Soft In The Head?

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Soft In The Head?

Which skillset is lacking in leaders today?

By Sam Bell, AIM General Manager of Policy and Advocacy

 

During a recent leadership roundtable at AIM I asked participants to answer two questions: firstly, what is the most important skill for managers in today’s workplace, and secondly, what skill, in their experience, are they most lacking. These two questions uncovered some very interesting insights about management development in the Australian workplace.

Each person wrote their two answers on separate post-it notes and placed them on a whiteboard. The three most common responses to the first question, what is the most important skill for managers, included:

Setting strategy

Vision

People management

 

The three most common responses to the second question, what skills are managers most lacking in Australian workplaces, included:

Communication

Empathy

Listening skills

 

The divergence of these answers is fascinating. What I deduce from this feedback is that managers still regard hard skills as the most important aspects of leadership but believe the skills most lacking in Australian workplaces are soft skills.

Hard skills are the things you learn in a textbook and are often taught in formal management training and MB’s.

Softer skills are the qualities you are more likely to learn through your interactions and experience – being a good listener, a consensus builder, demonstrating strong decision-making and team-working skills.

 

So why does this variance exist?

Is it that we are constantly bombarded by experts claiming leadership is about strategy, culture, vision and other tangible skills that can easily be defined and digested in a textbook? When, in fact, what we are missing the most is a leader who will simply listen, have an empathetic ear for personal and professional issues and communicate clearly and honestly with their staff.

 

What is more important, developing hard leadership skills or soft leadership skills?

In a recent study published by Harvard Business Review, the relationship between leadership skills and company success was examined. Data from more than 300 CEOs was collected over a five-year period.

The results showed that CEOs who scored higher on harder skills were more likely to be successful in their management role than CEOs who scored particularly high on softer skills, such as being good listeners, being open to criticism and seeing themselves as a team player.

These results conclude that soft skills appear to be over-emphasised in the hiring and appointment of business leaders.

 

But are these findings for CEOs also applicable to junior, middle or senior managers?

Large multi-national businesses such as McDonald’s and UK grocery giant Tesco have recently supported a ‘Backing Soft Skills’ campaign that aims to improve the soft skills for their service managers. They believe that in client-facing management roles, soft skills development plays a critical part in their business success. The campaign focuses on soft skill clusters such as communication, problem solving, self-management, teamwork and professionalism – skills not often embedded in educational or academic curriculum.

Additionally, in industries such as health and aged care, professional and business services, retail, manufacturing and financial services, the rising importance of soft skills development for managers in the workplace is quickly being realised. A survey of CFOs found that 55 per cent considered the biggest challenge in recruiting accountancy professionals was finding applicants with the necessary soft skills beyond the normal qualifications expected.

The AIM roundtable discussion concluded that Australian workplaces are better served by junior, middle and senior managers who have strong competencies across both hard and soft skills and their professional development activities should incorporate these skill sets equally. In a recent survey by AIM’s Emerging Leaders Advisory Board, most respondents acknowledged their technical skills were mostly developed by formal training and education, however softer management skills were more likely developed in workplace or social situations from colleagues/peers, managers in their organisation and mentors.

A strong workforce must be led by well-rounded managers and leaders with professional development activities supporting technical, professional and soft skills growth.

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