The softer side of life

By on April 29, 2013

Soft skills are important, but they are only part of the talent management equation, writes Carol Butcher.

Globally, the business operating environment is very tough. “If organisations want to survive and prosper, they need to employ people with the necessary expertise, professionalism and leadership,” says Fasset CEO Cheryl James.

Human Capital Institute Africa Managing Executive, Suzy Boucher, says this can prove very difficult and very expensive, if not impossible: “I do not think we are being realistic, and this is not only limited to South Africa, if we believe that we can find an individual with the requisite expertise, professionalism and leadership for the majority of jobs we seek to fill.”

Expertise is acquired through a combination of formal learning and workplace experience. Formal learning at universities and many business schools does not equip individuals with the expertise that employers are looking for. “There is a gap in conversation between formal learning institutions and the workplace. I do not see concerted efforts to create a conversation between educational institutions and employers that will help identify what skills or expertise need to be taught to service the workplace now and in the future,” Boucher explains.

Experience vs Exposure

Boucher equates experience with exposure to new opportunities and experiences, which enable one to grow one’s skills repertoire; experience has nothing to do with years of service.

Unfortunately, new entrants into the job market and workers at the lower rungs of the organisation often struggle to increase their experience set. Boucher attributes this to the fact that the older generation holds all the cards in terms of experience and, generally, position. Because they are so busy, time is seldom set aside to pass on experience and open the way to new experiences to the younger generation.

The consequences of this approach are dire. Boucher paints two possible, but very different, scenarios which organisations may have to confront in the not-too-distant future: “We will not have enough experienced people to hold down the key jobs that make organisations work, or the younger generation will simply re-write the rule book to suit their ability and capability, so it really will not matter.”


Expecting to employ people with the necessary professionalism is also problematic. Not only does the notion of professionalism differ from sector – to – sector, but expectations shift as one climbs the corporate ladder. Boucher cautions that recent appointees are unlikely to have mastered the professional behaviours associated with their new position. Instead of expecting professionalism to be a given, employers should recognise that there will inevitably be an adjustment period while the incumbent learns the “new language.”

There are also serious constraints in terms of leadership, as leadership skill is almost entirely dependent upon the leadership team and the organisational culture. “An individual not properly inducted into this code or culture will find that their individual leadership ability is undermined or ineffective. Does this mean that the individual does not have the requisite leadership skill? They are simply different, and different is generally neither effective nor accepted,” Boucher contends.

Soft Skills

Not only are there enormous challenges, globally, around finding employees with the requisite expertise, professionalism and leadership, there are also serious challenges around finding employees with the requisite soft skills, which enable individuals to “hit the ground running”, in the workplace.

Illustrating the importance of soft skills, Head of ACCA SA, Nadine Kater, describes soft skills as “the lubricant which oils and ensures the sound functioning of any organisation”.

Boucher says CEOs, CFOs and COOs are often accused of being deficient in the area of soft skills. This has impacted very negatively on the way in which the HR function is perceived. “This seems to have given them an excuse to look down on their colleagues tasked with taking care of the soft aspects of business, such as the people. The CHRO has more often than not had a mammoth job just trying to keep his or her monthly meeting with the CEO, let alone convincing the CEO of placing more focus on these HR activities. For decades now HR has been trying to secure a seat at the table and, in so doing, have lost sight of what they need to do to remain relevant, not only to the CEO and executive team, but to the employees who succumb to HR processes.”

James attributes many of the workplace challenges associated with talent management, remuneration, employee engagement, succession planning, and project management to poor communication skills, poor time-management skills, and a lack of employee engagement.

Kelly Group Executive: HR, Bev Jack, sheds some light on the term “soft skills”. “Soft skills is a sociological term relating to a cluster of personality traits, social skills, communication, personal habits and behaviours which characterise relationships with other people. These soft skills complement the hard technical skills which are the vocational/occupational requirements of a job. These soft skills are personal attributes, which enhance the individual’s interactions, including job performance. As these often relate to a person’s ability to engage effectively, they are more broadly applicable; they are not limited to the workplace and relationships with co-workers and customers, but also apply to life and how one interacts with others.”

Jack cites communication skills, conflict resolution, personal effectiveness, teamwork, influencing skills and persuasion/selling skills as highly sought after skills. “Often these behavioural competencies, over the long- term, can add much value to professional success, over and above the occupational skills acquired. These soft skills are increasingly sought out by employers in additional to occupation qualifications.”

For Boucher, the value of personal and interpersonal skills lies in the fact that these skills help to create a sense of belonging, a shared understanding, congenial and respectful work environments, preserve dignity and also promote a desire to work together towards a common purpose or goal.

However, soft skills and technical skills are not enough. Boucher says individuals also require global resilience skills, such as agility, the ability to deal with ambiguity, cultural sensitivity, appreciation of diversity and change leadership. “We now operate across the globe, across time zones, with people who speak different languages, who have different ways of behaving; we have access to limitless amounts of information. The increased complexity of our world has multiplied exponentially. To deal with, survive through, and succeed with all this complexity, we need to develop new skills, different ways of seeing things, essentially, we need to adapt and evolve,” Boucher argues.

Global Resilience

While individuals may additionally require global resilience skills, the reasons for the current soft skills deficit should not simply be glossed over. James attributes the soft skills deficit in part to the fact that individuals are being promoted into management and leadership positions much earlier, and are possibly losing out on the opportunity to develop soft skills over time: “Whereas baby boomers and generation x had to wait a number of years until they were promoted, individuals are being promoted into positions of leadership much earlier. This is a two-edged sword”. While organisations often benefit from young, energetic leadership, where leaders have been appointed because of their technical skills, you may find there is a skills gap in terms of some of the softer skills, particularly people – skills.

