How do you maintain a competitive edge during a year like 2020? The COVID-19 pandemic impacted every aspect of life, and businesses were the most susceptible. Add natural disasters, social and political unrest, and a heavy sense of uncertainty, and the overall impact to business operation and survivability is unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes.
However, the sudden challenges have presented businesses with the opportunity to reassess how they function internally, as they learn new ways to manage remote teams, experiment with new tools to help with remote access and rethink how they engage with customers. Changes in job duties or even loss of employment have given workers the chance to reassess their career trajectory, learn new skills and pivot.
One way that both businesses and employees can better position themselves to survive the current uncertainty is to focus on something that will not only benefit businesses in both the short and long term, but that will give employees – especially managers – an edge on their careers as well: Soft skills training.
Soft Skills or Hard Skills?
There are two different types of skill sets each employee needs to have to be truly successful: Soft skills and hard skills. Hard skills are easy to teach and easy to measure – for example, technical knowledge, or knowing a program, language or technique. More specific examples of hard skills are knowing how to code Python, how to use Excel or Photoshop, understanding how to apply SEO or UI principles, or other skills that are generally gained with some kind of formal or informal education.
Soft skills, on the other hand, are more difficult to measure, and may be considered personality traits, relational or leadership skills. Soft skills can certainly be taught and learned, but they may stick more depending on a person’s values and approach to management. Soft skills focus on productivity and relationships, and include communication, collaboration, problem solving and other less quantifiable but highly desirable abilities.
While both soft and hard skills have their place in an employee’s toolbox, a manager or someone aiming to take on a leadership role should be focused on developing their soft skills.
A study done on Fortune 500 CEOs has shown that upwards of 75% of career success actually depends on soft skills and people skills. Another study conducted by Harvard University found that 80% of career achievements happen due to soft skills alone. This isn’t just good news for employees, but for businesses as well. And one study found that training workers in soft skills increased productivity by 12%, which increased ROI by 256%.
Other benefits for companies that employ managers with strong soft skills include:
- Increased productivity through better time management and self-guidance
- Stronger, clearer communication between teams and senior leadership
- Improved customer service and customer-centric initiatives
- Higher employee retention and satisfaction
- Better change management and relationship navigation
In other words, it’s a benefit for employees to invest in building their soft skills, and it’s a benefit for businesses to invest in training their employees in soft skills as well.
The Top 10 Skills
While every manager should possess a number of soft skills, here are the top 10 that have been shown to benefit teams the most and address evolving workplace needs.
Businesses value managers who can approach problems in fresh, innovative ways, and who can use creative tools like design thinking, improvisation and ideation, and experimentation to develop new processes or approaches.
Thinking critically through problems and evaluating different solutions is another valuable soft skill. Critical thinking isn’t just about spending more time solving a problem, but looking at it rationally, weighing the pros and cons, seeing its long-term effects and making decisions based on logic rather than emotion.
A leader must be a problem solver, and the higher up a manager wants to go, the harder the problems they’ll need to solve. Having good problem solving skills means being able to weigh all aspects of an issue with clarity and calmness, and make a decision – sometimes in a split second – with the information available.
Diversity and Inclusion
With more workplaces implementing diversity and inclusion initiatives, a manager must have the ability to prioritize creating diverse teams, and making sure that everyone gets a seat at the table. Managers must also have enough self and cultural awareness to know in which areas their teams are lacking.
Emotional intelligence is being able to control one’s own emotions in a workplace environment and being aware of others’ emotions. This means cultivating self-control, mindfulness and self-awareness around one’s own actions, and also being responsive to issues, concerns or other challenges that members of the team are experiencing.
Every industry has customers or clients, and having a service orientation means having a constant focus on the end user – from product development, to customer support, to hearing their concerns. Service-oriented managers will train their teams to focus on customers, which sometimes means reassessing team priorities.
Productivity and Time Management
Managers don’t just have to deal with project deadlines, but with stakeholder concerns, budgetary requirements and pressure from senior leadership. Another soft skill to possess is time management, which will help keep teams on track and be more efficient.
Managers must be able to lead their teams through change by not only managing operational shifts, but by addressing employee fears or concerns. They must also know how to communicate well during times of change in order to keep up morale and maintain confidence.
A manager who rigidly adheres to plans is going to cause friction within the team. But one who is nimble and flexible, who can easily leave plans behind and move to new options, all while getting the team on board to do so, will be a valuable asset to the organization.
All managers have the option to be leaders. Leadership requires the ability to inspire others, communicate and motivate, gain trust, and have others look to you for vision and guidance. Leadership skills are especially important as businesses assess who they want to promote.
Soft Skills Can Be Learned
While they seem less concrete and quantifiable, soft skills can be learned with proper training.
First, start by evaluating recruits in the hiring pipeline to see which soft skills they already possess, and begin hiring more people who have them. For current employees, evaluate which soft skills they may already demonstrate and offer training to strengthen them. While soft skills aren’t as straightforward as learning a new software program and taking a test, for example, employees who are open to growth can learn and practice within the safety of their teams or with their managers. Having an employee training program that offers courses in soft skills is key, as well.
As businesses are reassessing how to get through 2020’s economic changes, and as employees look to pursue new job opportunities, we’re certain to see each one focus more on soft skills in order to stay competitive and ensure long-term growth.