A recent article from the Harvard Business Review has drawn attention to the increasing demand for CEOs with “strong social skills,” also referred to as “soft skills” (Sadun et al., 2022). The Great Resignation, mental health challenges, expansion of artificial intelligence and automation, and challenges managing the new remote workforce, all require a specific set of skills called soft skills. These skills help leaders communicate and lead others more effectively in changing and challenging situations, much like today’s economy and workplace. In response to this increasing demand and need for soft skills, we examine what soft skills are, their benefits, and how they can be further developed for executives and coaches alike.
“Soft skills get little respect, but will make or break your career.” - Peggy Klaus
What are “soft skills”?
Investopedia defines soft skills as “character traits and interpersonal skills that characterize a person’s relationships with other people… Soft skills have more to do with who people are, rather than what they know.” They explain that soft skills “help employees interact with others and succeed in the workplace.” Some examples of soft skills include:
Ability to mentor
Ability to follow instruction
Willingness to learn
Attention to detail
(Kenton & Kindness, 2021), (Indeed, 2022)
It is important to note that this is not an exhaustive list of soft skills. Instead, this is a generalized list of examples. There are a vast variety of soft skills, and any skill that helps an individual collaborate, listen to, communicate, build relationships with, and lead others is considered a soft skill. Furthermore, unlike hard skills such as data mining, programming, and mobile development, soft skills are not gained solely through career education (Indeed, 2022).
“Soft skills have more to do with who we are than what we know.” - Marcel M. Robles
The need for soft skills
Why are soft skills in high demand? Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been a variety of changes and challenges faced by executives. The Great Resignation has both economic and social effects. Economically, higher wages are available to those looking for new jobs due to labor shortages. Socially, many employees have embraced the remote work lifestyle and its flexibility. When being called back to the office, many have resigned to look for more flexible work opportunities that offer greater work/life balance (Sorensen, 2022). The mental health crisis also has an influence from both the economic (stress from inflation etc.) and social (effects of isolation and social unrest) perspectives as well (Sorensen, 2022). Learning to manage the quickly evolving workplace requires skillful leadership and enhanced communication skills as leaders and employers learn to communicate across virtual and hybrid arrangements. When leading amidst these changes that have complex and often social roots, extra importance is placed on the use and development of soft skills.
“Communication–the human connection–is the key to personal and career success.” - Paul J. Meyer
Demand for communication
According to Axios Markets, “CEOs are increasingly expected to respond to not just shareholders and board members, but employees, customers, the public at large, regulators, activists, and more.” This increased responsibility for public communication increases the need for soft skills such as “self-awareness,” empathy, and active listening (Peck, 2022).
According to Harvard Business Review, executives must be able to “brief analysts, woo asset managers, and address the business press” (Sandun et al., 2022). For example, consider the open letter of criticism made by SpaceX employees regarding Elon Musk’s “public behavior and tweeting” (Mac, 2022). While some of these employees were ultimately terminated, their letter of criticism calling Elon Musk’s behavior “a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment” was circulated and made public (Mac, 2022). Challenges like this require a public response which can be treacherous territory for those without communication skills.
Additionally, the increased need for communication skills also increases as companies grow into larger enterprises. For executives and business leaders to be effective in leading large enterprises, they must be able to “effectively orchestrate internal communication” between the various departments of their company (Sandun et al., 2022).
According to McKinsey & Company, “social, emotional, and technological skills are becoming more crucial as intelligent machines take over more physical, repetitive, and basic cognitive tasks.” With the increasing use of artificial intelligence to fulfill labor shortages and reduce production costs, the inabilities of artificial intelligence have come into the limelight in some sectors. In a recent publication from the Harvard Business Review, Bhaskar Chakravorti explains that AI-powered Covid predictors “landed with a thud” and that their “predictive performance was weak in real-world clinical settings.”
Presently, artificial intelligence does not often have the soft skill of critical thinking. Consider the following headline: “AI Camera Ruins Soccer Game For Fans After Mistaking Referee’s Bald Head For a Ball.” After moving away from “human camera operators” and to “cameras with in-built, AI, ball-tracking technology,” soccer game viewers were left with a repeated view of the referee’s head and some even claimed that “they missed their team scoring a goal” (Felton, 2020). The AI programming used interpreted the round shape of the referee’s head as a soccer ball. Unable to use human critical thinking, the AI program was not able to self-correct during the course of the game, leaving viewers with less than satisfactory game footage.
