More and more, we hear that soft skills are the key to success even, or maybe especially, in an increasingly automated world. But what do we mean when we say soft skills, and why are they the key to success? How do you know if your organization has a workforce with strong soft skills, and how can you develop them in your employees?

In this episode of The Business of Learning, Shelley Osborne, head of learning and development at Udemy, and G. Riley Mills, co-founder and chief operating officer of Pinnacle Performance Company and author of “The Bullseye Principle,” share their insights on:

  • Why the phrase “soft skills” may be a misnomer — and what some better terms might be.
  • Why soft skills are so important.
  • Why there’s a soft skills gap and how to overcome it.
  • How to assess soft skills.

Listen now:

Resources Mentioned in This Episode:

Complete the form below to download our e-book on soft skills.

The transcript of this episode follows:

Intro:
Welcome to the Business of Learning, the learning leader’s podcast from TrainingIndustry.com.

Sarah Gallo:
Hello, and welcome to the Business of Learning. I’m Sarah Gallo, associate editor at Training Industry, here with my co-host, Taryn Oesch, managing editor of TrainingIndustry.com.

Taryn Oesch:
Hi. More and more we hear that soft skills are the key to success even, or maybe especially, in an increasingly automated world.

Sarah Gallo:
But what do we mean when we say soft skills, and why are they the key to success? How do you know if your organization has a workforce with strong soft skills, and how can you develop them in your employees?

Taryn Oesch:
To answer these questions, today we’re talking with Shelley Osborne, head of learning and development at Udemy, and G. Riley Mills, co-founder and chief operating officer of Pinnacle Performance Company, and author of “The Bullseye Principle.” Shelley and Gary, thanks for joining us today.

Gary Mills:
Thank you.

Shelley Osborne:
Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to chat with you all.

Sarah Gallo:
Before we get started today, I’d just like to say that this episode of the Business of Learning is sponsored by Training Industry Research.

Ad:
As a training professional, your job is to effectively manage the business of learning. You probably listen to this podcast to gain insights on L&D trends being used by some of the most innovative thought leaders in our market. But did you know that Training Industry also provides data-driven analysis and best practices through our premium research reports? Our entire catalog, including reports on topics such as deconstructing 70-20-10, women’s access to leadership development, learner preferences and the state of the training market, just to name a few, can be found at TrainingIndustry.com/ShopResearch. New insights create new ways for L&D to do business. Let Training Industry research reports assist you in taking your learning initiatives to new heights. Go to TrainingIndustry.com/ShopResearch to view our entire catalog.

Taryn Oesch:
Let’s start off with the basics. What are soft skills? Shelley, let’s start with you.

Shelley Osborne:
I think traditionally the way we’ve thought about soft skills is really attaching those people skills, communication skills, or the things we typically associate outside of the technical skills required to do our jobs. They tend to transcend that specific job list. When we look at, say, a job description or if we look at a career path, or a leveling document, it’s the stuff that doesn’t always appear in that. That’s how we’ve kind of captured it. It’s how we interact with one another at work to actually achieve our business goals.

Sarah Gallo:
Very cool. Gary, what do you think?

Gary Mills:
I don’t love the term soft skills. We don’t call them that at Pinnacle Performance Company. We call them “essential skills” because they really are [essential]. These are the things that … You know, technical skills, yeah, that’s a given. You have to have that in an organization, but those soft skills, the ability to communicate effectively, to collaborate effectively, to be creative, to be mindful, to manage time, those things are all so, so important. It reminds me of … I’m not sure if you’re all familiar with the … Google did a study in 2013 called Project Oxygen. Have you ever heard of this one [study]?

Taryn Oesch:
I have, yes, but maybe our listeners haven’t. Tell us a little bit about it?

Gary Mills:
Yeah, it’s really interesting in that they did this study to find out what are the skills that they need for their workforce to perform at their best. What are the skills that those folks need at Google? They just assumed that [they needed] technical expertise and technical skills. Since it’s a tech company, [they assumed those] would be number one. Well, when they finished this Project Oxygen, it turned out that the top seven skills that their employees needed for success, none of those were technical. [Technical skills were] number eight, but the top seven were all “soft skills,” such as the ability to collaborate, the ability to coach other people, [the ability to] to communicate [and how] to manage conflict. All those things came [out ranking] much higher than technical skills, which is very eye opening.

