Let’s Stop Talking About Soft Skills: They’re Power Skills
One of the hottest topics in business today is upskilling, reskilling, and redefining jobs for the future of work. It’s so rampant that 34% of CEOs now rate it one of their “top three threats to growth.”
It’s a big and complex topic, and one that I often feel is out of control. Companies are buying vast libraries of content in an attempt to “reskill” their workforce, and they’re seeing mixed results. While some focus on “capability academies” with great success (where I believe this market is going), others now buy learning experience platforms and large libraries of content and cross their fingers.
One of our clients, for example, recently licensed a large library of online content for more than 200,000 employees and after a year found that fewer than 100 people had used it. Why? The content was primarily video-based, it was focused on a wide variety of topics, and the employee base just didn’t have time. They hadn’t really focused the investment on the true capabilities they need.
The lesson learned, as Dave Barone of Comcast just discussed with me, is that real “skilling” takes a deep focus on the end-to-end capabilities various employees need. Service technicians need regular information on products and fixes; salespeople need constant update on messaging, pricing, industry trends, and new solutions; engineers need to understand new technologies and techniques in their discipline; and managers, of course, need to learn all the complexities of leadership, management, supervision, and alignment.
Taken together, it’s a complex puzzle.
Vendors like Workday, EdCast, Degreed, Filtered, LinkedIn, and many others have built “skills clouds” that are supposed to crowd-source skills, infer the skills you have (by reading your resume and your experience), and “recommend” content to make you better at your job. They work reasonably well, but honestly, my research with Filtered (more on Magpie from Filtered coming soon) shows that people don’t rate this “Recommended” content very high. They really value the proprietary, mandatory content companies design just for them.
Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills
Let’s unpack the word “skills.” It’s a complex idea.
Is learning to create a pivot table in Excel a Skill? Or is “people analytics” a skill? Is managing a team a “skills?” As you can see, there’s a huge range of granularity to consider. But without diving into that topic yet, let me talk about the topic of “hard skills” vs. “soft skills.”
In most skills-based solutions, companies group their corporate skills needs into two types: the technical or “hard-skills” in a job, and the people and managerial “soft-skills” in a job. There are many ways to define this distinction.
One somewhat odd article calls hard skills the “job skills you need to do the job” (like operating a drill) and soft skills the “skills you’re born with” (like communications and collaboration). Others define hard skills as “technical skills” and soft skills as “people skills.” (Indeed’s website does a reasonable job at this.)
I’ve lived in this world for three decades and to be honest, this distinction is now getting in our way. Why? Because most people think “hard skills” are hard, and “soft skills” are soft.
I’d suggest the opposite is true.
Hard Skills are soft (they change all the time, are constantly being obsoleted, and are relatively easy to learn), and Soft Skills are hard (they are difficult to build, critical, and take extreme effort to obtain).
In fact, I was at a conference this week and one of the speakers came up with the idea that we should rename “soft skills” to “power skills,” because in reality they are the skills that give you real “power” at work. IBM’s new research clearly points this out. And we need to take these “soft skills” seriously.
Let me try to explain.
As I’ve written about a lot, the skills of the future are not technical, they’re behavioral. Yes, engineers, designers, and technical people need to know how to build and fix things (and we all have to know how to use our computers, tools, and systems at work). But as IBM’s research points out, CEOs and business leaders are now realizing that they can “buy” these technical skills (or build them internally, at ever-lower cost) relatively easily. (You can read our case studies here.) It’s the soft skills or “power skills” that take effort.
Consider the skills identified in IBM”s latest research. They’re all behavioral.
These skills are not “soft” – they’re highly complex, take years to learn, and are always changing in their scope.
Take the number one skill CEOs ask for: “willingness to be flexible, agile, and adaptable to change.”
This alone is an enormous bag of personality traits, mindsets, abilities, and experiences. I, for example, have become “adaptable to change” because I was laid off 30 years ago, I’ve worked in 7 different companies, I’ve lived through several companies during high growth and then massive crisis, and I have a family who supports me regardless of what I do. These things, coupled with my engineer-like personality which makes me always want to “discover” and “fix” things, gives me adaptability, flexibility, and willingness to change.
It has taken me 63 years to build this set of skills. And I’m still learning them every day.
