Soft Skills for Success

When medical doctors share their expertise with patients and provide them with a prescription that will resolve their health issues, only 30% of those patients will follow the prescription, according to research on treatment adherence.  These medical experts have people seeking their advice but the result is often ineffective because it is not followed.  As a business leader and expert, do you have the same frustrations?  How much difficulty do you have getting your employees or your customers to listen to the solutions you can offer?

This may be one of the great frustrations of business.  You know a lot about your area of expertise.  You have answers that will work for the problems your employees and customers bring to you.  You offer those solutions.  And you are ignored.
There are two types of skills necessary for successful leadership, speaking broadly.  There are the "hard" skills that include economics, accounting, information technology, strategic planning, etc.  But a second set of skills, sometimes referred to as the "soft" skills, is equally important. They are the skills that help us to get our message across to our listeners. Those with highly developed "soft" skills are able to leverage their expertise more effectively. "Soft" skills are the human relationship skills that include:

Developing the "soft" skills of executive leadership often brings unexpected results.

Springtime Metaphor

At springtime each year, I find myself thinking about what major outdoor project I want to undertake in our yard.  Several years ago, the project I chose was to dig a garden pond on the side of our house.  When we originally bought our home it came with an old above ground pool.  The kids enjoyed it when they were young, but as they got older, the pool became expendable.  It could only be used for three months of the year in the Wisconsin climate anyway.  We needed something in its place so I decided to make it into a water garden. I read books and looked at the terrain and consulted local vendors and finally I dug the pond.  I was able to figure out how to put in a waterfall and my wife, Darlene, decided on the flowers that she wanted to complete the project.
Then something unexpected began to happen.  Two trees grew up next to the pond.  Other wildflowers began to emerge as well.  These unexpected plants seemed to take root in just the right places to accent the pond.
The next spring we noticed the sounds of frogs.  (One early summer night our neighbor came over and asked me if I could "turn the frogs off."  They were keeping them awake at night. I had to explain to him that these were real frogs and they pretty much arrived on their own.  It was hard to keep a straight face.)  Dragonflies and butterflies also took up residence.  Last year we even had a pair of ducks who nested in our yard and used our pond every morning.
The pond attracted all kinds of unplanned but wonderful surprises.  It was one of my best outdoor projects.  But much of what has made it so much fun has been what happened after the pond was in place.
I think of the "soft" skills of executive leadership as like a garden pond.  It takes planning and hard work to learn these skills.  But the benefit is not directly in acquiring the skills; the benefit comes from what these skills attract.

Emotional Regulation

"Soft" Skills include the ability to recognize and regulate our emotional tone.  This involves learning to maximize our own potential by using skills that propel us toward peak performance. In a leadership role, this is an important asset.  The most direct link to workplace productivity is employee morale.  The biggest factor that influences employee morale is the mood of the leadership.  When a leader is not able to manage his or her emotions, it results in a work environment that is antithetical to the goals of the organization.
Learning to accurately become aware of and regulate the emotions that we have is a crucial aspect of excellence in performance. If you watch Tiger Woods on the golf course, his physical skills are not substantially different than most of the others on the PGA tour.  His ability to regulate his emotions and to use them in service of his goals is phenomenal.  It is what sets him apart.  The same is true in business.  Those leaders who have been most successful are those who are most able to control and direct their emotions in service of their goals. 
In a work environment where leaders are aware of and in control of their emotions, the workforce is able to focus its energy on the tasks to be done.  Much emotional energy and time is lost when workers are dealing with a leader who is not able to maintain control.  By contrast, the best and the brightest workers seek an environment where they can utilize their talents to the fullest. When leaders have this soft skill, the best and the brightest workers are attracted.

Nurturing Creativity

Some leaders seem to have the ability to draw out the best in their employees. This "soft" skill is more and more important as the organization grows.  When an organization is small, it may be possible for the owner to handle most or all of the critical tasks to create a successful business.  But when the organization grows, the responsibility of leadership changes.  Outstanding leaders are often not the most talented at technical skills, they are the ones who have learned to be good judges of talent and excellent at nurturing the best in their employees.
When someone becomes a "star" performer, there is another person in the background who saw the talent and worked with the person to bring out and even refine their abilities.  Great leaders do not find themselves surrounded with stars by accident.  Great leaders encourage greatness in those around them. 
Great leaders also had to learn to use their talents in a way that achieved greatness.  No one accomplishes this on their own.  There is an art to finding great talent.  There is also a science to it.  And there is a lot of hard work to it. The art, the science, and the effort combine to increase the use of talents in the entire workforce.  When an employee is able to fully use his or her talent, an atmosphere of growth is created.  Human beings want to believe that they are using their talents to contribute.  When someone believes his or her talents are valued, motivation levels soar.  The "soft" skill of nurturing talent is a powerful resource for success.

Deep Commitment

Effective leaders find that using the "soft" skills engenders deep commitment in employees.  This might be almost unnoticed in their interactions because these leaders will be deeply committed themselves to the values and goals that match their integrity. 
If the skill of emotion regulation is focused on internal awareness, (what are you feeling?) and the skill of nurturing creativity is external, (how do you bring out the best in your workforce?) the skill of fostering deep commitment is a skill of combining internal awareness and external focus and blending these attributes into a whole that improves the function of the entire organization. It is much easier to follow someone who is authentic.  Emotional control and concern to develop the best in the workforce make the leader’s words ring true.


When these skills are learned and practiced, surprising results begin to accrue.  As the organization begins to function in greater harmony, the business grows.  It is a very pleasant side effect that these "soft" skills attract committed and enthusiastic customers.  Customers who interact with organizations that have strong and effective leadership become your best sales force.  They convince friends and acquaintances that your expertise is worth paying attention to and worth paying for.
Soft skills are difficult to measure because they do not have a direct impact on the bottom line.  You cannot count up the number of times you were aware of your mood and measure the profit that results.  Yet they set the background for the specific hard skills to function effectively.  They attract the right workers and supply them with the right tools to do the job.  They attract the best customers and create long term loyalty.  If you really want to succeed, you cannot afford to be without them.

Soft skills are the essential tools of effective leadership.