Soft skills are a misnomer, even dismissive. Indeed, Angela Maiers contends that rather than an afterthought, “life skills are the power tools” for learning in the new world order.
Maiers is the founder of Choose2Matter, created “to bring the world hope by helping every individual embrace their value and potential contribution.”
Initially launched to challenge and inspire students to work collaboratively to develop innovative solutions to social problems, Choose2Matter has evolved into a movement that supports parents, educators and employees around the world.
“One of the points causing confusion is that we think of skills as masterable segments, but they’re far more than that,” Maiers said. “Building a habit is different than mastering a skill. You don’t get a percentile grade.”
Soft skills bring humanity into the workplace. Cold, hard theories of textbooks applied under the bright light of real life find people who seldom act as expected, needing instead a soft, flexible touch.
“We can’t work without soft skills — not with ourselves, not with coworkers, not with teams, not with managers,” Biro said. “Calling them ‘soft’ makes them seem like optional qualities, but they’re the foundation for being effective and accountable — two cornerstones of working success.
“Given how quickly technology evolves, we can only keep up by drawing on soft skills — such as listening, learning, a desire to grow, imagination, creativity, self-discipline — to learn the hard skills,” she said.
Maiers much prefers to call them essential skills.
“They are skills absolutely necessary to thrive in the modern world,” she said. “Think about how essential skills such as listening, collaborating with others, presenting ideas and communicating with team members have been for us.
“These skills are not only highly valued now but in all aspects of our modern workplace — virtual or otherwise,” Maiers said.
In terms of the workforce and kinds of problems it will have, she cites an acronym called VUCA — volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
“When you look at the kind of mindset, the kind of skill set that you need to just handle yourself in, that is not soft,” Maiers said. “These essential skills transcend role, position and industry. They are must-haves for anyone today.”
Special strategies can help organizations better develop soft skills in their workforce.
Leaders must embrace soft skills. Too often, those in charge default to leadership by the numbers, leaving it to a confused workforce to color in the spaces.
“A hugely effective approach to getting buy-in from all levels is to stop saying soft skills,” Biro said. “Like Angela says, call them power skills. Then everyone will want to develop them — for themselves and employees.”
Biro said each job takes a certain balance of soft skills to do, determined by these steps:
- Survey your employees on the soft skills they use every day.
- Provide training opportunities to improve those skills.
“Recognize the value of these skills as you recruit and hire,” Biro said. “Train your hiring teams to better understand skills. Equip your hiring process with assessments to measure them. Tweak onboarding processes to start developing them.”
Huge return on investment
According to Maiers, a study from Boston College and Harvard University found soft skills training — such as communication and problem-solving — boosts productivity and retention 12 percent and delivers a 250 percent return on investment based on higher productivity and retention.
“The good news is these skills are learnable,” Maiers said. “We must encourage self-reflection by giving workers an opportunity to try their new skills out.
“Developing soft skills requires an environment where trust, initiative and taking risks are encouraged,” she said.
Leaders need to have realistic visions and goals that account for the what-ifs of massive disruption. The more vivid their imaginations, the better they’ll appreciate soft skills needed when actual worlds don’t follow perfect plans.
“This is what I call a mirror question,” Biro said. “Most leaders believe that leadership requires a combination of soft skills, but don’t always extend that into the organization. If you hold up the mirror, you see the need to commit to focusing on soft skills — for everyone.
“We’re all going to see a huge trend to upskilling and redefining jobs, drawing more on soft skills,” she said. “We’ll work closer with small teams, shifting energy and resources to decision making and innovations — away from rote production. Anticipating that is key.”
An external view can bring perspective.
“Now is the time to work with an outside team that sees the importance of soft skills,” Biro said. “Let them inventory your organization, anticipate the gaps, make a plan for how to fill them. Stay ahead of the game.”
Maiers’ dictate is simple: Be the model. Lead by example. When looking for models, examine leaders across industries:
- How do they deal with change?
- How do they communicate with their staff or community?
- What do employees say about working for them?
“People are increasingly looking for — and in need of — leadership that demonstrates power skills,” Maiers said. “Be that leader.
“Self-awareness is essential,” she said. “Develop a learning mindset. Developing soft skills like resilience, emotional intelligence and agility is a great way to make your workforce change-ready.”