One of our biggest pet peeves around the QC office is the use of the term “soft skills” to talk about critical leadership qualities like communication, self-awareness, and teamwork. The term undermines the value of these traits, making them sound hollow and frivolous when we all know that the “soft skills”—particularly communication—are among the most important that recruiters look for in new hires.
And it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Anyone who ever had a brilliant physics teacher who was unable to make the laws of motion accessible to her students—or a visionary boss who struggled to verbalize his vision—can attest to the value of strong communication skills in ensuring your audience can understand and retain your message. A leader may have more credentials, experience, and “book smarts” than anyone else in the company, but without the soft skills required to inspire trust, loyalty, and hard work from others, he or she will ultimately be ineffective.
The problem is that “soft skills” are much more difficult to evaluate and improve than “hard skills” because there are no standardized tests or clearly defined benchmarks for communication or teamwork. Sure, we can attend leadership seminars or communication workshops or team building days, but how much can those fleeting, subjective activities really help us?
We’re starting to see more online resources designed to help people understand how to enhance or develop their “soft” leadership skills, and we particularly liked this blog post from Hult International Business School. The author, Rafael Natali, describes his attempts to systematically improve his communication skills by seeking consistent feedback and using that feedback to create a personal development plan.
He’s on the right track, and this is the kind of approach we love to see. Because as Natali says:
This is a necessary, pivotal step in increasing self-awareness because how we perceive our strengths and development opportunities can be very different from how others see them. This makes feedback key. Without truly understanding ourselves, how can we deduce our values and motivations?
But he’s missing one thing: objectivity.
When Natali asks for feedback from peers and professors, he’s likely receiving some honest insights. But it’s even more likely those insights are sugarcoated or tainted by the giver’s bad morning or poor night’s sleep or any number of distractions. And while the goals he’s setting for himself are admirable and will certainly spur improvement, he has no way to identify exactly how much progress he’s making or in what areas. Because no matter how many times he asks for feedback—even if he asks the same folks every time—that feedback will always be subjective.
What Natali needs is an objective way to evaluate his current skillset and identify where he’s excelling and where he has the biggest opportunities for development. From that baseline, he can build quantifiable goals and an action plan designed to help him achieve efficient, lasting improvement. And he can reevaluate his skills on a regular basis—in that same objective, data-driven way—to see exactly how he’s progressing and how he needs to adjust his action plan to keep moving toward his goals.
There’s nothing “soft” about communication skills. What’s soft is the way we’ve traditionally approached teaching them. Now, however, innovations in machine learning and technology have enabled us to add hard data to soft skills, empowering leaders and aspiring leaders to understand exactly where they are and what they need to do to meet their professional goals and improve their business’s bottom line.