B-Skills: An Interview on the Importance of Soft Skills & Communication

The schools that do the best job of bridging the [skills] gap today have a blend of classroom learning and engagement with the business community to show their students how to apply what they’ve learned in real settings.
Dr. Benjamin Garner, Assistant Professor in the Mike Cottrell College of Business at the University of North Georgia

In 2009, Google set out to explore what makes a good boss. Over the company’s 13-year history, Google grew out of a basement at Stanford University and into a multi-billion dollar organization. But despite its transformation, the company had always relied on the same simple approach to management: leave people alone.

The idea was to leave engineers to their own devices with the presumption that when they get stuck, they will come to management for help. This prioritized deep technical expertise in management over other skills and implied that the fundamental role of a manager was to solve technical roadblocks.

So when Google set out on this new project, dubbed Project Oxygen, the company took a data-first approach to build better bosses. The “people analytics” team analyzed thousands of performance reviews, employee feedback surveys, and manager awards and nominations to put together a framework, dubbed the “Eight Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers.” The list ranks these habits by importance:

Contrary to popular belief, technical expertise ranked last. Employees valued supportive bosses who showed a personal interest in their development and helped them work through roadblocks themselves rather than simply giving away the answer.

“In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” Laszlo Bock, Google’s vice president of human resources, told The New York Times. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”

The Rise of Soft Skills & The “Future of Jobs” Report

The realization that softer skills are a key variable in the success of a business is not new. Business schools around the world have been teaching students best-practices in administration, management, organizational behavior, and entrepreneurship for decades. But still, most of the curriculum relies still on more tangible or hard skills such as accounting, finance, and marketing.

Only in the last few years have industry experts begun speaking more loudly about the importance of soft skills in large part due to technology’s increasing presence in the workforce. LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends report, which surveyed more than 5,000 talent professionals across 35 countries and analyzed LinkedIn behavioral data, revealed that companies are thinking more critically about soft skills. Nine out of ten talent professionals agree that soft skills are just as important or more important than hard skills.

One of the driving factors of this trend is the rise of automation. The World Economic Forum predicts that employment will be completely disrupted by automation with companies reducing their full-time workforce, the emergence of new in-demand roles, and a growing skills gap.

By 2022, more than half of all employees will require significant re- and upskilling according to the “Future of Jobs” report. In-demand skills will include analytical thinking and innovation as well as more “human” or soft skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and leadership. As machines automate more jobs of today, the jobs of tomorrow will require soft skills that allow employees to adapt and evolve with the changing landscape rather than hold onto a learned trade.

How Are Universities Adapting to Changing Work Skills?

As a result, colleges are upending majors. Universities are coming to terms with the reality that some of their majors prepare graduates for jobs that either do not exist in today’s workforce or will be eradicated in the next decade. Axios reports that schools are ramping up interdisciplinary courses and programs in exchange for the traditional major model.

Arizona State University renamed its College of Letters and Sciences to the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts to reflect its decision to eliminate academic departments and offer multi-disciplinary degrees instead. Concordia University in Montreal teamed up with other Canadian universities to provide “skills training” alongside its traditional degrees. And the design-your-own major model has spread to schools around the country.

Simone Helton

“There is always going to be a gap between what a university degree offers and what a job requires,” explains Dr. Benjamin Garner, an assistant professor in the Mike Cottrell College of Business at the University of North Georgia. “The schools that do the best job of bridging that gap today have a blend of classroom learning and engagement with the business community to show their students how to apply what they’ve learned in real settings.”

Dr. Garner, also known as the Soft Skills Professor, cites service learning, internships, and guest speakers as critical ingredients to creating a program that blends academic concepts with business best practices. His research focuses on soft skills and communication, which led to the development of his online training courses that help employees develop better soft skills, called Soft Skills 101.

The Soft Skills 101 curriculum focuses on communication, emotional intelligence, feedback, conflict resolution, and even basic skills professionals need but young graduates are not always equipped with, such as email etiquette and writing tips, professionalism.

“Businesses complain about new hires and young people, but they also see veteran employees struggling as well,” says Dr. Garner. “This training course is a response to this need, and it is an effort to get back to the basics of communication and interacting with others.”

Can Soft Skills Be Effectively Taught?

The problem with soft skills is that they’re not easy to pin down. It takes a lot more work to visualize where one might be lacking (or excelling) in soft skills, compared to the work it might take to examine one’s hard skills. For example, engineers are always interviewed about their technical knowledge through engineering tests; they are much less often interviewed on how to communicate their solution to a team.

Engineer and hiring expert Marco Rogers takes issue with the framing of soft skills as nice-to-haves in engineers. “The problem with that framing is that it suggests that you can’t evaluate or teach those skills—that they are inherent qualities that some people have, and some people don’t,” Rogers told seed-stage venture capital firm First Round.

“They focus on the ‘soft’ part and forget they are ‘skills’ that can be measured and cultivated in people. I put those people skills at the same level of importance as technical skills. Can you write JavaScript and communicate effectively with business stakeholders? That’s what I need in a growing organization.”

Rogers explains that young and fast-growing companies often get caught up in day-to-day operations and hire based on holes in capabilities rather than the potential for building out long-lasting teams that will drive that growth. Employees who are hired only for their technical capabilities might be able to fill in the gaps in the short term. But if they don’t have the proper soft skills like being able to work in teams, provide and receive feedback, and be creative and entrepreneurial, that company will struggle to grow in a long-lasting and meaningful way.

As employees move up the ranks and into managerial roles, most of their work focuses on relationship building. Executives don’t work in Microsoft Excel documents; they manage people and communicate different strategies, so it’s short-sighted for universities to train students in such a hard skills-based environment.

Soft Skills & Hard Work

Dr. Garner argues that the most crucial element in preparing students for the workforce is for them to gain real-world experiences, such as job shadowing and internships. “An internship in the field—and that part is key—really is one of the best things you can do to acquire both a reference and a set of job skills that will ready you for your first job,” he says.

“While hard skills may get a candidate’s foot in the door, it’s soft skills that ultimately open it,” Lydia Liu, head of human resources at Home Credit China told LinkedIn for its talent report. People who excel at communicating and negotiation are those who make it to the helm of a company, which is a concept that some business school students have not yet grasped.

The London Business School recently launched a course on interpersonal dynamics, which encourages students to become more self-aware, practice mindfulness, and handle difficult conversations at work. The course, the Financial Times reports, was the response to feedback from recruiters who said that students were arrogant, did not listen, and lacked self-awareness.

Global consulting firms like McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company, and the Boston Consulting Group have set frameworks for the recruitment process. Candidates are tasked with providing a solution to a business problem, but they tend to focus on the problem-solving element of the interview rather than communication, teamwork, and relationship-building, which are key elements to the job. Ultimately, the ability to grasp both soft and hard skills is what will set the best candidates apart.

“The best way to think about skills is to say that there are barriers to entry, and that reflects the hard skills. Certain fields require math or computer coding or Spanish. Those will change along with technology shifts. But once you have those prerequisites, it is the soft skills like integrity, work ethic, attitude, and communication that make employees stand apart,” explains Dr. Garner.

Hard skills may come and go, but soft skills are forever.

Laura Childs
Laura Childs
Writer

Laura Childs is a versatile writer and media specialist living in London. She's a California native and has written about arts, culture, and tech in San Francisco. A self-proclaimed data nerd, she loves telling people's stories supported by research. When not writing, Laura teaches and practices yoga. You can find more of her work and get in touch at www.lbccreative.com.

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