Shelley Osborne:
Gosh, I love Gary that you’re calling them essential skills. At Udemy, we’ve kind of taken a different slant on this too. Instead of calling it soft skills, we call them business skills sometimes, but myself even, I don’t love putting this qualifier, this adjective in front of it. My preference is to strip all that away, and just call them skills.

Gary Mills:
Love it.

Shelley Osborne:
Something that we’ve kept trying to capture and bucket [is] technical skills versus soft skills. There’s this ongoing debate about which one is more important. I’m also a huge fan of Project Oxygen, but I think if we get real about this, it’s just a skill. I agree with you, I don’t like putting soft on it because it has such a weird contextual piece to it. When we think about connotation versus denotation, how we refer to [crosstalk 00:04:51]

Gary Mills:
Right.

Shelley Osborne:
It just really makes people feel like it’s touchy-feely, and [that] it’s a nice-to-have [skillset] versus something, like you said, [that is] essential to have.

Gary Mills:
One of the things in our training, [which I mention] in the first chapter of “The Bullseye Principle,” I tell the reader, I said, “As we start this journey, delete these words from your vocabulary: public speaking.” Public speaking is just weighted with bad experiences in high school or a horrible class that was embarrassing, [or a time] that you were put on the spot in college. Public speaking, we are public speaking all day long, right? You’re in a meeting, you’re with your boss. Any time you’re communicating outside your house is essentially public speaking. If we take that away and just talk about communication, [it would be more effective]. It’s just communication. Whether you’re presenting in front of 1,500 people at a conference or whether you’re giving a performance review to one person, if you take away the public speaking [mind set], just the bad vibes that that phrase has, it’s just communication. It’s so simple. It puts people at ease.

Shelley Osborne:
I love that.

Taryn Oesch:
Yeah. I’ve seen a lot of our writers are talking about this re-branding [and] re-naming [of] soft skills because of all the problems that you’ve mentioned. I think any of us who have had to do a public speaking, to use the word that you just said not to use, but anyone who’s had to do that for the first time knows that these aren’t really simple, touchy feely-skills. These are skills that are important, and sometimes difficult to develop. I think learning and development professionals are really looking for ways to talk about these skills in a way that’s not intimidating, but also demonstrates their importance to any role.

Shelley Osborne:
I would say even the word soft, if I could recapture it. Sometimes it needs a soft touch to recognize [an issue], say for [example], talking about conflict resolution. I spent a lot of my career studying this. I got certified in conflict resolution at one point. You need a soft touch sometimes to be able to use that skill well. You need to understand the nuance and the gray area that any of these skills live in. I think that, like many things in life, we’ve really just taken this word, and misunderstood it, and misapplied it. That’s why I like stripping all that away so that we can understand, well this is essential, as Gary mentioned, this is about achieving our business results, but it also is really complicated, and these are the skills that are harder to define. When you’ve wielded that skill successfully, it’s not as obvious, and you can’t use it the same way every time. When you’re in a conflict, or you’re trying to manage conflict, or appropriately have relationships that can handle conflict, you are going to have a ton of different techniques and strategies. It’s not [resolved in] one way, and it’s a really difficult thing to know when to use it, how to use it, [and] how to do that effectively.

Gary Mills:
Yeah. There’s a study in the book [I wrote] that we talk about, [that found] 62% of workers feel that their communication skills are on point. They did a big survey, you think you as a communicator at work, are your skills on point? 62% said, “Yeah, absolutely. That’s something I’m great at.” When in fact, they asked their bosses as well. Only 28% of their bosses agreed.

Sarah Gallo:
Wow, that’s really interesting. Going off of that, why do we think that these soft skills are so important, and do you think they’ve become more important in recent years?

