The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge :: Week 41 :: Leadership :: Hard Skills and Soft Skills

Over the last couple of decades, we’ve collectively “seen the light” on hard skills vs. soft skills. To maximize our own effectiveness as a leader, we know we need both hard skills and soft skills. When we screen potential employees, we’ve added tools to assess not just hard skills – proficiency in a particular programming language, driving a forklift, tax planning, creating a PowerPoint deck – but also soft skills. We want to know if the potential team member is empathetic, a team player, a good communicator, a good problem solver and more.

You and every employee in your organization come to the office, factory, hospital, or studio with a unique combination of personality, innate abilities, life experiences, and education that has shaped your current set of hard skills and soft skills. Those factors have an oversized influence on how easily you’ll be able to continue honing those existing skills and adding new ones. Those with healthy self-awareness are a leg up on those who are blissfully ignorant of their own skills deficit. Those with good lateral thinking skills might have an advantage over those with only vertical thinking skills (depending on the new skill they are trying to master).

This week’s One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge is an exercise in adding soft skill and hard skill components to your employee development program. If you don’t have an employee development program (you need one), you can find a framework HERE.

A good Employee Development Program aligns the interests of the employee with the interests of the company. Achieving growth goals benefits the organization and the individual. As goals are determined and milestones are set, a mix of hard skill and soft skill mastery punctuates the path.

Translating the learning of a hard skill to employee development exercises is straightforward –

  • Read a manual
  • Take a class (online or in-person)
  • Become an apprentice

And proving mastery of the skill is equally objective

  • Take a test
  • Demonstrate a technique
  • Produce a product
  • Speak the new language

You get the idea.

But I’m afraid mastering a new soft skill seems “squishier”. It is, after all, a soft skill. So, how can we integrate soft skill development activities into our employee development program. HR sites are chock-full of lists of desirable soft skills. You’ll find items like empathy, teamwork, communication, problem-solving, work ethic, creativity, adaptability and many, many more. So, during that employee development meeting, how are you going to get that team member to learn empathy and how are they going to prove they did it?

Since none of us have a magic Geiger-counter that we can wave over a teammate and detect empathy, problem-solving or any other soft skill, we have to translate that skill into actions we can use to teach the skill and to evaluate mastery of that skill. In employee development meetings, we need to connect the dots between the desired soft skill and the action so the team member is mindful, “When I do this action, I’m giving outward evidence of this soft skill.”

So, here’s this week’s exercise. For your direct reports, make a list of the hard skills and soft skills you’d like them to add in the next 12 months – it shouldn’t be more than 1 or 2 of each. For each of the skills, identify the how. For the hard skills, it might be take a class or work with another team member who has that skill and is able to act as a mentor (that mentor might be you). For the soft skills, translate them into observable, executable actions that the employee can begin to practice. To give you a head start, I’m giving you a few activities that translate into some of the most sought-after soft skills.

  • Listen when you’d normally offer an opinion – This change in behavior can help build empathy, synthesis (creating a “mash up” of previously uncombined ideas, methodologies or technologies) and problem-solving. Don’t listen to respond better. Listen to understand more fully. Practice active listening activities like notetaking, repeating back the salient points of the speaker in your own words and nodding your head when the speaker says something you agree with.
  • Ask good questions – When you’re tempted to start a conversation with statement, use a question instead. Replace, “Send out an email blast to all our existing customers announcing our new extended warranty” with “What do you think about using an email blast to announce our new extended warranty?” Use a methodology like the “5 Whys” to probe deeper if you feel like the current discussion is addressing a “branch” and not the “root” of an issue. Questions promote teamwork, collaboration and the ensuing conversation provides an opportunity to practice the mentor mindset.
  • Look for the common ground first – Team members with a more operational bent can sometimes easily find the ten problems a new initiative will create without acknowledging the upside of the initiative (they see the upside, but they quickly run to solve the problems first, so the initiative can work). On purpose, acknowledge the upside of new ideas before jumping into areas of disagreement or potential problems. If you can’t get on board at all with the methodology, see if you can agree that they’ve identified a problem worth solving, “I couldn’t agree more that we have to solve this hold time problem. Let’s hammer away at this and see if we can figure out the best customer experience possible.” This approach fosters collaboration and problem-solving.
  • Deliberately get out of your intellectual comfort zone – Read a book or listen to a podcast authored by someone that doesn’t share your political bent, professional expertise or approach to life. For the content that espouses a different perspective, the opportunity to hold two differing opinions in your head at the same time (yours and the author’s) encourages problem-solving (enumerating and evaluating the merits of two opposing views), empathy (learning why the author holds those view) and lateral thinking. For the content that explains a skill set different that yours, the ability to understand the degree of complexity in another discipline encourages teamwork (as you appreciate someone else’s skill set) and synthesis.
  • Ask for a critique – This might be the toughest one on the list. Ask two or three people (who you respect and would go to for advice) to critique your communication style, management style or leadership ability. Receiving the feedback graciously and openly displays adaptability and a commitment to lifelong learning.
  • Find a way to help a coworker succeed – Look for a team member with a perpetually tough job or maybe one with a new, challenging assignment and figure out what you can do to help. Be a mentor, run interference so they can get the resources they need, or provide additional support from your department. Making an investment when you’re not promised anything in return shows teamwork, mentor mindset and empathy.
  • Look for a better way – Find an existing activity in the organization and look for a way to make it better. Can you more effectively engage employees, communicate more clearly with customers, or take steps out of a process (and keep the quality intact or maybe even improve it)? Improving an activity demonstrates creativity, adaptability and problem-solving.
  • Come in early and stay late and don’t waste time during the workday – This might seem like a no-brainer but putting in a full day shows work ethic.
  • Ask for extra, more challenging work – In addition to looking for a better way and putting in extra time, ask your boss for a challenging assignment or “the task nobody wants”. Executing on this extra work shows adaptability, problem-solving, and a commitment to lifelong learning.
  • Learn how to write code – It doesn’t matter what your job is, if you want to learn to think in a linear way (vertically) and to never leave any stone unturned, learn a programming language. Truly the software will only do what you tell it to do. If it’s wrong, you get immediate feedback in the form of erroneous results. If it’s incomplete, you have immediate feedback in the form of circumstances that aren’t addressed. It’s a shortcut to linear thinking, problem-solving, detail orientation, zooming out and zooming in, research, and creativity.
  • Learn how to draw – In contrast to the previous bullet point, if you want to learn to think laterally, learn to zoom out and zoom in (for a whole different reason) and be creative, take an art class.

When you’ve finished this exercise for your direct reports, schedule a one-on-one meeting, discuss the growth in skills you’d like to see, agree on the specific action items, timeline, check-in schedule and metrics for measuring progress. Encourage your direct reports to do the same thing with their team members.

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