Artificial intelligence is run on algorithms and data. Human critical thinking is based on lived experiences, understandings, culture, and a variety of other factors. While AI can be beneficial for repetitive, physical, and basic cognitive tasks, the demand for more complex skills not applicable to AI such as “social and emotional skills,” creativity, complex communications, relationship building, and other “higher cognitive skills” are increasing in demand (McKinsey & Company, n.d.). In other words, according to McKinsey & Company, “employees must fine-tune the social and emotional abilities machines cannot master” (Avrane-Chopard et al., 2019).
Benefits of developing soft skills
There are various benefits to having leadership and employees with soft skills. As discussed previously, those with advanced soft skills such as communication and critical thinking can fill labor gaps left by AI technology.
Many features of a desirable workplace culture also closely involve soft skills. For example, “an emphasis on servant leadership” is a soft skill that can ignite “employees’ intrinsic motivation,” and help leaders transition from a “command-and-control leadership style to a more agile, consultative, and collaborative stance” (Bachmann et al., 2021). Gallup states that “thriving workplaces depend on the sorts of interpersonal skills these soft skills represent” (O’Keefe & Hickman, 2019). Having these soft skills can help leaders communicate effectively with employees in the changing workplace (Peck, 2022).
Another area in which soft skills have importance is in communicating a businesses values and vision—something that consumers and employees alike are increasingly demanding (Peck, 2022). Having soft skills exercised, developed, and strengthened can protect employees, shareholders, executives, and CEOs from the consequences of poor company-to-consumer communication.
“The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways.” - Robert Greene
How can we develop soft skills?
According to McKinsey & Company, developing soft skills “isn’t as simple as popping in a training video. Instead, companies must change their employees’ processes and behaviors—a much harder task” (Avrane-Chopard et al., 2019). This difficulty applies to the individual seeking to develop his soft skills as well. Behavioral change is not often completed and solidified after a single training session and instead requires continuous improvement, growth, and investment.
“Assessment is an important first step” in developing soft skills (Avrane-Chopard et al., 2019). However, due to the nature of soft skills, this can be difficult to systematically measure. McKinsey & Company recommend equipping HR departments with “a framework that codifies soft skills and defines their respective evaluation criteria” (Avrane-CHopard et al., 2019). Within an executive coaching session, it can be useful to discuss what soft skills are and then encourage self-reflection on what soft skills need to be developed. The following questions for consideration are customized to the coaching scenario from Indeed recommended interview questions that assess soft skills.
How have you led others through challenging situations in the past? What was your method? Was it effective? How could it be improved?
Do you feel rushed? What is your time management strategy? Is it working for you?
How do you communicate with others when giving direction, instruction, or opinion? How do others respond to your communication? How do you know this? Can your communication be improved? If so, what areas of your communication do you want to improve?
What is your reaction to change? Do you embrace change or avoid it? What might your business be like if you embraced change?
How do you respond when conflict arises? Walk me through a recent conflict you experienced. How did this go for you? How could it have improved?
When making an important decision what goes through your mind? Are you quick to make decisions? Do you avoid making decisions? If so, why?
How important is learning to you? How do you continue to learn?
Share with me the last time you did something new. What steps did you take to ensure success?
How do you view failure? Where do you think you learned to see failure like this from? (Indeed, 2022).
Gallup recommends examining the following “broad categories or ‘dimensions’” of soft skills: motivation, work style, initiation, collaboration, and thought process (O’Keefe & Hickman, 2019). There are also a variety of tools that can be useful when examining soft skills such as science-based self-assessments and 360-degree feedback reports (Rockwood, 2021).
Use of a variety of learning tools
McKinsey & Company states that enhancing soft skills “requires blended learning journeys that mix traditional learning, including training, digital courses and job aids, with nontraditional methods, such as peer coaching” (Avrane-Chopard et al., 2019). While soft skills are typically hard to measure because of their nature (i.e. you can’t mathematically measure your success when handling a specific conflict), they can be improved upon over time. As stated by the Society of Human Resource Management, “teaching someone how to be more patient, a better team player, or more innovative may not follow a predetermined formula, but it can be done” (Rockwood, 2020).
Training courses can be an education tool giving greater insight into the importance of specific soft skills. Coaches can then use these training courses as springboards for new goal developments with their clients, ultimately putting into action what was trained and taught. If an assessment was used prior to working on developing a specific soft skill, that assessment can be reevaluated or retaken to assess potential improvements. Other learning tools can be implemented that are soft skills specific, such as exercises that work on communication skills or listening skills. However, when choosing a training program, it is important to choose one that is “flexible, shorter, and more frequent” according to Liz Cannata, VP of HR for CareerBuilder (Rockwood, 2021).
