In many companies today, all over the world, you still hear the term ‘soft skills’ referred to by leaders, managers and HR professionals. It’s a myth that just won’t die.
Actually, there is NO such thing as soft skills. The so-called soft skills people refer to such as the ability to communicate effectively , develop alliances, enroll others into a vision, navigate uncertainty with ease, coach team members, build trust – just to name a few – are the absolute hardest things to do well. Sure, you can learn math or engineering or medicine or finances and become very competent at these 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 even harder to measure. Maybe because, culturally, we have a great deal of trouble with stuff we can’t concretely measure; once we label something subjective it is seen as somehow less important or impactful.
Right now, I bet you can think of at least one colleague you work with that is technically competent at what they do but who doesn’t have the ability to build strong working relationships or lead others to achieve a mutually defined goal. These missing skills will likely derail his or her career advancement at some point. In fact, most leaders will tell you that the majority of organizational problems they face stem from poor communication skills and missing interpersonal skills among the team members and individual contributors.
If I had to pick the most important skill set of a leader – at any level – I would say (and this isn’t the traditional answer you might be expecting) that 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. Let me explain what I mean by that.
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 strategize, 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. 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 at his or her lack of responsiveness. Get the point?
A substantial part of organizational ineffectiveness and waste lies in our inability to have the right conversation, at the right time, in the right mood that supports our objectives and goals. The success of a 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 lead to effective and coordinated action; and they need to align the cares of the individual contributors with the cares of the organization.
While it is everyone’s responsibility in the organization to pay attention to their conversational competency, it is what the leaders are being paid to do – to make sure these conversations are happening and happening well.
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 not a characteristic that you are born with or obtain through position. Leadership is learned and you’ll need to pay attention to all that ‘soft’ stuff to do it well.