Intangible skills such as leadership, collaboration and communication become highly important in a business world filled with uncertainty. For many companies, building the right soft skills has become imperative during this extended period of disruption. While the demand for core technical skills, those often labelled as ‘hard skills’, keep evolving, the demand for soft skills has been consistently high over the past few years. As a result, soft skills — such as empathy, emotional intelligence, creativity, mindfulness, adaptability, integrity, optimism, self-motivation, teamwork and resilience — are increasingly taking the forefront, becoming a crucial part of how companies seek to operate.
In this interview with Beatrice Joubert - Pearson, VP TalentLens, we uncover some of the top ways to identify, build, and measure the power skill, i.e. soft skills to future-proof our workforce.
Here are some excerpts from the session.
Q: How has COVID-19 impacted the overall skilling priorities for businesses? Has it also brought back the focus on skills, especially soft skills?
COVID, with all the complexities it has brought (virtual work, modified schedules, new safety rules to be respected, etc.) has undeniably had a pervasive impact on the way we work, regardless of the sector. To combat this emergency, companies have focused on quickly upskilling their staff in management and reporting tools. But using management tools does not create collaboration or staff engagement; companies are realizing that the company culture needs to evolve and focus on constant adaptation and adoption of a lifelong learning mindset. Culture is created by people through their personal qualities and interpersonal relations - what we call “soft skills.” Business leaders and employees now need to be supported as they adapt to this unfamiliar environment and develop their personal resources and mindsets to cope with the new stressful and fast-changing reality.
Q: In your conversations with various business leaders, do you think that with the ongoing business uncertainties, the focus has shifted to building soft skills (eg, communication, empathy, self-awareness, questioning techniques)? Can you reflect on some of these skills?
Businesses face multiple challenges in exceptionally volatile conditions: they must maintain their activities and meet their targets, whilst adapting to the new global and disruptive digital landscape. Hard (or technical) skills are naturally seen as essential for running the business. However, the impact of soft skills on performance is less understood because it is much more complex. Yet research shows how much a dysfunctional leader can impact their team’s direction, well-being, and chances of success.
Businesses are starting to be aware of the need to enhance those core personal and interpersonal competencies. A lot of soft skill training has recently flourished in the market. The challenge for HR is to empower employees’ motivation to follow and act upon the outcomes of training. To date, HR Execs frequently complain about the low employee uptake of these tools.
The problem may lie less with employee motivation and willingness to upskill and learn, but more to do with the user experience or lack of an end-to-end outcome of the diagnostics currently used. Expected behaviour also needs to be modelled by the organization, from the top down and embedded within the culture - soft skills need to be part of the global corporate HR policy and thus intertwined within all business discussions, meetings and interactions.
Leaders often talk about communication as a major soft skill. Communication is a complex skill composed of cognitive abilities and interpersonal skills (oral and writing communication, ability to engage with others, etc.) it can be measured in many diverse ways depending on the development goal. Improving your communication is a journey. The initial step is to be motivated to develop your communication skills. A first step can be to reflect on your own communication style and ask colleagues for feedback. A second step would be to take an objective assessment followed by a curated training program. Depending on the need, a third step would be to work with a coach. The same process applies to developing most soft skills.
Q: What are some ambient challenges that are proving to be big roadblocks in developing soft skills?
Three points seem important to me to consider:
Soft skills have long been the specialism of psychologists and trained professionals who are able to assess them objectively using psychometrics and then use assessment outcomes to support people in their personal awareness and resultant progress. The major impediment to this successfully occurring today is the scale of transformation the business world is currently undergoing! Few professionals are sufficiently trained to support this transformation. Due to the objectivity they provide, using well recognized and validated psychological assessments is a way to overcome this difficulty.
Secondly, making sure people are in the right job and at the right organization is key. Employees may well be asked to improve or develop a specific soft skill. However, if they are not in the most suitable role for their ability and personal preferences, or they are not in an organizational culture compatible with their own values, they will not work on role-specific soft skills to the required extent. Ensuring that people are placed suitably can be highly impacted with the correct use of appropriate psychometrics.
Finally, employee soft skill development results from the example displayed by managers and company leaders. As mentioned earlier, soft skills awareness and training should start at the top of the organization. If modelled and then implemented effectively, identifying required role-specific and company-wide soft skills are a powerful driver of coherent employee attainment and continuous development process.
