Some hard facts about soft skills

A lack of soft skills could be costing the UK billions a year in lost productivity. Yet soft skills are often undervalued, and sometimes ignored, as we seek to progress in our careers.

There are some hard facts you must absorb about these soft skills – which you ignore at your peril.

First, and most obvious, is that you won’t achieve much as a manager if you don’t sharpen these skills, and as a consequence you won’t progress. It is that simple. It doesn’t matter how senior you are. Enhancing your soft skills is the real route to leadership success.

Perhaps I am being over simplistic, but it seems to me that if you don’t achieve as a manager, your team won’t succeed, which means your company won’t succeed, which means your country won’t succeed.

You think I am exaggerating?

Just this week, hopes that we were getting on top of Britain’s chronic problem of low productivity were dealt a severe blow by official figures from the Office of National Statistics. Productivity statistics showed that this key measure of national prosperity has fallen for the first time since 2015.

While almost every advanced nation is struggling with stagnant productivity, the issue is particularly bad in Britain where there has been no growth in almost a decade. As a result, employees in this country must work about a day and a half longer than their German rivals to achieve the same economic output.

Productivity is key to living standards.

This really matters, because productivity is key to improving living standards. Gains in productivity mean we can produce more with the same resources and reduce costs. Those savings can then be shared in lower prices for consumers and higher wages for workers, without having a negative effect on the profitability of companies.

The UK’s productivity has fallen by 0.5% over the first quarter of 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics. This means that the country’s productivity has now fallen below the output per hour achieved in the final quarter of 2007, and a fall of 0.5% is also below the 1994-2007 labour productivity growth average, representing a worrying trend of stagnating productivity growth.

Ann Francke, CEO of the Chartered Management Institute, says this latest set of data will be a worry for those looking to solve the productivity puzzle that has dogged the UK since the start of the economic downturn.

“It’s alarming, but perhaps expected given the current political backdrop of Brexit and weak leadership, that the UK’s recent trend of productivity growth has ended,” she said. “Action needs to be taken before this becomes a downward trend. Investment in skills and management training is a crucial step to boosting productivity. Poor management is costing our economy £84bn each year, and Britain lags other countries when it comes to people skills. Indeed, four out of five British bosses are ‘accidental managers’ who’ve never been trained.”

Soft skills, says the CMI, are particularly crucial for managers, because they are the basis for leaders to effectively give directions to people with a persuasive flair, and influence their team to strategically pursue the organisation’s goals and objectives. Again and again, the answer comes down to two things: professional leadership that’s informed by integrity and vision; and genuine employee engagement so that everyone is inspired to contribute to improvement.

Need more hard data? How about this?

I’ve recently read an interesting report that says that soft skills, those very human interpersonal skills around communication and empathy, contribute £88 billion a year to the UK economy – a contribution that is expected to rise to £109 billion over the next five years.

97% of employers say soft skills are important to business success.

But the UK is definitely struggling with them, and by 2020 over half a million UK workers will be significantly held back by a lack of such skills. These were the findings of economic research commissioned by McDonald’s. It quoted 97% of employers saying they believed that soft skills were important to their current business success, while over half said skills like communication and teamwork were more important than academic results. Yet three-quarters of them believed there was a ‘gap’ of such skills in the UK workforce.

The research also revealed that UK employees say they struggle to sell their soft skills. One in five said they would not feel confident describing their soft skills to an employer and more than half (54%) have never included soft skills on their CV. It would suggest there is a lack of value placed on such skills in business and society as a whole.

Soft skills of leaders contribute enormously to engagement levels of employees, and therefore to productivity. Engaged employees with great soft skills give customers a far better experience, creating more loyal customers, and more profitable companies.

Soft skills are not just important when facing external customers and clients. They are equally important when it comes to interacting with colleagues. Soft skills relate to how you work with others. Employers value soft skills because they enable people to function and thrive in teams and in organisations as a whole. A productive and healthy work environment depends on soft skills.

