What Do They Mean by "Soft Skills"?

In his Forbes.com article titled Here Are The Top 5 Soft Skills I Look For In Candidates, Mark Pena opens by saying, “In an automating workforce, soft skills are the irreplaceably human element of work - and the thing employers are desperate to find.”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the idea of soft skills referenced throughout my career, but I’ve rarely heard anyone provide tangible examples of soft skills that I could learn quickly or apply immediately. I’m not suggesting that it’s not possible or never happens, I’m just saying it’s rare… Soft Skills seem to almost always be something that’s ambiguous, or something that you either have or you don’t. I’ve just never been willing to buy into that idea, especially when I hear things like “you get hired for what you know but you get fired for who you are…” (There’s even a Psychology Today article with nearly that exact title that shares lessons from Steve Carell’s character in The Office…)

Before we even bother continuing down this path, let’s look at what Mark Pena lists as those top 5 soft skills he looks for in candidates: Communication (which he says should top any list), Engagement, Teamwork, Problem Solving, and Leadership. He shared that these “non-technical skills that relate to how you work appear to be in short supply today.” Pena backs that claim with a Wall Street Journal study of 900+ executives showing that 92% surveyed believed soft skills were as important as hard skills and 89% of that same group said they struggled finding candidates with those skills.

For what it’s worth, I believe each of those top 5 skills he lists are indeed critical in just about any candidate we consider adding to our teams. But I’d guess your definition for each would likely vary a bit from how I would define them. And even if we reach an agreement on them, we’d still need to come to terms on what the actual behaviors look like in candidates or our team members and how we can effectively develop those skills so that we achieve a tangible return on the time and energy we invest.

Moving forward here, my goal will be to provide you with significant clarity around what we can each look at when someone mentions soft skills so we’re on the same page and a practical approach for building our own soft skills, as well as the soft skills throughout our entire team, in a way that we see a direct impact on profitability. Before we do all that though, let’s take a quick look at a framework Cindy and I learned from a former presidential candidate just a few years ago...

A Solid Framework to Build On

An article I recently read on the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) website titled In Search of Soft Skills: Why you should teach employees to be more resilient, communicative, and creative opened by stating “Being gifted at performing the technical aspects of a job can take an employee only so far. To become a stellar employee or an admired leader requires an arsenal of skills that are harder to measure but critical to success.”

I agree with most of that statement, kinda… To me, the idea of gifted implies that someone is naturally good at something. While we all know a few folks who seem to pick up on certain technical skills faster than the rest of us, I’ve seen far more people who master their craft through an intense amount of dedication and effort. I’m betting that calling those folks gifted and acting like they didn’t work hard to become great at what they do will piss them off! I do, however, agree that mastering the technical skills of any given craft will indeed only take someone so far, and that to be one of those stellar employees or admired leaders the author references, additional skills will be necessary. But those soft skills they’re eluding to as being “harder to measure” are absolutely tangible and quantifiable. Well get to that part soon, but let’s take a look at that framework I mentioned before first because I think it provides so much perspective on just how tangible that arsenal of soft skills really is.

Just before the first batch of Covid shut the world down, Cindy and I met with Carly Fiorina at her office in Alexandria, VA to discuss some work we had volunteered to help her with in support of Wounded Warrior Project. We learned to know Carly through her participation in a Live2Lead event we hosted locally a year or so prior and a session we were in with her at another event with John Maxwell. In addition to running in the presidential primaries in 2016, Carly had previously served as the CEO for Hewlett-Packard and some high level roles with AT&T.

The most valuable thing I learned from Carly leading up to that meeting with her was what she’s branded as a Leadership Framework. Since I shared an entire lesson on what I learned from her as she explained each of the four sides of her leadership frame to me in a Leading At The Next Level lesson a while back, I won’t go into all that here. I will stress one particular thing though that ties right in with why we should each have a very clear picture of what soft skills actually are as well as why I’m so emphatic about the tangible impact soft skills can make in any role.es.

In her explanation of what she called the leadership framework, technical skills were on one side and soft skills were on another. She happened to discuss the soft skills last so I challenged her on what I perceived as placing lower importance on those soft skills. She wasted no time in clarifying what she meant (and setting me straight). She explained that both were critical. She compared technical skills to the hardware of a computer, and how the better hardware we have the more capability we have with the machine. Then she emphasized that soft skills were the equivalent to computer software; until we install that software, even the best hardware isn’t much more than an expensive paperweight…

That simple comparison gave me a better mental picture than anything I had heard or read in two decades of studying soft skills prior to that conversation! In the next post I share like this, we’ll begin looking at some similarities and some differences between hard skills and soft skills. After that, I will tie all of this together with a working definition of soft skills that we can all use to have a clear picture of just how tangible these are for us in everything we do. But for now, let’s close with something that I learned about the true origin of the concept of soft skills!

An Unexpected Revelation

Many of the civilian folks I’ve interacted with for the majority of my life have had the perception that people in the military, especially those in commanding roles, are brash and dictate orders for everyone around them to follow without any consideration for those pesky feelings. I suppose movies like Full Metal Jacket have helped build that perception in many of us who have not served in the military. Truth be told though, I can’t point to a single military veteran that I’ve worked with who’s barked orders to the people reporting to them. In fact, I’ve seen the exact opposite!

The first former military manager I worked with, Terry, was also a West Point graduate. If anyone should have had that command and control approach, it should have been him - right? I mean, West Point has a reputation for being extremely tough on cadets to build them into strong military leaders…

In the 25 years that I’ve now known and been mentored by Terry, I can’t point to a single time where I’ve seen him rule with an iron first. Quite frankly, I’ve learned as much about treating people fairly and caring about them in the process from him as I have from anyone I’ve ever worked with! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve absolutely seen him be stern and hold people accountant but I’ve never seen him be impersonal when doing it! With all that in mind, I’m proud to say that Terry is just one example of dozens of great people I know who have served in various branches of the United States Armed Forces that I’ve seen exhibit amazing soft skills!

 When Cindy and I were invited to contribute a chapter to the book Discover Your Team’s Potential a few years ago with our friend Chris Rollins, he gave me the opportunity to proofread the preface, the first chapter and the last chapter before anyone else saw them. Chris served in the United States Army as well as an M1 Tank Commander. As I read what he had put together to open the book, I nearly fell out of my chair when I got to his story about how the Army actually coined the phrase soft skills when working to define the skills they found most responsible for keeping soldiers alive in battle. I won’t share all of it here, but they realized that the commanding officers who were the most successful in battle, the ones who brought the most troops back home afterward, were in fact the ones who communicated effectively and earned buy-in from the troops they were commanding - not the ones who screamed the loudest or the ones who were the strictest..

They realized that the technical skills prepared them for battle but those soft skills helped everyone be more effective in battle. Both matter! We’ll start working through some ideas on how we can make them work together soon. For now, I’ll close by challenging you to begin considering what most of us have always seen as soft skills as actually being professional skills or even power skills!

How Are You Honing Your Soft Skills?

Initially created as an ongoing resource for those who had completed our Emerging Leader Development course, this Leading At The Next Level program now offers several dozen lessons geared at developing those critical soft skills! With topics ranging from strategic leadership development to effective workplace communication and improving employee engagement by building a strong organizational culture, you're sure to find a lesson that addresses nearly any challenge you're facing in your workplace today.

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