Soft is the New Strong

by Sarah Fister Gale

Companies are prioritizing soft skills training, especially for millennials who aspire to lead.

When Philipp Schramm was offered the job of chief financial officer for Webasto Roof Systems in Detroit in 2014, he expected the U.S. office of the global automotive supplier to operate as smoothly as its German headquarters.

What he found was a disorganized and often hostile work environment where people made excuses for why work wasn’t getting done. “The entire organization was dysfunctional,” he said. When he asked why work wasn’t getting done, everyone complained that they were never properly trained.

Schramm had been brought in to turn around the financial side of the organization which was losing both money and customers. But he soon realized that the problem ran deeper than financial issues. “Something on the culture side was broken,” he said.

Without clear corporate values, HR only focused on administrative tasks and training was determined individually by managers’ budgets. “It was shocking,” Schramm said.

This cultural breakdown led Schramm to work with the executive team on a culture change project that introduced soft skills training on leadership, communication, collaboration and problem-solving along with the financial and operational changes he’d been brought in to implement. “The soft skills training focused on a lot of the emotional aspects of leadership like using ‘I statements’ and active listening,” he said.

Many of the courses were taught by managers who went through instructor training to reinforce the importance of the change to the business, a detail that Schramm said added needed authenticity and made the biggest impact.

“The training helped us significantly change the way people behaved,” he said. “It engaged them to be change agents for the company.”

The effect on employees and the business was profound, Schramm said. Within 15 months of launching the program, the division returned to profitability, turnover dropped significantly and employee engagement survey scores showed double digit increases.

It had a personal effect on Schramm, too. He was named vice president of human resources to go along with his CFO title.


Shocking Results

Webasto’s story may be an extreme example but it underscores the importance of soft skills to business success. “In the end, we are all human and we have to work together,” Schramm said.

In a global marketplace where companies need to rapidly adapt to changing market conditions and woo customers with excellent service and timely solutions, business leaders can’t afford to not invest in soft skills training, said Leslie Knowlton, partner with Deloitte Advisory Services in Houston.

“Whatever your role, success comes back to your ability to collaborate and build relationships,” said Knowlton, who also heads learning and development for Deloitte US.

Learning and development professionals across industries seem to agree. In LinkedIn’s “2017 Workplace Learning Report,” more than half said developing managers and leaders is the No. 1 objective for their organizations and that coaching, leadership communication and team collaboration are specific leadership skills in greatest demand.

One of the challenges is identifying these skill gaps in employees, said Michael Chavez, CEO of Duke Corporate Education in Durham, North Carolina. You can tell from a résumé or work experience if a candidate can program software or build spreadsheets but when it comes to determining whether they can speak publicly, lead a team or collaborate effectively, it gets murky.

“These skills don’t fit easily into any one discipline but they are vital to all of them,” Chavez said.

Because soft skills are applicable in virtually every aspect of business, Duke integrates them into all of their leadership development content, often using what Chavez called “error-based learning” to help learners see where they fall short.

In these courses, participants are put into difficult situations and tasked with solving problems as a group. In one course based on a real life case study created with Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, leaders play the role of members of an emergency room team who have to diagnose and treat an unconscious patient whose family disagrees over what is wrong and what medication he is taking.

The course is designed to underscore the importance of teamwork and making quick educated guesses under pressure. “In most cases, they kill the patient through inaction,” Chavez said.

It’s a visceral experience that replicates how participants make decisions in real life and shocks them into realizing where their communication and leadership skills are lacking. That shock is an important first step to changing behavior and building soft skills.

“We hold up a mirror so they can see what’s not working then we teach them skills to do better,” Chavez said.


Soft Skills Drive Business

Developing strong leadership and communication skills isn’t just useful for managers leading internal teams. It can have a real impact across the business especially for companies like Deloitte whose clients rely on their consultants for guidance.

