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Skills Shift: The “Hard” Job of Future-Proofing Leadership with “Soft” Skills

You can’t lead if you can’t communicate, connect with your team, build trust and make decisions.

You can’t lead if you can’t communicate, connect with your team, build trust and make decisions. This is the hard truth about so-called soft skills. The name suggests soft skills are optional and a cinch to acquire. But we all know that’s just not true. For many of us, they’re more challenging to conquer than technical knowledge – and arguably, they’re more important too. Earlier this year, LinkedIn released its annual Global Talent Trends 2019 report, which explores the four big trends fueling the future of the workplace. Top of the list? Soft skills.

This finding spotlights a fundamental fact about business, no matter the industry, your title, or how far or how fast technology advances: business is human. To grow, to thrive, to simply survive, you must interact with people and do it well. Yes, the dollars and cents acumen matters, but it’s your soft skills that enable you to understand people and drive them to give discretionary effort to their teams and the company. This level of understanding also helps you determine the most effective approach to get the best out of them – and help them get the best out of themselves. Leaders who master the combination of hard and soft skills create environments that empower and ignite their teams, delight their customers and fuel sustainable growth.

CEOs are up in arms over the “talent gap.” Media and experts alike are dissecting the symptoms and grasping at solutions to the “skills crisis.” Yes, it’s an urgent issue. But the problem doesn’t only lie with the younger generations. Let’s also remind ourselves of the intangible traits that can make anyone a truly great leader and teammate.

Bring humanity back to business.

I don’t get paid to care. Harsh but true. However, I care because being human matters and it makes all the difference. Relationships matter. Trust matters. Even if someone is succeeding but you’re clearly not invested in their growth, they’ll know. They won’t be engaged or happy, and they won’t give you discretionary effort. They’ll do what you ask them to do because it’s their job and they have to. I prefer my teammates to want to do their jobs well and support me. Not because I said so, but because I earned their commitment.

Connect with your team, human-to-human, face-to-face. Ask them about their family. Look at their vacation pictures (maybe not all of them, but a few). Share an article or book recommendation you know they’d like. It’s on this personal level that open, honest conversation takes place. It’s where they gain the comfort and confidence to offer feedback, good and bad. And feedback is an invaluable gift. I always say, “be human first.”

Really listen and give others space to speak.

People listen with the intent to respond. We’re all guilty of it. But when you stop thinking and start listening – actively listening – that’s when brainstorming happens. When creativity explodes. When new ideas spark innovation and different, better ways of working. And when you’re listening and not talking, others then have the space to speak. Many people, especially leaders, pipe in quickly and often. However, there are many who have great perspectives to share but who rarely speak up because they can’t get in and they aren’t heard. You’re missing so much from them.

Active listening doesn’t mean staying silent. It means asking clarifying questions. Validating what you’ve heard. Repeating or paraphrasing a good idea so all can hear it. Remember, not everyone speaks the same “language” (this is especially true of men and women) nor do they process things in the same ways. Anticipate how you’re going to take it all in rather than how you’re going to respond.

Think critically and make hard decisions.

If you have a good grasp of people – of what they want and need, of their vision and their approach – you’re better equipped to help them solve problems and make decisions. But you will also be better informed and better positioned to make decisions, too. Here’s why. When you’re connected to your employees, they’ll bring to you the good, the bad, and the ugly, in real time. When people don’t think you know them, care about them, have confidence in them, and they feel as if they’re constantly interviewing for their job, they hide mistakes. They downplay, or downright don’t share, important information. They distort facts or spread untruths. All of that makes it nearly impossible to 1—build trust amongst the team, and 2—make quality decisions that benefit the team and the business. Bad news doesn’t improve with time. Make it easy for the team to bring you their current issues and anticipated concerns.

Be patient and hone your trade.

There are essentially two ways to get paid in life: money and experience. A wise boss and mentor once told me, if you take the experience first, the money will come. Two-plus decades into my career, I’m still learning every day. Becoming an expert in your craft is critical (this is where the hard skills come to play) – and it requires patience, something I feel the rising generation of leaders lacks. This may be a controversial belief but hear me out. Gen Y, Gen Z: your career isn’t a sprint. There are no shortcuts and no quick fixes. Hone your trade. Think deeply about what you can learn from each professional experience. Consider what you can glean from those around you. Whether they are people you admire or not, you can learn something from everyone.

Also, understand and respect that some will advance quicker than others. Never measure your professional progress against that of anyone else. Your time will come. Be patient and happy for those who are achieving success. Appreciate those who’ve come before you, too; there is so much value to be gained from their experiences and their wisdom. And I’m sure they can also learn from you too! Reverse mentoring can be key to mutual growth. (More to come on this topic in my next article.)

The bottom-line is this: the best leaders are lifelong learners. They nurture a powerful combination of hard skills and soft. But above all, they put people first – because they recognize that business is human. It’s a fundamental truth for good reason.

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