Photo: John Schnobrich

Soft Skills Aren’t Optional: How to Teach Them Well

When you hire employees, especially Generation Z and the youngest millennials, you’re investing in the future of your organization. Contributing to their development is one of the smartest investments you can make. But too many companies overlook the basics when it comes to learning and development. 

If you only focus on training to meet the specific tasks and requirements of a given job, you may be developing your employees as much as you think you are. Particularly when it comes to new employees switching to an unfamiliar role, or just-hired younger employees new to the workplace, they may lack foundational abilities you now take for granted. A study by the CollegeBoard found that employers find 26.2% of college students lack sufficient writing skills — and one fourth are generally poor communicators. 

So before you train for job-related tasks, make sure your employees have these essential skills. Call them soft skills, call them life skills, or call them basic work skills, but these four are not only critical for success in your organization, but throughout a career. And whether the training is up to managers, team leaders or anyone else there are a number of tools to help get your employees up to speed:

1. Time Management

Of all the skills employees can and should have, time management is one of the most vital, no matter what the position or task. This is really a group of skills, including knowing how to prioritize, create a list of must-dos, create a workable schedule, delegate tasks, and know how to create downtime. All of these add up to employees being able to work efficiently and manage their time productively.

The best time managers are those who are never fazed by deadlines: give them a deadline and they’ll meet it, no matter what. They know how to focus on the most important tasks and limit the amount of time they spend on the less important ones. They can create and keep to a schedule because they know how much each task will take them. 

Teaching It

Given that how to manage time varies greatly depending on teams and roles, team leaders and direct managers should be involved in teaching this particular skill. Young hires fresh out of college may have mastered the ability to keep up with classwork but will need to learn how to transfer the skill into the context of work. One effective approach: implement routines and incremental goals throughout tasks. These make it easier to segment the day into manageable chunks.

Team leaders and managers may find scheduling software helps: there are a number of different applications, such as When I Work, or a task management software like Asana or Centrallo. But don’t just leave it up to tech. Make sure to clearly communicate the priorities to employees at the start of each new task — and then help them figure out how to allocate their time more effectively.

2. Interpersonal Communication

Some employees will see more direct and immediate benefits from strong interpersonal skills, particularly if they’re in people-facing and communication-heavy roles. But whether employees are going to be giving a major sales presentation or relaying information to a coworker, interpersonal communication is always essential to get the point across. 

The skill includes verbal, nonverbal and listening skills, as in being able to recognize emotions and see someone else’s side. Non-verbal communication involves being able to recognize the subtleties of body language, eye contact, and gestures, and look beyond traditional assumptions to understand what’s really going on. For instance, lack of eye contact is often misinterpreted as dishonesty when it’s actually shyness or nervousness.  

Teaching It

Learning interpersonal skills is a personal process for most employees, and can be tricky with a brand-new hire or a person who’s naturally shy. As such, it’s best taught by mentors or team leaders with small, close-knit teams — provided that your team has the right dynamic to keep everyone comfortable.

You could start by teaching employees how to listen effectively, and recognize the different types of communicators — such as controllers, analyzers, supporters, and promoters. Each enters a conversation differently, and responds to a different listening and speaking style. 

Gather the team and have each person take a personality test to find out what kind of communicator they are and what they value in communication. From there, compare notes: see how each team member tends to communicate, note the similarities and differences — and work on ways to better communicate with each other based on this new data.

If you need more avenues to foster stronger interpersonal communication among your workers, consider heading online. There are a number of classes for improving personal skills, including those recently listed on The Muse. 

3. Written Communication

Writing is often just presented as one of the communication skills, but it’s likely better to set it apart and give it the focus it needs. This is a skill that’s undoubtedly critical in the workplace — the most valued, but perhaps the least utilized. Most of us can read and most of us can write in terms of knowing how to form sentences. But there’s an enormous gap between people who can write and people who are good at it.  

The ability to write is among the top three most valuable skills to employers: 82% of employers want to bring in new hires with strong written communication skills, according to recent research by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The cost of hiring poor writers can translate into as much as $2.9 billion each year spent providing remedial writing training for current employees. Add in new hires as well, and that sum rises to $3.1 billion. And no matter the promises of AI to help assist with writing, technology can’t fill the gap in terms of bad writing. 

Teaching It

For employees in marketing departments and HR, for instance, written communication is usually a key part of the role. But the goal here is to enable all of your employees to build at least foundational writing skills — so emails are readable and a small brief or abstract is coherent. If you have employees with more potential, you’ll want to focus on helping them harness that with specific tools. 

Writing skills training may entail mentors — who can help with overall polishing and tone. But managers and team leaders are often the last stage of screening before a product reaches a client — and will know what will or won’t pass muster. But when a team leader has bad habits, those will carry through onto the team. Teaching writing should be done by those who are skilled in it and by the tools that are specific to it. 