Take the skill “ability to communicate effectively in a business context.” I consider myself pretty good at this, and I would attribute it to my experience on the debate team in high school, my near-english degree in college, my years of work in sales and customer service, and my decades of experience working in marketing, giving speeches, and working in a global consulting firm. I took a few Toastmaster’s courses and once took a Holden course on enterprise sales (and had a year of sales training at IBM), but most of this I learned on my own.
And take the skill “capacity for innovation and creativity.” That one is a big can of worms. Does this mean you can draw beautiful art? Or that you think outside the box? Or that you challenge authority and always try to make things better (and become the “squeeky wheel” at work)? It covers all these things, and includes one of the most interesting new corporate competencies, “curiosity.”
Curiosity, a word which we often attribute to children, has now drifted into the center of corporate thinking. Are your people “curious” about why customers don’t buy your new offering? Are they “curious” about how to make your offerings and products better? Do they have a growth mindset about curious ways they can become better? This is the newest “power skill” in business.
I won’t belabor this point, but let me simply point out that these “soft skills” are the most important and “hardest” skills in business.
Without them you will never be a big success, and developing them takes a life-long commitment.
What Do We Do About This?
So what does this all mean? We as business, HR, and L&D professionals have to stop calling these “soft skills” and start thinking of them as “power skills.” They are the most important skills we have in our companies, and we have to build them, nourish them, and continuously evolve them with vigor.
I recently wrote an article about Bill McDermott’s move to take over as CEO of ServiceNow. McDermott is a highly esteemed executive who spent time at Xerox, Gartner Group, SAP, and now ServiceNow. I recently watched a video of his career and I could not stop thinking about all the “soft skills” he has learned. (And by the way, courage, tenacity, and optimism belongs in this list, as you’ll see from Bill’s history).
These “power skills” are essential in the world ahead. Companies like Facebook (which now faces an existential crisis), Amazon (which has become far more extensive than anyone could imagine), Boeing, GE, and many others are not struggling with “technology strategies.” They are struggling with problems of strategy, ethics, culture, growth, and values.
So we need to talk about these skills, assess ourselves against them, and build “academies” to teach them.
Just yesterday I had a wonderful talk with Victoria Roberts, the head of HR for a fascinating company called truckstop.com. She has taken their company to new levels of performance through an amazing focus on relationships, learning to be yourself, authenticity, empathy (for customers and the team), and internal collaboration. In the two years she’s been there she’s totally changed the culture, engagement, and retention, all by focusing on these “power skills” in their workplace. She uses a week-long “onboarding” process to drive this home to everyone. Here’s a video to give you a peek.
Simon Brown, the CLO at Novartis, has essentially taken their capability academies and created an entire focus on curiosity, providing games, learning programs, and discussions about what it all means. This is an example of creating a “power skill” in the company, with relentless effort to drive “curiosity” home into every part of the organization.
As far as corporate solutions? We need to use platforms like NovoEd, Nomadic, 360 Learning, and other collaborative platforms to build these kinds of skills (The Josh Bersin Academy is designed this way). As I discussed in a prior article, Power Skills are developed through discussion, debate, and challenging situations. (I still remember the speeches I flubbed up, the sales deals we lost, and the times I blew it in the office as the best learning experiences of my life.) We can build these kinds of development programs at work if we design around “experiences” and “activities” and “group interactions” not just content.
By the way, we can learn a lot from higher education in this effort. If you go to an Executive Education program you find yourself thrust into interactive discussions with a challenging professor, forced to work on projects with competitive peers, and exposed to information and theory you may never read. Building these complex Power Skills requires designed interaction and a purposeful way to meet, collaborate, and be challenged by others.
Let’s Take Power Skills Seriously
Bottom line is simple. We need to take these “power skills” seriously, and build experiential programs that start at the top. Satya Nadella now teaches “growth mindset” at Microsoft everywhere he goes, and the company is just starting to peel the onion on all the ways this “power skill” impacts work, relationships, teams, and the organization.
Let me add one final point. As I realized in our recent CHRO Summit at UC Berkeley, building “human skills” is now a critical priority for every CHRO. Business topics like growth, innovation, agility, and change are entirely dependent on values like kindness, generosity, trust, and awe. Yes, these “soft skills” are the foundation of human happiness, and human happiness is the foundation of employee engagement, productivity, and corporate growth.
I hope we can throw away the idea of “soft skills” and come to accept that developing Power Skills is hard, takes investment, and is now key to the future. Yes we need lots of engineers and scientists to succeed, but they need Power Skills too.