The hard things about soft skills

This is an exert of a speech I presented at Wall Street ToastMasters in August 2019 ~Sarah


Hands up those in the room who are a boss? If you lead a team and have people working for you?

Now keep your hand up if you think you do it well?

If you put your hand down, or even if you didn't, there's things you can do right now to make yourself a better leader and manager.

People think being a good manager means being able to write a good business plan, having a strong vision, having the technical know-how, being good with numbers and project management. Those skills are all important, but there's one set of skills that are increasingly being seen as important for leadership, and they're among the hardest to teach others.

Soft skills. They have an unassuming name but they're essential for the leaders of today.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills enable you to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people. At its most basic level, hard skills are about what you do, soft skills are about how you do them.

Hard skills include specialized knowledge and technical skills. Soft skills are about your behavior and character—your personal characteristics and cognitive skills. They include traits such as having a positive attitude, good communication skills, problem solving and time management skills.

Why you need soft skills

A survey conducted by LinkedIn earlier this year showed 92% of hiring managers consider soft skills just as important or more important than technical skills.

Soft skills used to be the leadership 'nice to have'. Now organizations are increasingly seeking workers with a track record for demonstrating sound soft skills. They're hard to teach, difficult to define and measure, yet they're what set good leaders apart from average ones.

How to improve your soft skills

The good news is soft skills can be learned. The trick is to approach soft skill improvement with a growth mindset. Come ready with a recognition of your own capacity for change and improvement.

A few years ago Google published its own internal research on what attributes go into the best performing managers and teams. This research has been widely quoted, and even spurred an article in the New York Times. What's exciting is the supporting training materials from this research is available for free online.

The material is a window into what Google values from its managers and how they go about structuring training for newly appointment managers.

I used this material from Google to pull together a list of traits and characteristics Google value in its leaders, especially its emerging leaders. If you're well versed in soft skill thinking, this list probably won't come as a surprise to you. Even still they're a valuable reminder of the same things we can do in our day to flex our soft skill muscles.

1. Show more humility

Be open to and ask for feedback, seek opportunities to share credit, share personal stories of your own mistakes and failures, admit when you don't know something.

2. Cultivate empathy and compassion

Show genuine curiosity about the members of your team, ask how you can help—don't assume you just known

3. Be a good coach

Provide specific and timely feedback to your direct reports, balance positive with negative feedback, know the areas for development for each team member.

4. Practice reflective listening

Give the people who work for you the benefit of your full time and attention. Listen to the words but also how they're saying it. Watch for their energy, tone and mood. Express empathy when you're sensing frustration.

Doing these 4 things—be humble, show compassion, be a good coach and listen well—will go a long way to improving the soft skills so coveted by organizations today.

My challenge to you is to see if you can flex one of these soft skills tomorrow in your work day. Can you listen a little harder, ask for feedback or show you care? Keep working on these skills. Companies want them and the people who work for you will want you to show them too. Good luck!

Sarah JukesComment