Soft Skills: It's Not in the Dictionary, But …
At least, not in the two that I examined. So I did a little bit of light research and came up with a definition that I think provides the context for this editorial.
“Soft skills are the personal character traits or qualities each of us has,” according to Dawn Rosenberg McKay, a career planning expert. “They make up who we are, generally encompassing our attitudes, habits and how we interact with other people. They are much less tangible than hard or technical skills, and unlike them, you do not learn soft skills by enrolling in a training program. You can, however, acquire them through educational, work and life experiences but it will take a lot of effort on your part.”
Pretty good definition. But I also turned to Steve Coscia (www.coscia.com) and asked him for one. Steve is immersed in our industry, and during the many years that I’ve known him, I have often referred to him (not inaccurately, I believe) as the top HVACR customer service expert in the country. (Full disclosure: Steve is a friend.) Steve says, “Soft skills are the nontechnical skills such as positive attitude, courtesy, proper attire, good communication, empathy, personal hygiene and listening; just to name a few.”
In a recent conversation with a few individuals who had visited several top wholesalers, the subject arose that they were mildly surprised at the dearth of soft skills that people exhibited at these companies, who had excellent “street” reputations.
Their appraisal startled me. (And, no, I’m not going to name the companies.)
Here’s some proof of why soft skills are important. When you meet someone who you would acknowledge is good at his or her job but is poor at their soft skills, don’t you almost always offer a negative assessment?: “He’s a good doctor, but he’s kinda abrupt or is always looking at his watch.”
In our world it might be: “That Peri? Supply has everything I need, and it’s convenient, but their counter help … whew, it’s not exactly the friendliest place to order something early in the morning.”
We’re going to change all this. Well, allow me to frame it slightly differently.
I’ve decided to make this the year of soft skills. That means in every issue, I’m going to address at least one soft skill that is worth focusing on. Most of us, I suspect, could use some improvement in our soft skills. Indeed, for many, it’s almost mandatory if you wish to succeed.
In my book "Wacky Days," I have a chapter about Toastmasters, an international organization that helps people become better public speakers. (They now describe themselves as devoted to communication and leadership development.) I had a client, John, who pulled me into his office and said: “Tom, I’ve got a sales director, Ralph, who’s good. But in every meeting we go to, when he has to speak in front of a group, his face gets almost cherry-red, and the top of his head glows like a light bulb. [He was bald.] He also starts to stammer, but he doesn’t have a stuttering problem. Do you think I should send him to Toastmasters?”
My unqualified answer was “Yes. Immediately.” Toastmasters is the best, low-cost way to improve public speaking.
However, the most important aspect of this story is obvious: How much of Ralph’s career flow would begin to trickle, if not halt, because of this one aspect of his personality that was so obvious to a boss — who regarded it as a weakness — that he took the time to offer a solution that would solve it. And keep in mind that the boss knew this wasn’t a quick fix.
In another case, I was chatting with the No. 2 executive of an organization with tens of thousands of members. I both admire and like this person and complimented him on his communication skills. (After all, I earned a certified toastmaster status, do a limited amount of public speaking about publicity and enjoy assessing how well someone speaks in public.)
In a moment of candor, he told me in an almost conspiratorial tone that he once had the habit of talking to a person but would allow his eyes to wander toward people and activity beyond the individual who he was addressing. Finally, someone to whom he was having a conversation pointed it out to him. Because this fellow is very bright, able to take constructive criticism and practical, he altered his one-on-one approach. When talking to this Joe, you get his rapt attention.
I think you have the message. If there are any specific “soft skills” you would like to read about, send me a note. I can’t change you or your staff. However, I can expose you to ways of improving specific soft skills, especially ones that are the most vexing, detrimental or irritating to you and which might (without you even knowing it) cause your career to stumble. I’ve never spoken to anyone who improved their soft skills and didn’t feel better about it afterwards. You will too.