Monday, November 24, 2008

'The Hard Truth About Soft Skills' by PEGGY KLAUS

'The Hard Truth About Soft Skills'

Workplace Lessons Smart People Wish They'd Learned Sooner


The Hard Truth About Soft Skills'

Workplace Lessons Smart People Wish They'd Learned Sooner


Why didn't someone tell me . . . and if they did, why didn't I listen?

This, as they used to say when I was growing up, is the $64,000 question. It's the one that comes up over and over again when the thousands of business professionals I coach and train each year tell me their tales from the trenches. Whether young or old, experienced or inexperienced, what strikes me most about their stories of missed opportunities and derailed careers is this: The source of their anxiety and frustration is rarely a shortfall in technical or professional expertise. Instead, it invariably stems from a shortcoming in their soft skills repertoire--the non-technical traits and behaviors needed for successful career navigation.

But if these soft skills are really that important, why do so many people learn them the hard way? Because for the most part, people think soft skills don't really matter and are confused over exactly what they are.


When it comes to soft skills, most people think they are all about those warm-and-fuzzy people skills. Yes, it’s true people skills are a part of the equation, but that’s just for starters. While hard skills refer to the technical ability and the factual knowledge needed to do the job, soft skills allow you to more effectively use your technical abilities and knowledge. Soft skills encompass personal, social, communication, and self-management behaviors. They cover a wide spectrum of abilities and traits: being self-aware, trustworthiness, conscientiousness, adaptability, critical thinking, attitude, initiative, empathy, confidence, integrity, self-control, organizational awareness, likability, influence, risk taking, problem solving, leadership, time management, and then some. Quite a mouthful, eh? These so-called soft skills complement the hard ones and are essential for success in the rough-and-tumble workplace. You can have all the technical expertise in the world, but if you can’t sell your ideas, get along with others, or turn your work in on time, you’ll be going nowhere fast.


However you define them, soft skills still suffer from a fundamental lack of respect. After all, how could anything described as soft be valued in the hard-charging, results-driven business world or impact the bottom line? Soft skills are generally viewed as “nice to have”—maybe even something you are just born with—but not critical for success. This attitude always makes me chuckle. It’s like saying that Yo-Yo Ma has a brilliant career as a cellist solely because of his genes. While no doubt some of his musicianship and subsequent greatness may be linked to DNA, it belies all of the other elements that have contributed to his phenomenal success: disciplined study and practice, collaboration with ensembles, making sound career decisions, taking risks, developing and promoting his brand, dealing with conductors, and connecting with his audience. In Yo- Yo Ma’s case, as in most situations, the soft skills are as important, if not more so, than the hard ones and deserve our respect. In other words, there’s nothing soft about soft skills.

In fact, companies are finally starting to respect their value, linking competency in the soft skills arena to positive performance appraisals and salary increases. Soft skills have also become a significant consideration for firms in their recruitment efforts. Recent research underscores their importance in the workplace, showing that soft skills competency can be as reliable an indicator of job performance as more traditional qualifications of technical mastery or experience. One study found that the best performing managers at a Fortune 100 corporation had significantly higher levels of self-awareness, social skills, self-management, and organizational savvy. Additional research on more than 200,000 managers and workers links employee recognition with financial performance. According to the data, companies that effectively recognized personal excellence had triple the profitability—as measured by return on equity (ROE)—in comparison with firms that didn't. A simple "thank-you" from the manager can have a dramatic impact on the company's bottom line!

Even though companies today are placing more value on soft skills, most of us are still out on our own when it comes to developing our personal repertoire. Despite collectively spending more than $50 billion on training programs for employees, many corporations fail to offer soft skills programs at all. And when they do provide them, the programs are often exclusively reserved for “high-potential” employees or senior executives. A comprehensive analysis of U.S. employer-sponsored training confirmed that the most frequently provided instruction consists of new employee orientation, computer applications for end users, technical skills or knowledge, and customer education. Soft skills training—which typically focused on communication and leadership—was provided “as needed,” primarily for top executives. Unfortunately, college and university curriculums—even for advanced business degrees—are doing little more than the corporations when it comes to teaching soft skills. And it shows. A survey conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council found that although MBAs were strong in analytical aptitude, quantitative expertise, and information-gathering ability, they were sorely lacking in other critical areas that employers find equally attractive: strategic thinking, written and oral communication, leadership, and adaptability. Increasing workplace and customer diversity across age, gender, racial, and ethnic lines—along with business globalization and virtual offices—have only heightened the need for strengthening soft skills competency.


