Soft Skills: The New Technical Skills

While there is no one skill guaranteed to prepare your people to successfully lead through change, a subset of skills might. Don’t let the term “soft skills” fool you. Soft skills, or the personal attributes enabling a person to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people, have a strong correlation with business success. Leaders rely on soft skills to monitor the real impact and progress of change while keeping everyone focused and present.

A new study from Harvard University, Boston College and the University of Michigan found that soft skills training boosts productivity and retention by 12 percent and delivers a 250-percent return on investment. Soft skills (like communication, problem-solving, empathy, adaptability, stress management and storytelling) also happen to be critical ingredients for successful business transformations.

The key to driving change is staying connected, authentic and in conversation. With every change initiative, there are breakdowns, unexpected needs, dissent and new information. It is in these moments of uncertainty that effective communicators can demonstrate vulnerability as well as strength; they can powerfully share from their heart as well connecting the dots; they can listen to others’ ideas as well as expressing their own. These skills create the necessary environment for the change process to evolve and progress. Perhaps “soft” skills should be re-named flexible, adaptive and resilient skills.

The research backs up this idea. In their book “Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage,” Scott Keller and Colin Price suggest that certain tactics correlate significantly more closely than others with transformation success. At the top of the list are effective communication skills and active leadership. Leaders who prioritized these skills and followed a “rigorous, action oriented approach” to transformation reported a 79-percent success rate – a huge leap from the 70-percent failure rate reported earlier.

The Forerunners of Successful Transformation: Your Leaders

Successful transformation starts with your leaders, but it can’t end there. True change lies in their ability to engage and inspire the people around them. Your leaders must serve as transformation’s biggest advocate, telling a consistent story that cascades easily down the ranks of the organization so that everyone feels personally connected to the vision. Leaders must also be able to empower others in the organization to share in the story of the transformation so that all are participants in the change rather than bystanders feeling its impact.

The importance of consistent, authentic and strategic communication from leadership is well-documented. In McKinsey research, “at companies where senior managers communicate openly and across the organization about the transformation’s progress, respondents are 8.0 times as likely to report a successful transformation as those who say this communication doesn’t happen.” Furthermore, a CEO’s ability to communicate a compelling, high-level change story can increase your organization’s chances of transformation survival over fivefold.

In times of uncertainty, it’s crucial for leadership and management to handle change, and the disruption that comes with it, both thoughtfully and strategically. Soft skills like empathy, emotional intelligence and interpersonal communication provide your leaders with the ability to create an environment where feedback is welcome, trust is won and success is accelerated.

I (and others) continue to reflect on Jack’s leadership not only because he inspired us but because he changed us. His emphasis on honest human connection helped us become better leaders and communicators who are able to listen, keep exploring options and balance commitment to a goal with the need to adjust to an evolving environment.

Early in our work together, as I was preparing to share our recommendations to our most senior stakeholders, Jack pulled me aside and said, “Hey, you’ve got this. Remember, we are all just people. Go in there, connect with them and have a conversation.” When I face a change or challenge that seems insurmountable, this advice always proves the perfect answer.