However, it is not just an issue for customer service orientated companies, but also for professional service organisations. A survey of CFO’s found that 55% considered the biggest challenge in recruiting accountancy professionals was finding applicants with the necessary soft skills beyond the normal competences and qualifications expected.

Additionally, a UK Commission for Employment and Skills study confirmed the increasing importance and demand for soft skills in the Health and Social Care; Professional and Business Services; Retail & Wholesale; Creative Industries, Media and Entertainment; and Manufacturing sectors.

The CBI places particular emphasis on the soft (employability) skills of graduates and other young people. “Businesses want graduates who not only add value but who have the skills to help to transform their organisation in the face of continuous and rapid economic and technological change. All graduates need to be equipped with employability skills. Employability covers a broad range of non-academic or softer skills and abilities which are of value in the workplace. It includes the ability to work in a team; a willingness to demonstrate initiative and original thought; self-discipline in starting and completing tasks to deadline.”

Rather call soft skills, “professional” skills.

My take is that we give too little respect to these essential skills when we call them “soft” and imply that they’re optional. I prefer to think of them as professional skills, not soft skills.

Leadership skills. Interpersonal skills. The skills of charisma and listening, storytelling and visioning, persuading and aligning. These are crucial because what actually separates thriving organizations from struggling ones are the difficult-to-measure attitudes, processes and perceptions of the people who do the work.

If this is true, then you’d imagine that managers are constantly engaged in using their soft skills in uplifting and inspiring conversations with their employees?

Not so. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Lou Solomon recently reported that 69% of managers are uncomfortable communicating with their employees. The only surprising thing about this statistic is how low it is. I’ve been doing research into the subject for years now and I know that it is true that the majority of our managers (who are well-paid, well-trained and integral to our success) are uncomfortable doing this essential part of their job!

What about the next generation of managers coming out of the universities? In a recent survey, the Graduate Management Admission Council, who own the GMAT exam, reported that although MBA’s were strong in analytical aptitude, quantitative expertise, and information-gathering ability, they were sorely lacking in other critical areas that employers find equally attractive: strategic thinking, written and oral communication, leadership, and adaptability.

When I interviewed more than 80 CEOs for my first book, the language of leaders, I was seeking to find out what soft skills they had learned over their careers to help them be more inspiring. At the top of the list they said was learning how to use your passion and your personal values to inspire people to great performance. You had to act with integrity, be authentic and know how to truly connect with people at an emotional level. They said that good communication was passionate communication.

Being able to articulate and inspiring vision of the future, a compelling purpose, and a set of values that created a common culture were essential to being a great leader. But none of this could happen unless leaders were focused on their audience, both in terms of listening to them and in crafting relevant messages. They said that leaders needed to be visible, constantly on the road and in the corridors, engaging with people in an on-going conversation. they have to concentrate on learning the soft skills that would enable them to inspire their people. It was no longer enough to have “domain excellence” (experience and skills related to the marketplace you serve) – the most important job of a leader was to get tremendous things done through other people.

Take time to learn and improve your soft skills.

Do you want some good news? Like any skill, soft skills can be learned. Would you like even better news? Boosting your soft skills not only gives you a leg up on a new job or a promotion, but these skills also have obvious applications in all areas of your life, both professional and personal.

So, what can you do to improve the key soft skills that will make you a better leader?
• Take a Course: Look at areas such as effective written and verbal communication, teamwork, cultural understanding and psychology. Take a writing or public speaking course to boost your communication skills.
•Read more – buy books on the subject, search the Internet for everything you can find and work hard to put what you learn into practice.
•Seek a mentor: don’t be shy – speak to people that you admire and asked them to help you. Better still, employ a coach who can help you fast track your skills.
• Take this leadership skills test (http://www.leadershipcommunication.co.uk/the-test/) which is based on more than a hundred interviews with CEOs, as well as research involving 3000 managers and 6000 employees. Mark yourself out of 10 in each of these areas and take action to improve.

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