“A minute’s success pays the failure of years.” - Robert Browning
One way to foster the growth of soft skills is by creating an environment “where it’s OK for employees to make mistakes and be vulnerable” (Rockwood, 2021). This is also true for the coaching situation. When individuals are able to bring their mistakes and vulnerabilities to the table in the workplace or in a coaching session, are likely to be “happier, more creative, and more innovative” according to a 2020 Yale University Study (Rockwood, 2021 & Ivceciv et al., 2020). By valuing failures, coachees gain the opportunity to work towards their goals over long periods of time, further increasing their soft skills.
The journey of building soft skills
The journey towards strengthened soft skills is not a straightforward one and is dependent on the preferred learning styles and behavior of those working to develop their soft skills. The key is to assess the current development of soft skills, create goals for soft skill development, implement a variety of training and learning resources, value and learn from failures, and understand that it takes time to develop these soft skills and that the journey is never truly over.
The main takeaway
Soft skills are becoming an increasingly important characteristic for executive coaches and all other levels of business to develop. Soft skills represent a variety of skills, characteristics, and behaviors that help individuals work with others, lead others, and complete complex tasks in the workplace. These skills include communication, conflict resolution, time management, and critical thinking among others.
As the current workplace continues to change in the post-pandemic environment and communication from businesses to communities is becoming increasingly important, it is beneficial for those at all levels of business to invest in soft skills. While there are a variety of training modules and resources available for developing soft skills, it is important to first assess the current strength of one's soft skills, implement a variety of tools and experiences customized to the individual over a long period of time, and understand the importance of valuing failure. Executive coaches can walk alongside their clients through this long process, helping them create and achieve their soft skills goals. This ultimately helps their businesses, their leadership, and their teams thrive.
“In a high-IQ job pool, soft skills like discipline, drive, and empathy mark those who emerge as outstanding.” - Daniel Goleman
Avrane-Chopard, J., Potter, J., & Muhlmann, D. (2019, November 11). How to develop soft skills. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/the-organization-blog/how-to-develop-soft-skills.
Bachmann, H., Beattie, K., Stefanini, P., & Welchman, T. (2021, September 23). Banking on the ‘soft stuff.’ McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/transformation/our-insights/banking-on-the-soft-stuff.
Chakravorti, B. (2022, March 17). Why AI Failed to Live Up to Its Potential During the Pandemic. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/03/why-ai-failed-to-live-up-to-its-potential-during-the-pandemic.
Felton, J. (2020, October 29). AI Camera Ruins Soccer Game For Fans After Mistaking Referee’s Bald Head For Ball. IFLScience. https://www.iflscience.com/ai-camera-ruins-soccar-game-for-fans-after-mistaking-referees-bald-head-for-ball-57628.
Indeed. (2022a, May 25). Soft Skills: Definitions and Top Examples. Indeed Career Guide. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/resumes-cover-letters/soft-skills.
Indeed. (2022b, June 22). 10 Soft Skills Interview Questions and Answers. Indeed Career Guide. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/interviewing/soft-skills-interview-questions.
Ivcevic, Z., Moeller, J., Menges, J., & Brackett, M. (2020). Supervisor Emotionally Intelligent Behavior and Employee Creativity. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 55(1), 79–91. https://doi.org/10.1002/jocb.436.
Kenton, W., & Kindness, D. (2021, December 13). Soft Skills. Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/soft-skills.asp.
Mac, R. (2022, June 17). SpaceX Said to Fire Employees Involved in Letter Rebuking Elon Musk. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/17/technology/spacex-employees-fired-musk-letter.html.
O’Keefe, S., & Hickman, A. (2019, October 9). The Hard Truth About Soft Skills in the Workplace. Gallup. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/267254/hard-truth-soft-skills-workplace.aspx.
Peck, E. (2022, June 16). CEO recruiters increasingly prize soft skills. Axios. https://www.axios.com/2022/06/16/ceo-recruiters-increasingly-prize-soft-skills.
Rockwood, K. (2021, May 28). The Hard Facts About Soft Skills. SHRM- The Society of Human Resource Management. https://shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/summer2021/pages/why-soft-skills-are-important.aspx.
Sadun, R., Fuller, J., Hansen, S., & Neal, P. J. (2022). The C-Suite Skills That Matter Most. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/06/the-c-suite-skills-that-matter-most.
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