Gary Mills:
Well, I think they’re important for a main reason in that people don’t stay at one job anymore. In my dad’s day, my dad was a public school teacher, and so [for] 32 years he got this job teaching public school in a small town, and for 32 years, he did that one job, and then he retired. We don’t do that anymore. People jump from job to job. They’re moving, especially younger workers. You ask them, “Are you going to be at this job in 32 years?” Very few say, “Yeah, I’m going to stick around that long. The fact that if you have a tool belt, we call it a tool belt in our training. If you have that tool belt of communication skills, where you’re able to not only communicate effectively, but then [also] collaborate with people from different backgrounds, different generations [and] different countries, and you can think creatively, and you can adapt, and you’re nimble, [you’re better off]. Those are all skills that are going to be really important in the upcoming decades to be able to successfully move from one job, one culture, one organization to the next.

Shelley Osborne:
Yeah. [I have] Data around that. At Udemy, we’re constantly talking about this reskilling, upskilling skills gap conversation. In fact, there’s a World Economic Forum study that really indicates that 54% of employees will need significant reskilling by 2022. That’s really only three years from now. And when we think about what Gary just mentioned there, we are going to need to take those skills, the communication skills, the soft skills, essential skills, business skills, whatever you want to call it, and it’s going to need to carry with you to that next role. We have entire functions that exist. Let’s look at, say, data science, that wasn’t really a thing until just a few years ago. This is going to just accelerate. By 2030, as many as 375 million workers, this is a McKinsey report, roughly 14% of the global workforce, is actually going to need to do an occupational switch. That’s not just shifting within their role, they may need to shift to an entirely different occupation. So this stuff becomes essential for us to be able to do that, and to be able to do that successfully. Gary just said something interesting. You need to be nimble. Well, I think actually the most important skill we have or need is learning agility. We need to know how to learn. If there’s anything that transcends both the technical and what we are calling soft, or essential, or business skills, that crosses all of the boundaries.

Gary Mills:
Very, very good point. Yeah, I love that point. I was at the University of Utrecht speaking last year, and I met a gentleman named Frank who’s an expert in education, and what we need to be prepared for in the future, and where education is going. I have a daughter, who’s 18, who was hunting for colleges at that point. And like all of us, we want our kids set up for success, right? So I got finished, I’m talking to him after the speaking engagement and I said, “Hey Frank, man, you’re the expert on this. This is really interesting. I have an 18 year old daughter. Tell me what major should she study? What should she study to set her up for success in the future?” Hoping he was going to give me this magic answer that’s going to make her life successful and happy. He said, “Here’s the deal.” He said, “Most of the jobs that your daughter, or my daughter, or sons are going to be working, they haven’t even been invented yet.” There’s a study by 2030, I think 85% of the jobs that people are going to be doing in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet. So he said, “Here’s what I recommend. It’s not the major. It’s not the school as much. Yeah, that’s important. That’s one aspect.” He said, “It’s those aspects of sharpening communication, being nimble, being a collaborator.” Right? Being creative and being able to, like you were saying, move to different organizations. So I think you’re spot on.

Shelley Osborne:
You know, there’s something to layer on there too. It’s not even just that it’s shifting in that the roles are changing. We’re also seeing careers get longer. We actually see the average career spanning over 50 years now, which is a pretty significant shift from how we traditionally thought about the lifespan of a career. Certainly it’s changed from, “Oh, I do one job and I kind of stick that out for life.” But it’s also gotten even longer. People are working far longer. People are living far longer, and that is a really important consideration when we think about this skills development, as we think about those things that will transcend that span of a career. It can’t be forgotten that you’re going to be carrying this with you for 50 years now instead of 30.

Sarah Gallo:
Yeah, definitely. Going off of that, do you think there are any soft skills, in addition to being nimble, and creative, and things like that that we already talked about, that you think are more important to develop than others?

Shelley Osborne:
I mean, I just have to repeat it because I think it’s that important. I think that learning agility is that baseline. It’s the foundation, and if you don’t start from that, nothing else is going to come. But I think Gary’s talked about it already a little bit. Communication is the thing that is threaded through all of our interactions at work. As we think about even that comment I just made about 50 years is your [new average] career [length], we’re also seeing more generations in the workforce. So when we think about [it], okay, we’ve got people who are brand new to their careers, all the way [up] to people who’ve been working for 50 years. There’s a need for us to come together, and communicate and collaborate better. And that really requires us being a little bit more thoughtful. We’re not all necessarily brand new, eyes wide open to this new career situation. Some of us have this wisdom of having worked longer, and that requires a different approach to how we see each other, how we see the opportunity to learn from one another. Opportunities go both ways. To me, it starts with learning agility and then it shifts to communication because that touches everything we do.

