6 Steps to Develop a Successful Soft Skills Strategy

By Jason Richmond, CEO and Chief Culture Officer at Ideal Outcomes, Inc.

Every year LinkedIn publishes a “Top Skills” list, which analyzes its huge professional social network to rank which skills are in top demand yet low supply. LinkedIn Learning editor Paul Petrone wrote in a blog post that 57 percent of senior leaders on the platform say soft skills are more critical to their businesses than hard skills.  According to LinkedIn, the top five soft skills—for 2019, at least: creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and time management. 

Global HR consulting firm DDI provides a different perspective. In a study that correlated soft skills with performance, they found that empathy was king. More specifically, empathy was the top interaction skill driving overall performance, decision making, coaching, engaging, and planning and organizing. However, empathy was one of the lowest scoring skills among the frontline leaders they assessed. 
The Society for Human Resources (SHRM) took a slightly different approach by looking at the top skills missing in job applicants. In short supply: problem solving, ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity, and communications. 

Reading these articles and research can be overwhelming for leaders and talent management professionals for several reasons. First, although there is overlap as to the skill priorities, there is enough variation to create confusion (how are you doing with dealing with ambiguity right now?). Second, it can be challenging to assess employees’ soft skills in an objective manner. Third, there are deep-seated beliefs that such skills are hard to train and even harder to measure.   
Let’s start with the priorities: what soft skills should an organization focus on first? One of the reasons organizations hesitate to invest in soft skills development is such programs have not demonstrated much impact. In large part this is because organizations do not define upfront why they are targeting such development and the goals they want to achieve. And even if they define the purpose, they do not align it with business objectives. Here is a six-step process to help you develop a more successful soft skills strategy.  

  1. Determine the right development team: HR and Talent Management cannot tackle this project alone. Put together a small team of ten to twelve people who have strong soft skills and represent key operational functions: field employees, frontline employees, middle managers, along with a couple of leaders who will champion the cause. Include one or two high potential employees who, if they have been identified wisely, will possess many of the skills you want to develop in others.

  2. Begin with a focus on business needs: What’s going on in your business? What are your top two or three business strategies? Are you looking to grow revenue, improve customer satisfaction, or increase innovation? Do you want to improve employee engagement and talent retention?

  3. Determine the soft skills most impactful for achieving those strategies: For example, if customer satisfaction scores are low, look to the skill sets demonstrated by your customer facing personnel. Are they friendly? Are they good listeners? How well do they manage their time and follow up? What are the typical service complaints—are they product related or people related? If a goal is to increase innovation, what key behaviors are lacking that drive innovation? Are talented employees micromanaged, for example? Are managers good at supporting risk taking? Or are mistakes harshly criticized? This is a simple yet compelling and relevant way to do a business focused needs analysis and tie your interventions to business impact. For example, six months after training on empathetic listening and problem solving, do you start to see an uptick in customer satisfaction scores?

  4. Consider the importance of empathy: There are many definitions of empathy; perhaps the simplest is the ability to sense others’ feelings coupled with the ability to imagine what they might be feeling or thinking. Empathy is tied to emotional intelligence. Many researchers have proven empathy to be a requirement for successful leadership but a skill that’s often missing. No matter what your other business needs are, you can safely assume this gap exists in your organization. The challenge is in determining where these gaps lie and the associated behavioral gaps. There are a number of assessment tools that can help. MBTI (Myers Briggs) is useful for determining personality styles and whether you have a balanced workforce. The Personal Strengths Profile (PSP) offers insight into personality, communication and problem-solving styles. In addition, Harvard’s Professional Development Extension School recommends these tools: Mind Tools Quiz, Institute for Health and Human Potential, and TalentSmart. Such tools can help you analyze gaps more specifically so that you can develop programs to address them. 360 assessments will give you insight into your management and leadership soft skills as will data from employee and engagement surveys. Look for patterns of gaps and focus on your top issues.

  5. Plan your curriculum and delivery methods: Once you have a solid understanding of your business needs, the soft skills needed to drive them, and the current gaps in your organization, you are ready to design your program strategy. Take into consideration that such skills need practice and feedback. Online, self-paced programs, especially those with video models can raise awareness and build knowledge. They are very cost effective, but will not provide practice or feedback. Live online, face to face, coaching and mentoring are better approaches. Videotaping, role playing, and structured feedback sessions coupled with coaching are going to be even more effective. Consider cohort development as well. Create groups of peers who coach and give ongoing feedback to each other following meetings, team discussions, or agile scrum sessions.

  6. Measure progress and results: Develop a simple, visual scorecard to track your progress quarterly. Data point you can include are relevant business metrics, feedback from program participants, shifts in 360 scores, data from spot employee surveys, turnover, and so on. Base your tracking on the goals you established at the beginning of the process.
Long term job and organizational success depends heavily on soft skills mastery. Such mastery takes time, meaning the sooner you start, the sooner you will have a positive impact on your organization.