Throughout the years, I've collected stories about struggles and triumphs in the workplace based on thousands of hours training, coaching, and interviewing people at all levels on the corporate ladder. From these experiences, I've distilled fifty-four important workplace lessons that will increase your understanding and awareness of soft skills by showing you how they are woven throughout your career. Within these lessons, you'll also find practical insights, strategies, tools, and techniques for learning or improving a particular soft skills area. The lessons are organized into eight chapters, each covering particular aspects of your career in which soft skills play especially significant roles: career management, getting the job done, communication, handling critics, office politics, self-promotion, dealing with differences, and leadership.

In chapter 1, we'll dive into the most critical aspect of your career: managing it. Beginning with self-assessment and self-management, we'll explore a variety of soft skills topics, including lessons about decision making, risk taking, integrating work with your life goals, and maintaining high ethical standards.

Career survival depends on meeting your supervisor's agenda-- not necessarily yours. In chapter 2, I shift the focus onto getting your job done. We'll cover the entire gamut of mission-critical soft skills lessons--from managing the details to managing your time, from being viewed as a problem solver with a can-do attitude to not letting the use of common sense fall through the cracks.

When it comes to communication, the whole shebang can do you in. That's why you need to be on high alert when it comes to everything from minding your words to minding your manners. And although technology has revolutionized communication, you'll find out in chapter 3 why the basics matter more than ever in a world that's filled with increasingly distracted people. I'll zero in on soft skills under the communication umbrella, such as opening your ears and adjusting your communication accordingly, asking the right questions, and displaying confidence and authenticity when presenting--even when your nerves are trying to get the best of you.

Chapter 4 brings you face-to-face with the realization that you are always being judged, so you better get used to it. From making a good impression the first time (and every time!) around to drawing on conflict-resolution techniques when confronted with heated situations, the lessons in this chapter will bring to life a variety of soft skills needed for handling criticism and your critics.

Are you apolitical and proud of it? Like the air we breathe, politics is everywhere, including at work. Yet when it comes to office politics, most people fall into three camps: those in denial, those who think they are above the fray, and those who claim playing politics at work simply isn't that important. Chapter 5 focuses on how misperceptions like these can send a career into the danger zone and why it's critically important to learn the unspoken rules of your workplace. I'll highlight some of the essential soft skills of office politics: organizational awareness, spreading your influence, having a mentor, managing up, deflecting gossip, and handling office romance.

Chapter 6 starts off with a simple question: "Do you think branding is just for cows and that brag is a four-letter word?" If so, think again. In this chapter, I'll be covering some of the key soft skills associated with self-promotion, from personal branding so you stand out in the crowd to learning how to toot your own horn--especially when surrounded by people with sharp elbows.

As the forces of technology and globalization merge, our workplaces are becoming increasingly diverse. The lessons in chapter 7 highlight the factors that can bring about friction, while offering a whole slew of soft skills for dealing with issues that rise from generational, gender, and cultural differences: emotional self-control, motivating those who operate from a different competitive mind-set, finding the best in every person, and keeping ourselves in check when it comes to stereotyping.

Do you have an assistant? Surprise! You're a manager. While for many the holy grail is a position in management, not everyone is cut out for the job--and those who do advance into management roles often struggle with their leadership skills. From recognizing your strengths and weaknesses so you can address shortcomings to influencing people to think and act the way you want, in chapter 8 I'll uncover some of the most important soft skills just beneath the surface of good leadership. I'll end with some final thoughts on the benefits of having enough humility to know when it's time to go back to the drawing board.

So keep reading, and you'll find out more about how soft skills have a tremendous effect on nearly everything you need to do to get ahead at work. And that's the hard truth.

Copyright © 2007 by Peggy Klaus. Posted with permission of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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