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Leadership Development

Investing for Soft Skills: Build, Buy or Both

What differentiates high performers from the rest is the soft skills that create alignment, connection and joint purpose. But when should you invest in building those skills versus hiring for them?

When many people are asked to describe an “engineer,” it elicits an immediate reaction. But whether they think broadly about the work or more narrowly about a specific person, emotional intelligence, caring and soft skills are not often at the top of the list.

Engineers are generally known for their technical skills and proficiency. I’ve worked with several great engineers. Some have been involved in physical product development while others work in software, construction, data analytics and cybersecurity. No matter their specific role or industry, what sets them apart isn’t their expertise. It’s not that simple.

Recently, I was speaking with Roland Cloutier, the chief information security officer at ADP, one of the largest payroll service providers in the world. When asked how to maximize individual, team and organizational performance, he said: “It’s all about alignment, connection and joint purpose. Alignment drives connection and the way the you get things done is through human connection.”

To maximize a return on investment and fully realize someone’s potential, you need to identify the reason for and define the outcome from human connection. To do that, leverage soft skills.

What makes one team different than another? Why does one team perform at a high level while another is average and yet another is even worse? What makes one organization better than another? What makes one person more of an energizer as compared to a peer in the same role? It’s their ability to connect with others while focused on a shared purpose.

Certainly, you need and expect each person to be proficient in specific job tasks but what differentiates one person or an entire team from another is the soft skills that create alignment, connection and joint purpose in the work being performed. But when should you invest in building those skills versus hiring for them?

The Argument for Building

So what came to mind when you read the word “engineer”? I raise the question because of one engineer I know who worked for several years at a large defense contractor before making the move to a chipmaker.

While still at the defense contractor, during one of his going away parties, there was a moment when many close colleagues and friends were reminiscing of times past and accomplishments they achieved together. One of the friends was visibly upset and when asked, “What’s wrong?” the friend said, “Nothing really. I am happy for him and his family. I’m just wondering, with him leaving, who’s going to take care of the people.”

There’s a good chance “people person” or “high EQ” or “soft skills” or “people taking care of people” are not on the list you had in mind when you were asked to think about the word “engineer.” But, as I mentioned, this is an amazing engineer. Proficient at what he does and importantly how he does it. He knows that what someone can do is shadowed by the way it is done. The long-lasting effect someone has on another is not based in their capability but rather in their care.

You may have examples like this extraordinary engineer in your organization. But experience tells us that such an example is rare, not just among engineers but across all disciplines and roles. Those extraordinary ones stand out. Such people are difference makers and connectors of alignment and purpose. They’re the source of competitive advantage within organizations and can create high levels of team performance in easy and hard times, not simply based on their proficiency of tasks but largely because of their soft skills.

As chief learning officers and professionals responsible for human resource development, this is the behavior we want to elicit from all employees: high levels of proficiency in tasks while also ensuring care in follow through with others while accomplishing said tasks. Is this possible?

Yes, it’s certainly possible. In an April 2016 Chief Learning Officer article, “The Hard Science Behind Soft Skills,” authors Evan Sinar and Richard Wellins noted the possibility by stating, “Soft skills can be learned.” However, while it may be possible, is it probable? It’s not, at least not without intentional design and systematic influence.

Build or Buy?

This harsh yet hopefully constructive reminder of reality is grounded in the fact that most spending on training is not a good investment. Such a statement is challenged by the research of Sinar and Wellins who claimed in their article, “organizations demonstrated an average return on investment of $4,000 for every $1,100 spent developing soft skills.”

In contrast to such findings, however, Harvard Business School professor Michael Beer described most money spent on personnel development as a “robbery” because “most companies are unable to transfer employee learning into changes in individual and organization behavior.”

That’s what makes it unlikely. Behavioral change is hard. Measuring it is also hard. While we all know the importance of measuring value and benefit relative to the bottom line, Marcel Robles noted in a Business Communication Quarterly article that, “Calculating the ROI and measuring effectiveness of communications training, ethics, teamwork skills, and other softer skills is extremely hard.”