Gary Mills:
And because a lot of people are thrust into director positions, management positions, leadership positions without any sort of formal training on, “How do I do this?” They think, “I don’t know how to manage a team. I don’t know how to run meetings.” That becomes an issue because if companies don’t invest in training for those leaders or those managers, it has a tough effect on the culture of the organization. There’s another statistic from “The Bullseye Principle”: 71% [of employees] say their bosses don’t communicate effectively to them. So for all of us who have people who report to us, that’s a scary number. Knowing that seven out of 10 people go, “Yeah, my boss isn’t very good. She’s not very good at communicating.” And we all know the number one reason people give for who wanting to quit a job or leave a job, right? It’s not the money. It’s not the workload. It’s “I can’t deal with that manager anymore. I can’t do it.”

Shelley Osborne:
Gary, you just touched on something that I have been passionately talking about for the last couple of years. The average tenure a manager has before they receive their first manager training is 10 years into their management career.

Gary Mills:
Crazy.

Shelley Osborne:
That’s [the] average, so they’re doing this job for 10 years before we even start talking to them about communication, before we even start talking about general leadership skills, delegation, all these things that are so essential. That’s about 42 as the age, and when we think about how we approach those [roles that demand], what we traditionally call technical skills, like say a pilot, or an engineer, or a doctor, we don’t wait. We actually do that before we set them out into the wild to do those jobs. But we’re doing the opposite with managers. Back to the original question, that kind of spawned this part of our conversation, we have to start doing these things. What’s most important? Well, it’s all pretty important, and we need to start doing it earlier is probably the bigger question. It’s a lot of things need to happen, and they need to happen sooner.

Gary Mills:
Yeah, communication’s critical. It literally affects every level of every organization. Try to name me an industry or a role where, at some point, communication is not paramount, [where it] is not essential to be able to do that [role] effectively?
Whether you have one person [working for you], if you’re a mom-and-pop shop, let’s say you have one employee, that’s one employee that you have, [you have] to communicate effectively to.

Shelley Osborne:
I totally agree. We’re talking the same language here, Gary.

Gary Mills:
Feedback is another. We spend a lot of time in our work talking about feedback within organizations because generally, 65% of people surveyed want more feedback, and this surprises bosses, right? Because bosses think, “They don’t want to hear me harp on the things they’re doing wrong, and nag them about doing this better.” When in fact, people are hungry, hungry for feedback, especially younger workers. Younger workers, they not only are hungry for feedback and mentorship from their bosses, they want to give you feedback, right? Which is something we all have to adjust to as the generations join the workforce is younger workers, they don’t care that you started the company 25 years ago, and you’re a millionaire running this company. They’ve got stuff [to say about what] you’re doing wrong, [and] they want to tell it to you. We not only have to be open for feedback from those folks, because they might have some great ideas that we missed because we’ve been doing the same thing or doing it the same way [for a long time]. We have to ask for it. We have to create an environment. We [have to] encourage people to create an environment where people feel free to come with [their own] ideas and creativity, and maybe even complaints of hey, “This is not very fair, the way this is set up. I don’t feel good about this.” Because if we don’t get that feedback, we never know [about the issue] as a leader.

Shelley Osborne:
I love that. At Udemy, we think very similarly to that. We actually have our program called Feedback Is Fuel, and one of the biggest things we realized is we needed to rebrand feedback because it has such a negative connotation, [going] back to the connotation, denotation conversation. But we called it Feedback Is Fuel because, you know, historically we’ve thought about it like, “Oh, feedback is negative. I’m being told I’m doing something wrong. Or feedback is a gift.” Which I reject that as well. It’s not a gift. I can go my whole life without getting gifts. What I do need is fuel; I need oxygen; I need air; I need water, and that’s what feedback is, and it does have to be continuous and ongoing, and it has to go all directions. If we go back to that fundamental skill I think is the most important soft skill, learning agility, one of the key principles of that is a culture where feedback is available, accepted [and] wanted. Because if you don’t have those open lines [of communication] to hear about that growth and development, you can’t be learning agile. You can’t figure out where to go next. You can’t get feedback on how you’re progressing. It’s so, so, so essential.

