seem to come when you take a break and reflect on the problems you are trying to solve.

Organizational structures need to make room for introverts. With the exception of a few pockets such as R&D and accounting most functions within a company seem to be driven with an extrovert-like attitude. But not all people are social. Many are introverts and don’t necessarily want to socialize and focus on external matters. What about them?

Introverts must learn to turn on the switch. Far too many meetings either take too long or should never have taken place at all. The matters could have been dealt with in more effective ways than a meeting. Introvert or not. 

But when I need to interact with others in the physical world, I have trained myself to turn on a switch that allows me to be a good networker (ask questions, focus on the other person) and deliver good talks. I would actually argue that introverts are capable of becoming better networkers than most other people because we are more likely to define a purpose and execute on this before we interact like this.

We need to develop the softer skills. Yes, it is kind of a cliché that soft skills such as networking, communication and “people skills” are really the hard skills, but this does not change the fact that too many companies fail to educate their employees on this. More importantly; they don’t give the employees the time needed to develop these skills. Those who want to succeed in the social era need to change this.

Social media works well for introverts. You can “hide” and still have a strong voice in your community or industry. This is one reason that I spent so much time with social media. It is a great way to communicate and since there is so much input (some call this information overload), it gives you plenty of opportunities to reflect on what is happening and thus build further on your own thoughts and ideas. Social media makes it easier for introverts to become more social. It is a win for everyone.

Introverts can challenge the crowd. Since most introverts shy away from the crowd, they often see the crowd in a different perspective. We need all perspectives when we work with innovation and good innovation leader make an effort to recognize this and thus pay extra attention to listen to the more “quiet” introverts.

 

Lindegaard’s comments should be challenging to traditional organizational development thought. He almost goes so far as to recommend diversity strategies to balance personality types in work groups. Furthermore, he portrays as valuable the tension between thinking and communication, solitary productivity vs group performance. Think about these concepts and your own organization. Consider how you may better organize yourselves to be more innovative.