I was reading this article, Is a Science Ph.D. a Waste of Time?: Don’t feel too sorry for graduate students. It’s worth it, by Daniel Lametti, and this grabbed my attention:
Even the Economist, despite its disdain for “pointless” Ph.D.s, likes to hire scientists. As the ad for their science-writing internship reads, “Our aim is more to discover writing talent in a science student or scientist than scientific aptitude in a budding journalist.”
Notice the formula: expertise 1st, then writing talent.
This says two things. Good communication skills without genuine expertise is just a little too short on substance. Genuine expertise without good communication skills is just a little too incomprehensible. Thus, the formula:
Expertise + Soft Skills (especially Communication Skills) = Path to Success.
Karl Krayer and I present training on Writing Skills and Presentation Skills (actually, we both provide the Presentation Skills sessions; Karl leads the Writing Skills sessions) for all kinds of professionals. Companies with engineers and scientists and “techies” hire us to help these folks become a little more “understandable.” The reason is obvious. Expertise that cannot be communicated is expertise that is not fully utilized.
I have no doubt that expertise is truly critical. But there is a reason that Literature and Speech are “required courses” in practically every college degree program. To be able to write clearly, and then to speak clearly, really is a job requirement, a “core competency,” in this hungry-for-good-information world. The problem is that most students promptly forget what they learned in these classes, when they are immersed in their “real jobs.” They tend to view their real jobs as the “work” they do, and they consider communicating their insight and findings as something of a “step-child,” kind of necessary “busy work,” but not critical to their job.
This is a mistake! Communicating well is part of every job. A failure to communicate leads to ripple effects that cause lost productivity, confusion… something close to “failure.”
Have you taken an inventory of your own skills? If you have genuine expertise, do you write clearly? Do you speak clearly? If not, it’s time to work on these “soft,” but absolutely necessary, skills.
“The only job security is found in your own ability to keep learning!”
“Through learning, we re-create ourselves.”
We all know the challenge – to keep learning. But, in most cases, learning is not learning something new, but instead, remembering what we knew, but forgot — or remembering what we knew, but never actually implemented. (back to that knowing-doing gap).
Thus, one way to look at the lifelong learning challenge is as one life-long string of Refresher Courses.
I thought of this as I was perusing CoxToday (the Spring, 2011 issue: you can download the issue here), the publication of the Cox School of Business at SMU. In “What Do Recruiters Look For In BBA Graduates?” Paula Hill Strasser, MBA Business Leadership Center and BBA Leadership Institute, describes key skills, especially “soft skills,” that are quite important in landing those first jobs, and then succeeding in those jobs. She lists 4 primary ones, and then a few others:
1) Good presentation skills (“Communication is first”).
2) Excellent writing
3) Leadership Skills
4) International Immersion
5) and those soft skills like: professionalism, strong work ethic, negotiation skills, conflict management skills, team building skills…
Strasser: “There is a belief that soft skills have become the hard skills for many new hires because it’s easy to measure quantitative skills.”
Here’s my thought. SMU may realize that these are critical to their graduates as they start out in their business careers, but in our experience (my work with Karl Krayer, and others), this list represents the perpetual curriculum for the business refresher course learning that can never stop.
Think about it: have you ever sat through a less than stimulating presentation; have you ever heard of a poorly functioning team; have you ever seen the effects of a mediocre (or worse) leader? These cry out for some serious, ongoing refresher work. None of these are skills that you can learn, master, and then never need to refresh.
Companies provide training, mentors, “CEUs,” but it really is up to the individual to take advantage of such opportunities. And each individual has to take the opportunity seriously – that is, actually learn. You know: you can lead a horse to water….
And if a company or organization has not built a culture of lifelong learning, you will see these skills diminish. It simply takes constant attention, with regular, perpetual, ongoing refresher efforts.
What about you? Are you regularly refreshing your knowledge, practicing your skills, and staying current? If not – it’s time to start. So…start!
(disclosure: I am an instructor in the Edwin L. Cox Business Leadership Center at the Cox School of Business — a wonderful program for their students).
I just came back from the grocery store. You know, the place where when you stand in line, you see all the magazines and tabloids about people and their struggles/scandals/successes. On the cover of one was a picture of a celebrity with a weight battle. A big weight battle. No, I won’t name the celebrity. But I thought of a picture I saw recently of Jared (the Subway spokesman/success story) that definitely made it appear that he has put on a few of those pounds he lost. And I thought of the new “drive-thru diet” campaign with Christine trumpeting the health benefits of Taco Bell (at the same time that Taco Bell is advertising their new 86 layers of cheese (ok – maybe just three or four layers) burrito).