Gary Mills:
And if you’re not used to it, if you’re [in] an organization that is not a feedback-driven culture, where it’s not something that you would never go to the CEO and tell the CEO, “Hey, I think we’re making a mistake here.” Or even your boss, you know, it’s very top down. [In these situations], it’s an uncomfortable adjustment to all of a sudden open yourself up to criticisms that you’ve never had for the last 15 years. You just didn’t experience it [yet].

Shelley Osborne:
Yeah, it’s a totally new vibe. To me, it’s a lot of branding and positioning to get people to see something completely differently that they’ve maybe feared, rejected or avoided their whole lives. We did a similar bit of a survey here, and not only did we ask if people wanted more feedback, we dove a little deeper and started asking how often [and in] which ways do you like to get feedback, and then we coached all of our managers and leaders to have that conversation, to sit there with their direct reports and say, “Hey, how do you like to receive feedback? What’s going to be the cadence? And also, by the way, this is how you give me feedback.” It’s been pretty game-changing for us. It’s been transformational. It’s even amazing to see the ways Feedback Is Fuel has just emerged organically in our organization. I see other people use it when we hold [events], like our own customer conference, they’re asking for Feedback Is Fuel from our customers at the end of the conference. And I see it pop up in our Glassdoor surveys, “Oh, we have a Feedback Is Fuel culture.” And it’s something I’m tremendously proud of my team for executing, but it’s so fundamental. This feedback is how you build that learning agility.

Gary Mills:
Love it.

Shelley Osborne:
Feedback is how we build an organization that grows and develops in this ever-changing world.

Gary Mills:
Love it. The people getting the feedback, again, they’re hungry for it. They want it, “Give it to me; tell me what I’m doing wrong; tell me how I can improve.” They want you to get to it, so you don’t need to waffle around and beat around the bush, and [have] too much small talk. You know, there are studies that just show [employees want their leaders to just] get to it. [They’re thinking], “Hey, what is it? Get to the meat of what you want to give me. You don’t need to fluff things up and all of that.” In the experience working with executives with Pinnacle Performance around the world, our clients, the people who want feedback, they want two things when they’re getting feedback. Number one, they want it to be sincere. Is this sincere feedback? Do you really mean this? Do you feel strongly about this? They also want it to be specific. Keep your feedback sincere and specific, and get to it. Get to the point, get to the grain that you’re trying to get to and people love it. That’s what’s going to help empower them. That’s what’s going to help develop them, and move them forward.

Sarah Gallo:
Yeah. I think we can all agree that soft skills are just so essential for effective leadership, especially right now. Do you think that there’s any roles where soft skills training might not be required?

Shelley Osborne:
No.

Gary Mills:
Yeah, I was going to say, like I said earlier, I don’t think so. I agree.

Shelley Osborne:
Hard no. Hard fast [no]. To me, that’s like absolutely the worst possible [thing] … no.

Gary Mills:
When I would do big speaking events years ago, I would ask that question at the beginning, and I would pose it like this in front of a thousand people, I go, “Give me an industry where you don’t have to be good at communication. Where communication is irrelevant.” Inevitably, some wise guy, some wise lady, would come up with… One was embalmer, right? Somebody at a funeral home, they’re working with a dead person, so they don’t need to be good at communicating. To which I would say, “You know what? That person who runs that funeral home, it’s probably a family-owned business, and half of their job is dealing with these families who are struggling with something, and showing them empathy, and listening to them actively, and tending to their needs. You need communication there.” Another one they’d say, “Toll booth operator.” Toll booth operator, they’re in a booth, you just throw the coins in and you keep going. Well what if somebody’s lost? They need directions, right? Because I’m sure that happens a lot when they pull up to the thing [and say], “Oh hey, I’m supposed to be going this way. My phone’s dead, I have no GPS. Can you give me directions?” Well, being able to communicate effectively in that situation [is] probably pretty worthwhile.

