Amid the rush to acquire valuable—and scarce—technical skills, a growing number of technology companies are also pivoting their focus to require soft skills from their employees. These might be critical people skills such as collaboration and communication, or personal productivity skills such as time management and innovation, or simply basic skills such as resilience through disruption.
HP is one of the major companies to emphasise soft skills, with an interview process that assesses candidates' non-technical capabilities and an intensive, constantly-updated training process to develop those skills in existing employees. So what's it like from the inside? People Matters asked Sowjanya Reddy, Head of HR, HP Greater Asia, about HP's approach to the cultivation of the soft skills talent pool. Here's what she shared.
The generic category of 'soft skills' has today been recognised to encompass a wide range of capabilities, from people skills to self-management to output-related abilities like creativity. Could you share more about HP's view on the importance of these?
In the age of digital transformation, technical skills are important—they help us create innovative technologies that are impactful to our customers and the world. On the other hand, soft skills have also become priority in helping HP understand customers’ needs, allowing us to become better partners to our customers.
Innovation requires the ability to connect, empower and influence within a diverse ecosystem. Some of the critical skills that we have identified are agility, resilience and empathy—all of which are critical skills in our employees as we constantly look for different ways to do things. Also, in the highly collaborative world that we work in today, we need to bring people along and drive change by building a digital mindset and cultivating customer obsession in all our employees.
These soft skills will shape HP employees to lead with ambition, which is the ability to lead through ambiguity, drive perpetual reinvention, and become change agents on the constant lookout to challenge the status quo.
What does HP's current approach to soft skills involve? Which methods do you favour in the assessment, evaluation, and training of soft skills?
It is imperative that employees own their careers and development—to create their own development plans through multiple resources made available to them with the guidance of managers and leaders. One of the platforms we use is BrainCandy, which features a collection of learning resources from podcasts to webinars. The mobile-accessible platform allows employees to access these resources anytime, anywhere.
We also have a series of leadership programs tailored to employees in specific stages of their careers –
Trailblazer serves as a developmental roadmap which offers employees the opportunity to learn through a series of unique program engagements from action learning projects to workshops and team play. The aim is to develop in participants a customer-first mindset, an innovative streak and an attitude to create change.
Jumpstart is a specially curated leadership program to help employees develop critical skills. It focuses on developing a growth mindset, strategic thinking, storytelling and collaboration through experiential instructor-led sessions.
WIlL (Women in Leadership Lab) is a 7-month leadership program aimed at providing women with the appropriate hard and soft skills to take on P&L roles in our business units, as well as rotations in our functions. Its leadership cafes and workshops are focused on core leadership skills—change management, financial and business acumen, influencing, coaching and analytical thinking.
Catalyst and Fast Forward are sponsorship programs for women and under-represented populations to increase their representation in both technical and leadership roles at HP. Termed “Protégés”, participants are nominated to partner with senior-level executives, who will serve as their sponsors. Protégés then go through an 18-month program focused on learning and development opportunities to help them develop key skills for growth and exposure to HP’s senior leadership.
We leverage on a wide range of assessments from Strengths Finder, 360 based on HP’s Leadership Principles, DiSC and the Hogan assessments to measure our employees. These tools are used in combination on a case-by-case basis or as a cohort to better understand the development needs of employees, alongside other data points that are observed and collected.
Could you share some of the challenges you've encountered in building a talent pool of soft skills? What's worked to address them?
We used to think we can develop soft skills like hard skills—through classroom training, lessons and tutorials. However, over the last several years, we have become more creative in terms of application and practice. We use a range of soft skills training methods, from projects to rotations and creation of programs such as Trailblazer and more. The emphasis is on learning in a “safe environment”, so we do hire external coaches where needed.
We have had great success in helping employees put theory into practice, helping them become more confident in displaying their soft skills both in and out of the workplace. Also, we found that enabling our managers to own more coaching conversations has really helped move the needle in continuously developing the soft skills of employees in their respective teams.
It is also key that employees learn from experiences.
We found that giving timely feedback helps, allowing us to develop a culture of performance. This will then develop employees into individuals who are willing to take calculated risks moving forward and not be afraid of addressing failures.
Could you share some good practices that work to equip managers and HR professionals for identifying, assessing, and developing employees' soft skills?
We believe in helping our employees do a true reflection of themselves—their strengths, areas of interests and aspirations. Once we have identified these, our managers and HR professionals are able to provide more personalized learning and development opportunities, allowing us to achieve greater success in our employees’ growth. We also constantly look at succession planning to provide our managers and HR professionals with rich and accurate data, allowing them to drive “very intentional” development plans for all employees.
Also, requesting and giving constructive feedback in a timely manner helps companies identify, assess and develop employees’ soft skills. This means providing honest feedback and reflections of employees’ performances, which we believe will help them grow and develop quicker in a more targeted fashion.
In your experience, are there certain soft skills that tend to be correlated to people's performance and career advancement in the tech industry?
In today’s competitive business landscape, we need agility, resilience and empathy in our employees to develop better products and build the human connection between brand and customer. Also, innovation happens very quickly—we need employees with customer obsession and a digital mindset to bring people along and drive positive change. We believe that employees that demonstrate these skills can lead with ambition, and these are the employees who are often more willing to take calculated risks in advancing their careers in the tech industry.
Finally, as a tech company, what is your view on the potential to leverage technology to help people develop the specific soft skills they need?
Technology has and will always be crucial in helping people develop specific skills. It helps us gather insights and makes different perspectives of specific topics across the globe more accessible. It also allows us to enable global projects and brainstorm, as well as to share the best practices for more conducive learning opportunities. At HP, we use technology with a “people-first” mindset and we leverage on it as a medium to increase our connectedness and enhance the employee experience.
While technology is a key component to learning and growth, the human connection cannot be overlooked.
Managers and HR professionals play a key role in employee development—they are the ones who own regular conversations with employees, where feedback and inputs are exchanged.
This constant communication allows companies to celebrate employee success, prepare them for future roles and ultimately, help them develop the soft skills required to excel in both their careers and personal lives.