Here’s the lesson. Getting better is tough. Staying better is really, really tough.
This is the essence pf the soft skills challenge. It is relatively easy to learn a hard skill. You can learn to use a spreadsheet; to read a spreadsheet; to produce a set of PowerPoint presentation slides. But learning how to treat an employee, to treat a player (ask Mike Leach) is a little tougher. And once you learn, to stay “better’ requires perpetual diligence.
Many of the business books are about getting better – better at leadership, better at employee engagement, better at customer service. We all seem to know that it would be good to get better in such ways. But it takes as much effort to stay better as it does to get better.
It never ends!
One annual survey of the best places to work (Southwest Airlines is at the top) reveals this important insight: people want to grow, so they appreciate companies that provide opportunites to grow.
Here’s an except from the Reuters article, which is about the survey conducted by Glassdoor.com:
What the top companies had in common was providing opportunities for employees to grow, said Robert Hohman, co-founder and chief executive of Glassdoor.com.
“What I saw again and again in the reviews is employees referred to their ability to grow in their jobs. In an economic downturn like this, employees feel good if they’re growing as individuals and they’re becoming more marketable,” he said.
“Conversely at some of the companies that haven’t done so well, you see things like employees feeling like they still have a job but with no opportunity,” he said.
We have posted often about the need to grow, especially in skill development in both the hard and the soft skills. But companies have to provide the climate and the opportunites to facilitate such growth. So, congratulations to these exemplar companies.
The path to success can be summed up in a lot of ways. How about this one: develop competency in both the hard skills and the soft skills needed to succeed at the job you choose.
So success is easy. Just become competent at a wide range of skills.
But it turns out that coming up with a definitive list of soft skills is not all that easy. My blogging colleague Cheryl Jensen put it this way: “Soft is a misnomer. These skills are sophisticated and complex, but they are not soft.”
I agree – but since they are not so readily “tangible” (e.g., how to use a spread sheet) they present different kinds of challenges. And as good as we might be at each one, we can always improve. For example, I’m a pretty decent expert at using a calculator for simple math – I am nothing close to an expert at successfully solving problems, or listening.
One job search web site suggested this difference between hard skills and soft skills:
Hard skills are tangible – activities that you do.
Soft skills are the abstract, personal qualities that you possess:
Here is a suggested list of some key soft skills (compiled from an array of sources):
1. Strong Work Ethic.
2. Positive Attitude.
3. Good Communication Skills.
4. Time Management Abilities.
5. Problem-Solving Skills.
6. Acting as a Team Player.
8. Ability to Accept and Learn From Criticism.
10. Working Well Under Pressure.
And add to the list:
ONe way to improve is to read good books that recommend strategies for improvement. So, here is my suggested reading list for some of these (you may have better suggestions – let our readers know in the comments, please). Note: not all of the books are a perfect match, there may really be better choices, and you will note that I did not include all of the soft skills form the list above. Let’s consider this a first attempt at such a list…
|Soft Skill||Suggested Book|
|Strong Work Ethic||Michael Jordan, I Can’t Accept Not TryingMalcolm Gladwell, OutliersGeoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated|
|Good Communication Skills(listening, speaking, writing)||Frank Luntz, Words that WorkChip and Dan Heath, Made to Stick|
|Time Management Abilities||David Allen, Getting Things Done|
|Problem-Solving Skills||James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds|
|Acting as a Team Player||Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team|
|Flexibility/Adaptability||Gary Hamil, The Future of Management|
|Working Well Under Pressure||Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, The Power of Full Engagement:|
|Schmoozing/networking||Keith Ferrazzi, Never Eat AloneSusan RoAne, How to Work a Room|
|Coaching||Gary Harpst, Six Disciplines Execution Revolution|
|Brainstorming||Tom Kelley, The Art of Innovation|
Here’s an update from my blogging colleague, Bob Morris. I requested his feedback, and he sent this:
Re the so-called “soft skills,” I think the most important are:
candor (without cruelty)
sensitivity to others’ feelings (especially vulnerabilities)
unsolicited support and encouragement
Re the list of recommended titles, my recommendations are:
The Book (Alan Watts)
Emotional Intelligence (Daniel Goleman)
The Executive’s Compass (James O’Toole)
The Heart Aroused (David Whyte)
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
My response: I have my students read Dr. King’s letter. It is a true masterpiece. I think it should be mandatory reading for all!
And I especially like Bob’s phrase: “candor without cruelty.” Candor is hard enough. Without cruelty takes a near saint to pull off.
To purchase my synopses of many of these suggested books, with audio + handout, visit our companion web site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com.