Shelley Osborne:
I think too, another way to consider this, is not that there’s….Think about the people you admire, that you work with, that you enjoy working with the most, whether they be a leader or a manager you’ve had, or a peer, or a colleague. When we ask people these questions, the things they mention, the skills they have, sometimes they mention, “Oh, they’re incredibly good at their technical capacity in their job.” But we typically hear, “Oh, they’re a great coach,” or “They’re very collaborative.” Those are the kinds of things we hear come up. When we coach our employees here at Udemy, we often ask them to think, okay, how would someone you admire respond to the situation and those reactions, those responses always illustrate these kinds of soft skills. It’s amazing to hear.

Gary Mills:
Also just engaging an audience, right? It doesn’t matter how great your product is, your services are, how smart you are, how great your research and your book was. If, when you get in front of an audience, they have no idea why they should care about this, and you’re so boring in your delivery that they’re falling asleep, or wanting to go to their Facebook [feed]. That’s a problem. So just teaching the importance of engagement [is important]. [Trainers should ask], “How do I engage them? How do I influence their emotions to motivate their actions to get them to do what I’m asking them to do?” Because, really, any presentation or meeting should never be about talking. It’s really about, you know, in a meeting, creating a meeting asset, a decision that was made, an action item that was developed, or in a presentation, just getting to what you need them to understand, and making sure they walk out knowing why that’s important to them, and what they should do with that information.

Taryn Oesch:
Okay, so we’ve established that soft skills are important across the organization for people in every role. Do you think that there’s a gap in soft skills? In other words, do organizations have employees at their companies that have the soft skills that they need?

Shelley Osborne:
I think it’s pretty clear there’s a gap. Particularly when we think about the leadership side of this. There’s so many organizations who are indicating, well first of all, [that] we’re not training our leaders soon enough, but they’re also identifying that they feel that there’s a leadership gap. And when they say that, again, they are talking about these [skills that are] traditionally referred to as softer skills. Now, what does that mean? How do we actually establish what the gap is? I don’t think it’s easy to measure, but we are hearing routinely from employers that the challenges they face are on training folks on these skills. They don’t know how to approach these skills. They feel like it’s something that’s a bit of a black box for them. They don’t even know how to approach it. So, yes. Can I put a number on it? Difficult to do that. I think it’s probably broader than we even know.

Gary Mills:
Yeah. [The] Wall Street Journal did a survey, and had [published] an article where they talked to 900 executives and they asked those executives about communication skills and the[ir] importance at their organization, and 92% of those executives said, “Communication skills [are] essential [and are] very important in our organization.” Yet [in] that same group, 89% [of survey respondents] said, “But we can’t find people with those skills. We can’t find people that have the strong communication skills that we need.” So there is a gap there. One of the things I think the big problem is, first off, [is that] a lot of organizations, when they cut their budgets, when they cut money out, when they try to skimp, a lot of times they make the big mistake of cutting out training. The training budget gets cut, so instead of having an expert come in who can really move this team or move this group forward in their area of expertise, because they know what they’re talking about, organizations will cheap out and just say, “Let’s have Marilyn. Marilyn, can you run a presentation skills, public speaking course next week for everybody?” And then Marilyn has to go online and Google, I don’t know what that is, let me see what that is. I think that’s a problem too, is [that] organizations don’t value training.

Shelley Osborne:
That’s so true. I think it’s interesting how we perceive this kind of stuff. I have a really interesting role because I’m the head of learning and development at a learning company, so one of the things that’s pretty cool is I get to dive a little deeper into our data and understand even where those trends and needs are. As we’re talking about, okay, what are the gaps? I can’t say where the gaps are. I can’t say, “Oh, like 80% of [our] people need this one [training].” But I can illustrate some of the top skills that are emerging for us. What’s really fascinating, and we’ve kind of touched on it a little bit already, areas like conflict management is a huge one. When we look at the over 40 million learners who learn on Udemy, that’s one of the most requested, the most popular courses or topics. But we also see [other] things that are fascinating, like [training for] time management and [managing] stresses.