While Deloitte’s people have to be up to date on the latest technology trends and industry data, they also have to be able to communicate those trends and build relationships with clients and cross-functional teams. “Without professional and relationship-building skills they won’t be as effective,” Knowlton said.

Rather than teaching soft skills in separate courses, Deloitte integrates them into programming often through experiential learning where participants must collaborate to solve technical or industry-specific challenges. During Service Relationship Mastery courses, senior consultants have to learn how to become trusted advisors on topics of importance to customers. The course covers industry knowledge but the content requires them to role-play in teams using core people skills including empathy and engaging through meaningful dialogue. It’s an optional course but it is always booked, Knowlton said.

“Our people know that it’s not enough to know everything about cybersecurity or analytics,” she said. “How they deliver that information to clients is just as important.”

Much like the Webasto example, most Deloitte courses are led by senior executives, thereby reinforcing the value of soft skills development to the next generation of consultants. “When they see a leader take time out of their work schedule to practice, it sends the message that learning these skills are important for the business,” Knowlton said.

The realization that soft skills are core to business has led learning leaders and vendors to incorporate them across courses to ensure everyone continues to develop them. With the rapid pace of change and disruption in global markets, it is vital that individual contributors and leaders have the skills to predict and adapt to change, said Stephane Charbonnier, chief human resources officer at L’Oréal USA.

“Soft skills and technical skills are two sides of the same coin,” he said.

L’Oréal offers leadership development at every stage of an employee’s career beginning with new hires who complete training on self-awareness as part of the onboarding program. They also provide courses for first-time managers and senior leaders who often attend multiday off-site training through Harvard, MIT and other programs.

The company’s investment in soft skills training is fully supported by the executive team because they see the business benefits, Charbonnier said. His team conducts regular surveys of the impact of training across the organization and he said they’ve found consistently strong correlations between leaders with effective soft skills and the level of engagement on their teams.

“The leaders with greatest soft skills deliver our best business results,” he said.


21st Century Skills

Providing soft skills training early in the career development process is becoming increasingly important as millennials and Generation Z candidates flood the workforce. College students today are advised to build their science, technology and math skills if they want to find a job but as a result, soft skills training appears to be suffering.

Despite the fact that the National Education Association has identified the 4 Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity) as the most important skills young people need to succeed in the workplace, most college graduates come up short. In a 2016 Payscale report on workforce skill preparedness, hiring managers listed critical thinking, problem solving, attention to detail and leadership as the soft skills most lacking among young job seekers.

This fact has forced companies to ramp up new-hire training programs to close the gap, as well as show young workers the company is investing in their future. Charbonnier has begun to promote L’Oréal’s commitment to leadership development for new hires as a way to engage millennials and position the company as an employer of choice for the next generation.

“We develop talent who can anticipate, innovate and thrive in a constantly changing economy,” he said. “We want recruits to see that we will give them the skills to be confident in the workplace.”

Providing leadership development options may give companies a competitive advantage when recruiting millennials, who expect to move quickly into leadership roles. A 2015 Hartford study showed 69 percent of millennials aspire to be leaders in the next five years and they said leadership training was the most important skill development they expect from their employers.

When that development doesn’t happen they are more likely to leave. Deloitte’s 2016 “Millennial Survey” showed that among millennials with plans to leave their companies in the next two years, 71 percent were unhappy with how their leadership skills were being developed, 17 percentage points higher than those intending to stay beyond 2020.

The study also found the most loyal young employees are actively encouraged to aim for leadership roles and provided ample support and training to move into these roles. “Millennials are being put into complex leadership rolls on multigenerational teams and they are eager to develop the skills to be successful,” Charbonnier said.

While the impact of soft skills training may be difficult to measure, the long-term benefits of having strong and engaging leaders is unquestionable. The impact of good soft skills training can also last a lot longer, Charbonnier added. Technical skills become obsolete but teaching employees how to communicate effectively and lead teams builds a company’s overall agility and resilience, which can mean the difference between success and failure.

“If you don’t build the soft skills of your people you won’t be around for long,” he said.