Posts Taged employee-development

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.

The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge :: Week 23 :: People :: Employee Development

Nobody wants to be a screw-up at their job. In fact, Dan Pink explains in his excellent 2009 book Drive, that the social sciences teach us that one of the three things people seek in their work is mastery. Pink briefly describes mastery as, “the urge to get better and better at something that matters.”

There are two things that you, as an employer, can do to tap into an employee’s intrinsic desire for mastery – provide resources, time and support for the employee’s self-initiated efforts for personal and professional growth and build an effective employee development program inside the organization.

Effective employee development programs align the interests of the employee with the interests of the company. With an effective employee development program, you are, concurrently, making a better person and a better employee.

This week’s One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge is to design a framework to start your program. The graphic above will provide direction.

The company’s interest in the employee can be view through four lenses –

  • Employees as assets to be developed. Answer these questions –
    • What resources can we provide to make this employee more valuable to the organization (formal education, additional experiences inside the organization, continuing education units (CEUs), professional certifications, webinars, industry meetings)?
    • How will this employee’s compensation reflect his/her additional value to the organization?
    • What should the accompanying gains in productivity or value creation look like?
    • How can we leverage this employee’s new skills into mentoring for other employees?
    • What soft skills does this employee need to develop in addition to technical or industry-specific skills?
  • Employees as people to be understood. Answer these questions –
    • How does this employee embody the organization’s core values?
    • How does this employee embrace the organization’s culture?
    • What motivates this employee in addition to or instead of monetary compensation? Pink’s book tells us they want autonomy (a measure of control over their work), mastery (the opportunity to improve their work skills), and purpose (a feeling that their work has meaning beyond a paycheck).
  • Employees as team members to be deployed. Answer these questions –
    • How well is this employee suited to their current position?
    • If the employee is not well suited, can they be coached or transferred?
    • If they no longer fit in the organization, should they be terminated?
    • Is the employee trusted by other team members?
    • Does the employ skillfully navigate conflict?
    • Does the employee take responsibility for mistakes without making excuses?
    • Does the employee respect and learn from the diverse viewpoints of other team members?
    • Does the employee display good absorptive capacity for new ideas, procedures, and environments?
    • Does the employee have a mentor mindset?
  • Employees as indispensable. Answer these questions –
    • Are there employees who, if they left, would put the health of the organization in jeopardy?
    • How can you most quickly mitigate this risk with additional hiring, training, or outsourcing?


The employee’s interest can be viewed through four lenses –

  • What does my future look like?
    • Is there a career path here for someone with my interests and skills?
    • If so, what does it look like?
    • What happens if my interests change over time (e.g. I want to move from IT to sales)?
    • Is there a path for advancement for a skilled practitioner that doesn’t include management?
    • What is the company’s policy on intellectual property?
  • Can I learn and grow in the organization (skills, aptitudes, experiences)?
    • Will you invest in my growth?
    • If so, how?
    • Will I be mentored?
    • Will you give me opportunities to try my hand at several things?
    • Will I have the opportunity to work in other parts of the country or other countries?
  • Can I keep my priorities intact if I work here?
    • Can I live the way I want to live (core values, hours, time off, great co-workers, benefits that are important to me)?
    • Will the organization morph as my life changes – realizing that my priorities might have to change over the course of my employment – children, illness, aging parents?
  • Will the organization help me navigate roadblocks as they surface?
    • Can I escape a boss that isn’t committed to my development?
    • Can I recover from involvement in a failed project?


Use the section above to construct two things – a questionnaire for employees and an initial outline of the growth opportunities you can include in your employee development program. Once your employee questionnaire is done, begin meeting with employees one by one and gather their responses. Take their feedback and revisit your initial employee development plan. Add items that are important to employees, fit in your budget but were absent from your original list. Remove items that, based on your interviews, are not important to employees.

Begin rolling out your plan. The conversations should be something like, “You said you were interested in Balanced Scorecards. If we had a Balance Scorecard in our organization, that would be great. If I sent you to a class for Balance Scorecards, would you come back and work with me personally to make one for the company. When we’re done, I’d like for you to present to all the department heads and explain our work. Would you be up for that?”

Have a conversation like this with everyone on your team. When you knock out one of the things important to the employee and the company, move to the next thing and keep the growth going.