Gary Mills:
Right.

Shelley Osborne:
Yeah. That’s fascinating.

Gary Mills:
Mindfulness [too], right? Mindfulness is becoming a thing because if you’re that CEO who everybody is scared to knock on your door of your office because they’re terrified you’re going to bite their head off. Or everybody in the company gets your emails and reads a tone into that email that you don’t want them to be reading in that makes you seem unapproachable. [They may think], “Wow, she seems angry,” or “He seems very defensive.” There’s a problem there, too. So yeah, I agree.

Shelley Osborne:
Yeah. We’ve also seen change. I think you’ve kind of referenced this a little bit as you’ve talked about all the shifts, [and] change management, but not even just change management for organizations. We’re seeing individuals coming to Udemy to say, “Hey, how do I, as an individual, as just a person, cope with the change as I see my industry shift, as I see, hey, maybe they’re cutting a budget.” Like you just mentioned, [they may come to us and say] “The training budget’s been cut. What do I do? How do I get learning myself? How do I respond to shifts in my industry? How do I pick up these new skills?” I think that’s something that [in] L&D [and] HR, we’ve traditionally thought about it as, oh, let’s manage the company through change, but instead I think it needs to be more the bottom up. That’s a soft skill I really see emerging.

Gary Mills:
Yeah.

Shelley Osborne:

[People want to know], “How do I, as an individual, do some situational awareness around this?” Like, “Oh, what’s happening? What projecting possibilities? [How can I] Understand my feelings about this?” [There is] so much in that, [and] I think we can help people with [creating situational awareness and change management skills in learners].

Gary Mills:
Yeah, change is an emotional … it’s an [emotional] thing. By not focusing on these, our people [will suffer]. “Yeah, we’re downsizing. Yeah, we just acquired a company and half our workforce got cut.” If you don’t acknowledge that change as an emotional process, and make sure that you are staying connected from a communication standpoint, [they are going to remain stuck] wherever they are on the change curve, right? If they’re in shock, if they’re furious now, they’re angry, [and may think,] “I’ve been working here all this time and now I [have] got to commute two hours because you move the office. If we’re not on top of the emotional impact [of organizational changes] and communicating wherever that employee is [in the change management process], that’s a big problem because you’re not going to get through that change scenario very effectively.

Shelley Osborne:
No, and I think, I love you calling it that change curve. I often like to relate it to the stages of grief, and call it the stages of change, because we often go through a similar process of just absorbing it and reacting to it. I think this is probably, maybe right up there with learning agility. [It’s] something that we need to think about differently. Instead of it being this top-down [process, let’s communicate [about] it. Let’s go and give all these employees some strategies and techniques and tools to really support these experiences.

Gary Mills:
Sure.

Taryn Oesch:
All right. We’ve touched on this a bit, but if a skill is, you know, what’s traditionally known as soft, does that mean that there’s no way to measure it or evaluate whether soft skills training is effective, and can you calculate an ROI on that training?

Shelley Osborne:
I mean, when we’re thinking about ROI, I have this conversation a lot about like, “Okay, how do I prove that this was valuable?” I often feel that we kind of take a backwards lens at this in the L&D space, where we’re like, “Okay, I want to prove that I did this thing and it saved us money, or that I did this.” I’d like us to advance the conversation and get forward-looking when we think about ROI, and how are we able to be a bit more predictive? How are we able to plan different interventions to support our organization as they move through an employee life cycle? That’s a different way of looking at it because often when we talk about ROI, it’s like backwards-looking. It’s like, “I did a thing… [this is the ROI] it achieved, and we got a little bit better because of that.” That stopped short of the full equation. We need to say, “Okay. Yeah, I did a thing and this got better, but now I’m going to use that information, and it’s going to advance how I move forward [and] how I think differently.” We recently did this with our career conversations here at Udemy, and this was very much a soft skills-focused training where we focused on giving managers coaching skills, and really help them understand how to have really effective career conversations. Sure, I looked at how many people went, “Sure, I looked at course ratings.” But what we got really deep on the data in was looking at, okay, which managers had conversations? What was the output of those conversations? We started looking a little bit now at, okay, are we seeing any changes in those career paths of those employees? And then now we’re deep in a phase where we’re planning our next career conversation cycle, and we’re using that data to plan interventions around the managers who, for whatever reason, didn’t have a conversation or where we’re seeing less successful engagement with those teams. That to me is how you start actually talking about ROI of soft skills training, but that’s not traditionally how we’ve ever been able to think about it. It relies on us [to change that way of thinking about it]. Interestingly enough, a whole new way of thinking that just emerged in the last few years of really leveraging data, which isn’t how HR has been able to operate in the past. But we have way more technology; we have all sorts of systems. It’s so much more possible now, and it’s incredibly exciting.