Think about the hundreds or thousands of dollars per year you are investing in each person at your organization. No doubt some of those dollars invested are yielding strong, measurable returns. Some of that yield may be in soft skills as noted by Sinar and Wellins.

If your organization is like most, however, most of those total dollars spent are better described as an organizational liability or expense, rather than an investment in your No. 1 asset because they are not creating the behavioral change you desire; they are returning neither top-line nor bottom-line results that can be measured.

As stewards of talent, we know two things to be absolute. First, a line item allocating budget for us to spend does not ensure prudence in that spending. Second, training or any form of workforce development should not be separated from hiring and performance review processing.

Both truths correlate to the prior comment regarding the need for intentional design and systematic influence. The best way to ensure that you have an engineer or anyone proficient in both hard skills and soft skills is to ensure you hire the “right” engineer. Recruiting, hiring, onboarding, feedback, coaching and training are all part of a performance management system.

The results that Sinar and Wellins found were realized in organizations that were going beyond simple training exercises to the point of “including positive modeling, repeated skill practices and post-training applications.” In other words, they were integrating training with other multiple employee-manager touch points. Organizations realizing the highest of returns from investing in soft skills have incorporated soft skills application in most, if not all, touch points from talent attraction and acquisition all the way through attrition.

Laszlo Bock, the former head of people at Google, wrote in his book “Work Rules” that hiring is the most important activity in any organization. Onboarding was noted as second most important. With that in mind, consider your employee life cycle and entire sequence of employee-employer touch points within it from attraction to attrition — those touch points will include interactions with managers, peers and others.

Think about your responsibility for training and workforce development investments. Now, consider which touch points with the greatest leverage for ensuring both hard and soft skills are showing up to conduct the work of your organization — that which assures alignment, joint purpose and human connection.

Consider the journey your employees take with managers, peers and others in the organization. Once the offer or contract for employment is accepted, what do you do to help prepare that employee to experience full engagement, success and fun?

For some organizations, it’s nothing; just a letter of acceptance and a “welcome aboard!” salutation. For other organizations, the letter is also accompanied by a list of expectations and other materials to review.

What about at the start of day one, the end of day one and everything in between? Is there a mentor or a buddy assigned to meet the new employee at the door? Is there time spent and expectations set to make sure that person gets walked around to meet people. I’ve heard of one company’s best practice to have pastries, croissants and bagels at the new employee’s work station and an e-mail to all staff or the division announcing the food, which creates a way for the new employee to meet the team.

What about the touch point of the end of week one? By then, acculturation is taking place and either the new employee is integrating with the team or separating. Managers and HR leaders should know which.

What about day 30, day 60, day 90, and the next 90 and the 90 after that? These are all natural touch points that the best organizations and best managers leverage to assure alignment, connection and joint purpose. As professionals focused on learning and development, we need to make sure the managers are equipped with tools and practices that enable development with each and every conversation, meeting and event.

We know that learning is not reserved for a classroom training or HR workshop. We will continue to use such forums for employee development of soft skills but we also need to leverage natural points of connection to ensure engagement, success and fun.

Behavioral change is hard. Compounding this truth is the fact that your workforce development investment dollars are constrained and finite, forcing each investment to be quantified, measured and reported relative to impact value. If not intentionally designed, integrated and managed across all employee-manager touch points, problems will arise with training and soft skills.

You have the option to develop or build soft skills among your employees. You can also buy those skills by hiring the right people with those skills in the first place. Or you can do both. For most organizations, it’s not an either-or decision, rather it’s both-and.

All organizations engage in acquiring soft skills via hiring and building those skills through ongoing training. As you buy and build your talent, make sure your time and money is being invested across all touch points of the integrated performance management system because your next best bet on training soft skills may very well be an investment in better recruiting practices.

Tim Rahschulte is the co-author of “My Best Advice: Proven Rules For Effective Leadership.” He is a professor of business at George Fox University in Oregon and the former chief learning officer at Evanta, a CEB company. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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