Q: The pace of change is swift, and the shelf-life of skills is getting shorter. How can organizations better prepare for the dynamic nature of business and manage the new uncertainties by acquiring new skills swiftly?
Acquiring new skills takes time. The amount of time and effort required will naturally vary according to the complexity of the process/level of expertise in skill one is seeking to acquire.
For example, if you want to learn basic new functionalities in Excel you might need a few hours followed by immediate practice. If you want to learn to be a better communicator this obviously will take time, iteration, feedback, self-questioning, etc. All personal progression begins with a solid understanding of where you are starting from with a good understanding of your personal profile, unique strengths and weaknesses. Using valid objective tools to obtain an accurate depiction of one’s current position is an essential starting point. From here, using consumer-grade self-directed digital learning pathways, with measurable progression and certifiable outputs can then occur.
To further a previous point, the UX of these diagnostics is key – we need to meet learners on their own terms and cater for their technological expectations – an organization may possess the most scientifically sound assessments and learning tools available but if they do not present them in a way that is appealing to their increasingly digitally native workforce, then they will not work to their full potential and vital learning and progression opportunities will be missed.
Q: Technology is increasingly becoming important to assess and deliver skilling, as well as measure skilling program outcomes? What are some of the gaps that organizations have not been able to fill up in achieving the real impact/outcome from these skilling technologies?
We are at the very beginning of understanding the learning process through digital tools. For the development of soft skills, feedback from a peer, support from a professional and subsequent coaching have been the best means of progress to date. Coaching is increasingly developing as an online medium; the next step will undoubtedly be AI (Artificial Intelligence).
The challenge is to find the right balance between virtual training and “in person” training, both from the perspective of ensuring that they complement each other and are used appropriately, with clearly defined goals, expectations and intended learning outcomes. As the workplace has shifted to a more technologically driven space, we are noticing an increasing desire from organizations to really ‘get to know their employees and candidates – they can now measure so many different areas:
- Soft Skills: Resilience/stress resistance, Learning Agility, Commercial Acumen, Critical Thinking, Creativity, Independence, Teamwork etc.
- Technical Skills (the abilities and knowledge needed to perform specific tasks): They are practical, and often relate to mechanical, information technology, mathematical, engineering or scientific tasks.
- Digital Skills: Proficiency, Information Management, Tech Savviness and awareness.
Psychometrics solutions that measure these soft, technical and digital skills are the best route to success. With the acceptance that UX is key however, by introducing accessible and gamified courses and learning opportunities for employees, within which the soft or technical skills can be measured, organizations can obtain a clear, unbiased picture of where people are at and importantly, how they can direct them to develop skills gaps by providing personalized learning.
This data can all be mapped to organizations' employee rating systems, thus enabling benchmarking and progression to occur. In such a hyper-competitive and digital world, where automation is on the rise, employees should be aiming to learn at least one new skill per year, ideally more, in order to keep them relevant and at the forefront of their space. Indeed, in the name of retaining the best employees and nurturing other employees, organizations need to help to enable this for their people. If they don’t, someone else will...
Q: How can we create a sustainable skilling culture that includes assessing skills gaps, measuring the learning outcome, and creating a wholesome learner engagement in a virtual world?
This is a long-term goal that certainly requires a combination of multiple actions and factors. Plugging in an online tool is not enough. A combination of different actions should be considered and supported by management: Information, diagnostic tools, training, workshops, etc. This is a massive and global challenge for the coming years.
Prior to the pandemic, research indicated that Gen Y tended to switch jobs every two years, so for quite a while now, it has been clear that organizations' attraction campaigns, their recruitment and engaging and empowering onboarding and development of employees is essential if top talent is to be inspired, motivated and through upskilling opportunities, retained.
COVID added a further layer of complexity – people have been isolated, working from home etc. It is very hard for some people within inexperienced or younger generations, who need the on the job training and mentoring that face to face contact previously provided. Some extroverts have also reported struggling with the new reality. However, it is also clear that a lot of organizations are still too hierarchical and not flat enough, thus limiting the potential for progression and still applying ‘glass ceilings’ to certain types of people - this is obviously counterproductive – it has been well documented how important diversity is for the successful modern workplace.
This inefficiency, coupled with the shift towards innovation, creativity and tech will shift the paradigm and we are going to see some exciting new things emerge. Organizations need to adapt and hopefully stay ahead of the game. At the very least, they must keep up – if they do not foster a culture that promotes a flexible, trusting, empowering learning environment, people will seek opportunities to develop and progress somewhere else that does.