Gary Mills:
Yeah. I know there’s case studies, you know, there’s examples of companies where they invested in soft skills training and saw big results. L’Oréal was one that comes to mind, where they put their sales agents through soft skills training. Half [of] their sales agents through soft skills training [and] half [did] not [go through the training]. And then at the end, the ones who had gone through the training sold $91,000 more on average than the[ir] less-trained counterpart. In the end, for L’Oreal it resulted in $2.5 million worth of profits. There’s investment like that. There’s examples like that, but it is tricky to try to quantify the ROI [of soft skills training], so I like your answer a lot. [We need to adopt a] new way of thinking about it.

Shelley Osborne:
[We should start] thinking differently, because I just don’t want to get stuck in this backwards mentality where I just prove out that I did a thing because I know this is helpful, and I’d rather use it to guide me rather than just have to report up to executives. Certainly that’s a challenge, I know, for probably many people who are going to listen to this conversation, where if they don’t have that executive support [they won’t get buy-in], if they don’t understand the value of a culture of learning, but that’s also, I think, a fundamental shift that we as leaders in this space need to take. We really need to spend a lot of our time having this conversation, talking about this skills gap, talking about how organizations are changing and careers are changing. And helping the C-suite, the executive teams understand that this culture of learning, this learning agility is how we make sure we can be innovative, how we can be an agile organization, and keep up with the change ourselves. And then that changes how we have that conversation where it’s not, “Oh, I saved you some money.” It’s, “Okay. This is where we’re going. This is how I’m transforming the organization. I am a change agent alongside with you.” It’s just a different type of conversation.

Sarah Gallo:
For sure. Well, thank you both so much for joining us today. Before we wrap up, do you have any final thoughts you’d like to leave us with?

Gary Mills:
I could jump in. Thanks so much for having us. I really, really appreciated it. You know, for us, communication, the ability to communicate with purpose and clarity, whether [it’s for] personal or professional [reasons], that’s what’s going to lead to success. That’s what’s going to help you rise at your job. That’s what’s going to help your relationships both at home and at work. And focusing on communication, the ability to collaborate, run effective meetings, analyze your audience. Those are all, again, essential skills that are going to drive change, that are going to drive success moving forward.

Shelley Osborne:
I also want to thank everybody for having me. And Gary, what a fun chat. I feel like you and I could be … like best friends IRL.

Gary Mills:
Fantastic.

Shelley Osborne:
The one thing I would say, just sort of two big takeaways, is that the most important skill is learning right now. And then secondly, I would say as we think about this, skills are the new currency in this era. So whatever those skills are, technical and soft, that’s what we carry with us from job to job, to organization to organization, role to role, and also just [from] human interaction to human interaction, and that’s where this stuff really matters. So thank you everyone. What a fun chat.

Taryn Oesch:
Good. Thanks again to Shelley Osborne, head of learning and development at Udemy, and G. Riley Mills, co-founder and COO of Pinnacle Performance, for joining us on the Business of Learning. As always, if you enjoyed this episode, please rate and review us on your podcast app, and don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter at TrainingIndustry.com. We’re going to link to all the resources that we talked about today as well as a free soft skills e-book in our show notes at TrainingIndustry.com/TrainingIndustryPodcast.

Sarah Gallo:
Until next time.

Outro:
If you have feedback about this episode, or would like to suggest a topic for a future program, email us at Info@TrainingIndustry.com or use the Contact Us page at TrainingIndustry.com. Thanks for listening to the Training Industry Podcast.

Share