The ‘Softer’ Skills are Just as Important…Maybe Even More

“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think” – Albert Einstein

“No great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought.”  John Stuart Mil

As I write this week’s leadership message, I sit 30,000 feet above the ground on a flight to Washington D.C.  I’ve been invited to participate in a series of workshops tomorrow with The Hope Street Group, an initiative chaired by the U.S. Department of Education that strives to bring together the right institutions towards the common goal of developing tools and solutions at the complex intersection of workforce supply and demand.  In other words, The Hope Street Group wants to develop a better way for our country to both understand the specific skills needs of our employers while bridging the gap for the development of the proper skills of potential job candidates in our communities.

No doubt we have a huge gap between the two.  Employers today complain of their inability to find the right talent – a full 49% based on our latest ManpowerGroup Talent Shortage Survey.  They argue that job seekers do not have the right technical skills needed to perform the jobs.  Not surprising given the pace of innovation and the increase of jobs needing both technical and mechanical skills.  And it will take fundamental changes to our educational structure (from grade school to graduate studies) to solve this.

But what surprised me most was the increased emphasis on soft skills gaps.  As I researched to prepare for these meetings I was struck by how prevalent the shortage was.  Based on the same ManpowerGroup Talent Shortage Survey noted above, nearly 1 in 5 of the respondents suggested beyond that – the technical skills required – job seekers increasingly lack the soft skills needed for these jobs.  These skills have LITTLE to do with the specific training needed to complete the tasks, but EVERYTHING to do with the ability for the individual to be successful in performing those tasks.  And yet, our educational system does little to develop these skills and our communities and parenting skills may actually be widening these deficits.

When I dug deeper in to this I started to see a pattern.  Going back as far as six years ago (when the most recent recession began), I noticed the same theme – employers continued to cite soft skills shortages as a key inhibitor to hiring talent.  Even when supply far outweighed demand, employers continued to experience frustration in hiring candidates with these skills.

What skills you might ask?  Well, there is also common agreement in that area.  Whether it’s the Wall Street Journal or USA Today, CareerBuilder or Monster, or even Yahoo – all of these sources reference the same missing skills, which include:

  • Communication Skills – The simple ability to express yourself clearly
  • Interpersonal Skills – Beyond communication, the ability to interact and collaborate effectively with others
  • Work Ethic – The drive to WANT to work.  The willingness TO DO work.  Not to mention responsibility and accountability
  • Adaptability/Flexibility – The ability to adjust and flex to changing conditions within the work environment
  • Time Management – The ability to effectively manage your time so that priorities are done first

And so it got me thinking – what’s our role as leaders in solving this dilemma?  Should we help?  And if so, how?

The answer to the first question is an absolute YES.  Leadership is as much about developing the future as it is about managing the current.  If we aren’t working to develop our talent, how can we possibly hope to succeed?  How can we hire or retain resources that can contribute to the team?  And lastly, isn’t a part of leadership about making a difference?

The more important question is ‘how can we help’?  And that is quite simple.  Take another look at the list above.  Every one of those skills are qualities critical for a leader.  I can’t think of one leader who was successful without having developed these (at least to some extent).  We know how to communicate.  We have the interpersonal skills to develop effective teams and lead them in collaborating.  We all have a deep work ethic.  We couldn’t do our jobs effectively unless we understood basic time management.  And I know of few leaders who haven’t been thrown the curve ball of “change” at least a dozen times.

This brings me to my 6 Points of Leadership, and the principle of “Develop Your People”.  Of all those principles, this may be one of the most important and yet most often overlooked.  It is our responsibility as leaders to develop our team members.  And that goes far beyond ensuring that they have training programs to sharpen their technical skills.  It also means helping them to become successful beyond their perceived capabilities – and often that means the softer skills.

I’ll leave you with this thought:

“If we do not plant knowledge when young, it will give us no shade when we are old.” – Lord Chesterfield


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