Technically, It’s About the Soft Skills….

By: Mike Harristhal, MBA | mharristhal@barlowmccarthy.com

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

The Digital Age has created great opportunity.  An infinite amount of information is available at our fingertips, about practically every subject, virtually whenever we need it, and wherever we happen to be.  We have now “commoditized” a great many functions and actions through massive data processing, analytics, and robotics.  We have more time for higher-order thinking and doing; we have the opportunity to use that time wisely.

The Digital Age has also created an opportunity to lose track of the value of soft skills, those personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.

Look around you. You walk down the street, in the mall, or at the airport, and eight out of ten people are either texting, hovering over their Ipads, or wired to their headphones. Some are actually talking on their phones, and to that at least, I say, “Hooray.”

A strategic imperative for most organizations is the ability to differentiate themselves from others in their industry sector.  While technical elements of production or service delivery become more advanced, they also become widely replicated by others competing in the same space.

When you think about commercial entities where you have ongoing relationships, what do you envision as the reasons you stay with those vendors?  In this era that seems to have a proliferation of trash-talking and unabashed hyperbole, we tend to gravitate to those people or organizations who we believe are genuinely interested in our needs, in whom we can trust, and with whom we feel there is a long-term commitment to fairness in the relationship.

The key to any organization’s long-term vitality is its people.  Smart people are everywhere, and the technical skills may not necessarily be equal, but the upper quartile market leaders are often arrayed in a fairly compact distribution.

So, we must invest as much in the soft skills of our people as we do the technical skills. We want our people to move beyond a transaction mentality to a relational strategy. We need to demonstrate interest, sincerity, integrity, and reliability.  We genuinely listen. We under-promise and over-deliver.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” – Stephen Covey

We state what we can control, and acknowledge what we can influence, but we can’t guarantee outcomes that are beyond our grasp.

So, in a fast-paced environment, how do we develop these soft skills?

In the old days, there was an annual performance appraisal and salary/wage conversation. Many organizations now conduct at least quarterly check-ins with their professional staffs.  Let’s pick up the pace.  Rather than potentially contentious (or innocuous) annual or quarterly summit meetings, what  about real-time coaching conversations, keynoted not by fault-finding but by perpetually pursuing performance improvement?  For instance, every week, or after every big meeting, we ask:  What could we do better? What might be some alternatives?  Have we optimized, or is there room to grow? You don’t have to be sick to get better.

And these internal coaching conversations will be role-modeling that our staffs can and should do with their clients, prospects and customers.  We will be genuine in our interest, sincerely solution oriented, and honest about what can be done, short term and long term.  We are practicing the forging and nurturing of engagement versus a one-time transaction that may or may not leave the participants happy and interested in an ongoing relationship.

And, where does the time come from for these coaching sessions with our staff?  From the wonderful efficiency that digitalization has brought us.  Nothing could be a better use of our new-found time than building those skills that will enable us to sustain our connections with our customers and colleagues.