Charm School: Why Soft Skills Are The “New Black”

by | Jan 1, 2015 | Education

Chances are good you’ve recently heard a lot about the importance of soft skills as a factor for workplace success. But you might think those are mostly applicable to fields likes sales or project management, rather than for those planning to form and advance a company in the medical space, which requires specific technical experience.

While that is true, as technological advances such as artificial intelligence promise to take over many of the hard skills sets that employees have, soft skills are the new hard skills, says Claudia Carasso, the founder and managing partner of Elastic Minds, a strategic communications and branding firm, and mentor for the Ferolyn Fellowship.

Studies back her up, showing that senior executives express concern that a gap in soft skills is a detriment to a well-rounded workforce. Shockingly, nearly 65 percent fear that a lack of soft skills will threaten the U.S. economy as companies will move to foreign countries where those skills are more prevalent, and 34 percent believe a lack of soft skills is a threat to R&D. Even more worrisome is the hit to retention that companies can take if they hire a manager who doesn’t have the right soft skills.

Claudia spoke at a recent educational seminar at the Fogarty Institute to share the newest thinking on how to develop the soft skills needed in today’s work setting.

Joining her in a panel discussion moderated by the Institute’s Andrew Cleeland and Greg Bakan were industry leaders who included Mike Welch, vice president of market development for EBR Systems; Kara Liebig, partner at The Foundry; and Corinne Landphere, principal of Corinne Landphere Consulting.

Here is a recap of their engaging conversation, with food for thought for any entrepreneur.

Q. What’s the difference between hard and soft skills and why are the latter important? A. Claudia: Hard skills are predictable, systematic and logical; the rules of engagement are clear and reproducible, thus reducing variables for consistent outcomes. They are easy to “celebrate,” as “wins”

show as hard data and provide a feeling of satisfaction. For example, you know when the code is correct because the program works.

Soft skills, on the other hand, are hard to define or even measure. Think about things like authenticity, collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork skills, empathy, cultural awareness and negotiation. These things vary by culture. They can be subjective. Some people see them as attributes, while others see them as skills. They are all of the above!

While employers used to hire specifically for hard skills, there is a growing body of data showing that soft skills rival academic and technical skills, especially when as a predictor of workplace advancement and compensation. A recent study by Stanford University showed that 75 percent of employees report that long-term job success depends on soft skills. That same study showed that 72 percent of employees felt they did not have those skills when they started working. Soft skills are also hard to replicate, which is a huge factor considering that the growth of Al will increasingly replace hard skill jobs.

Mike: Soft skills help you build trust. I strongly believe that being good at what you do only matters if you are also passionate and really care about the people you serve, whether it’s a customer, a patient or your team. When you have other people’s interest at heart, it earns you a lot of credibility and it builds trust, which is a key soft skill in corporate culture. Ultimately, people do business with people they trust and enjoy. You have to be capable, but you also have to be authentic and show you care.

Q. If soft skills are hard to quantify, how do you know if you have them?

Kara: You need a foundation of self-awareness to really know where you stand on this spectrum. Be honest with yourself; be aware of how you are perceived, and be open to taking feedback.

Corinne: I agree it is important to build self-awareness. I have an exercise I like to do with clients where I ask them to reflect on a time of their life that they enjoyed, and then compare that with tougher times. How did they feel and how did they react? We all move so fast that we don’t always stop to process how we feel and subsequently see the effect our actions may have on others.

Q. What are some tools to build soft skills?

A. Claudia: It’s important to understand your own value system and build your own approach to developing and refining soft skills. It starts with self-awareness and an understanding of how you learn things. For example, you can assess your emotional intelligence with what assessment what are called personality assessment tools. You can start on your own or you can work with psychologists trained in this area of development. But, I would say, especially to our community of scientists, clinicians and engineers, proceed with caution! Some approaches are better than others. Some will resonate with you and some won’t. There is no “one size fits all” approach. Another lifelong practice you can develop is to ask trusted peers, mentors and managers about how they perceive you.

Mike: To prioritize and practice the use of my soft skills I broke down my core values into tangible daily tasks and keep them in my daily planner. It’s easy to spend all our time focusing on urgent daily work tasks, but to build effective relationships, you need to prioritize things that are important, but not always urgent, such as family, faith, work, learning and health. Breaking these into daily tasks insures they won’t get forgotten in the busyness of life. As an example, I have been fortunate to build a healthy marriage, which doesn’t just happen; you need to work on it on a daily basis and putting activities in my daily planner makes sure I keep it a priority.

Q. Are soft skills innate or can they be learned?

A. Mike: I am a firm believer that they can and need to be learned. For me, it wasn’t until my sophomore year in college that I learned some of these critical skills by selling books door-to-door. It taught me that you have a choice in how you respond to events, whether you choose to be positive or negative. You have to navigate through a lot of little decisions but by practicing, you realize you can change the outcome, and that ultimately you are the only person who can choose how you react.

A. Claudia: Absolutely! We all have the ability to be empathetic, to learn how to listen, to develop critical thinking skills. It’s just like being a better parent, spouse or sibling. You have to become open to the process and begin to see where you need to develop and then work on how to develop those important skills. When I teach and coach presentation development and skills, I always start with one important message: love your audience, care about their experience and chances are they will love you back! When you start to think about how to create a better experience for your customers, your audience and your colleagues, you’re already well on the way to developing a great foundation of soft skills.

Q. Empathy and cultural awareness are two very important soft skills. How do you adapt when conducting business in different countries?

A. Mike: There are several skills that come into play when you do business abroad. Certainly, it helps to have a sense of adventure and humor and the ability to become a chameleon by adapting to different customs and circumstances.

Before visiting a country, I do a lot of reading to learn about the culture and the history. I also take the time to learn about each team member I meet and show a genuine interest in what they do, what they like and their culture. The best and most long-lasting relationships occur when you learn from one another.

Q. The importance of building strong relationships is a constant theme. How do you do that?

A. Corinne: You need to have empathy to have a solid relationship. If not, you won’t ask the right questions and you will be challenged to make a good first impression and then provide ongoing value.

Kara: Strong working relationships are an essential component in early-stage company development and success. You need to invest the time to have one-on-one meetings with your team members and foster a sense of community. In turn, this will cultivate a “safe” environment where employees can constructively give and receive feedback – and in turn, learn and grow.

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