Kater, on the other hand, believes the soft skills deficit is a generational issue. “Generation x and generation y employees often lack good interpersonal skills, good communication skills, preferring sms and email to one-on-one communication. This is problematic particularly when these individuals are called upon to engage, and to negotiate to resolve very real, difficult problems, perhaps around non-performance, remuneration, or succession planning.”


Boucher says the way in which we remunerate individuals is contributing to the soft skills deficit: “Remuneration systems today favour rewarding for the achievement of results, with very little, if any, attention paid to how an individual goes about achieving results, the soft skills.”

She cites the banking sector as a case in point. Examples of very senior executives receiving enormous rewards and bonuses, despite unprofessional and unethical behaviour, abound. Although action has been taken against some culprits, the example has been set – that you need to be like this to get to the top. “We are actually rewarding the lack of appropriate soft skills in the workplace, and not adequately rewarding the use of requisite soft skills. There is simply no reward, and the soft, decent approach to getting something done just takes longer and requires more effort and energy, so these skills become latent and underdeveloped,” Boucher observes.


Kater says the situation is exacerbated by the fact that organisations do not necessarily understand the true value of soft skills training. “Soft skills training is simply a way to tick the box, confirming that junior employees have been trained.” Perhaps even more grave, is the fact that managers and professionals, arguably the people who need soft skills the most, are often left out of the soft skills training loop completely.

Jack believes responsibility for developmental programmes lies with both the individual and the organisation. “Each person is different, unique, complex and special, and the aim of any developmental programme should be mutually beneficial, addressing the needs of the individual as well as the organisation.”

Boucher adds an additional dimension, arguing that responsibility lies with the organisation, the individual and with leadership. She cautions, however, that the definition of skills is not static, it is developing. “We should develop with it. No one has the answers yet. We should learn these skills as a community. We should evolve the skills, try things, freshen up our approaches, encourage conversation. Only then will we all learn what we need from each other across these borders of country, race, gender, time, religion and culture.

We will have a better chance of learning how to cope with all these new concepts and demands. We will build more resilience as we become more familiar with the different ways in which people do and see things. We will become more agile as we develop conversation networks and support structures to tap into to unravel the complexity of situations and information overload, and we will be able to feel safer, not having all the answers, in dealing with a bit of ambiguity and forging on and succeeding. The skills that we need now are evolving; they are not really well-researched and defined and do not fit nicely into Maslow’s hierarchy or Herzberg’s theory.”

Talent Management

James provides some insight into possible reasons for the skills and talent deficit: “Research in the US seems to indicate that very few companies in the US have developed a comprehensive talent management strategy. This may be true for many companies around the world, including South Africa.”

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that there also appears to be a knowledge gap in terms of what the concept talent management means. Boucher says talent management is often mistakenly equated with human capital, or what was previously referred to as human resource management or personnel management. This is misleading: “Talent management, in its purest form, is about the management of the talented individuals in an organisation.”

To complicate matters further, there is no common understanding of what constitutes talent. Boucher defines a talented individual as “someone who contributes in an above average way to the results of the organisation, regardless of role, has the potential to grow, move up within the organisation’s structures, and has an attitude geared for success”.

She cautions that managing talent is not only about soft skills development; it is also about ensuring that that individual is exposed to diverse opportunities in order to develop his or her skills and experience set: “It includes identifying, with the individual, where they are going, their career path, and putting plans in place to enable them to achieve that plan. It is also about being frank and reviewing the current incumbents in the organisation and identifying where the talented individual might take over a job, be the successor. Talent management is an individualised process. There can never be a “one size fits all” approach, and it cannot be applied in a blanket manner across all members of the organisation. For some talented individuals, much of the talent management process will be about developing soft skills; for others it may be more focused on providing them with the ability to expand their experience.”

A Holistic Approach

Are there any best practices for soft skills development and people development in general? James says organisations should always adopt a holistic approach. Organisations should always strive to develop the whole person. She adds the caveat that while it is important to ensure that an organisation develops and nurtures both hard skills and soft skills, cognisance should also be taken of the need to ensure a good work-life balance.

In a similar vein Kater urges organisations to develop well-rounded individuals: “Take cognisance of both the need to develop soft skills, and the need to develop hard, technical skills. Emotional intelligence is the currency of the future. Organisations, which will flourish in the future, will not be led by technocrats, but by managers and leaders who are able to inspire, motivate and engage their people”.

As far as Jack is concerned, crafting a shared vision is key: “Shared visions supported by team learning can accelerate development. Benefits include improved problem-solving capacity through greater access to knowledge and expertise. Learning organisations also encourage openness and transparency in an environment of respect and empathy.”

Boucher does not believe in best practice: “The better way forward is to develop soft skills in community or networked structures, with a strong emphasis on practice and exposure to experience. The critical thing is that soft skills are underpinned by behavioural traits and mind sets. To develop soft skills, you essentially have to re-wire a person’s baseline behaviour and terms of reference. You cannot do this by lecturing to them, and you cannot tell them to read about it in a self-help book, especially not these new global resilience skills.

“A person has to do things differently, experience how it feels, see how other people react to this new approach and be safe while doing it. It has to be continually reinforced, formally through reward, and informally through praise, recognition and achievement. Organisations are going to have to take a leap of faith and exercise some patience. The organisation is going to have to be a parent providing the environment and guidance to the child while they grow and learn. This is an evolution. You cannot send people off on a course and expect them to come back to work and do things differently. Above all, these new soft skills need to be practised by the leaders. People need to see the leaders behaving this way before they will be motivated on a large scale to grow.”

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