Make sure the organization implements a clear and comprehensive style guide and provides it to all employees — sometimes poor writing is simply a matter of not knowing the rules. Set up periodic trainings on the standards of communication, presenting not only what’s expected of employees in terms of writing, but clear samples to model correct usage and style. Consider bringing in a writing coach to “workshop” pieces of writing with new employees: a hands-on, small-group setting is a great place to show what works and why. Reward good writing and share it so employees know what it looks like. But don’t punish mistakes: you don’t want employees who dread the process. 

4. Organization

In the workplace, we often sense who is organized and who isn’t by the state of their desk: some keep their workspace tidy and with everything in its place; others keep it in a state of perpetual disarray. But organizational skills are far more than what meets the eye. They usually go hand in hand with strong time management skills (reserving time to straighten the desk is a simple example). 

But organizational skill is also a matter of knowing all the steps to a task, being able to envision them and know how to complete them, who to bring in for different phases, and when to bring in a senior coworker for help over a hurdle. Organization is vital for any employee whose job includes overseeing, managing, project completion, or team leading. Likely, that’s nearly everyone — in some form. And it’s hard for employees to see — or convey — the big picture in terms of purpose and objectives if they don’t have the energy or ability to look away from the small stuff. But aligning with a greater sense of mission is a key part of employee engagement, particularly among younger employees. And it doesn’t mean anything if you can’t see the forest for the trees.

Teaching It

Organizational training is usually team-specific, sometimes department-specific. For example, the organizational process that works for marketing workflows isn’t necessarily well-suited to engineering; bringing in an outside expert on calendar and schedule management won’t necessarily work for employees whose tasks have to be completed within a single day.

Direct supervisors are often the ideal choice for organizational training, with backup support from experienced team members. They know the strengths and weaknesses of their team — and are typically the ones who need to connect the dots or undo a snafu. 

The trend to remote working may call into question the need for a tidy desk for some — but it’s the mentality that needs to be emphasized here, and remote teams certainly need to learn how to be organized. Starting by training how to create a routine and a schedule — and stick to it — creates a framework for other facets. Employees need to know where they need to be, what they need to be doing, and when they need to get it done.  Begin with a daily schedule of the top three or four tasks for a given day, then increase with more tasks, over time, as the team masters what needs to be completed.  

This is where you may see a spark of recognition from new employees, particularly those just out of school — who suddenly see the similarities between meeting deadlines for schoolwork, which is mostly done individually, and completing tasks with coworkers as a team. Each has a part to play; each can contribute to the overall completion. Then, start tailoring the organizational methods to best meet the specific nature of a particular team or department. Just make sure skills are taught consistently, regardless of personal management styles or functions. As teams become more cross-functional, it’s key your employees have a shared language and skillset to draw from.  

Work and Life Skills, Integrated

The World Health Organization notes that we spend one-third of our adult lives at work.  That means what we do and know how to do at work inevitably has a huge impact on the way we live our lives. Employers have a responsibility to invest in their people for countless reasons, but this is key. Essential skills don’t stop at the office. We want and need to develop employees who can rise to challenges, as they have the skills to draw from, whether in life or at work. 

These are the people who keep your organization going at crunch time: they know how to schedule, how to communicate, how to write, and how to stay on top of the workflow. And they become comfortable enough in their abilities to help coach others on these vital skills as well. It’s an investment that pays off for generations.

Forgive Yourself a Prayer, But Never Surrender to Bad Culture

“You can surrender
Without a prayer
But never really pray
Pray without surrender

You can fight
Fight without ever winning
But never ever win
Win without a fight…” –Neil Peart, “Resist”

The final shame of not asking nearly overshadowed my extreme physical pain, but not quite. No, the visceral memory of my hands buried deep between my tense thighs pulled close to my crotch while I’ll leaned in as close to the crafts table as possible, has never been purged from memory.

It was 1972 and I was seven years old.

The first day of Bible school. Church friends recommended that my sister and I attend, that it would be fun, that we’d make cool crafts, learn about Jesus and other New and Old Testament folk, make new friends, and get out of the house for a spell.

Day one started simply enough: we got picked up in the morning, were driven to the boonies some 30 minutes outside of town, and then dropped off at Bible school with the church friends’ kids. I wasn’t very social being an introverted child, and my younger sister was just scared and stuck close to me.

The camp culture itself seemed cordial and warm at first, but then turned a little hardcore fire and brimstone, the counselors and teachers reminding us over and over again that, although Jesus loved us just the way we were, we shouldn’t question God’s plan for us, or any authority, and how sin of any size could send us straight to hell.

Happy days, however my bigger problem occurred late in the day. We were cutting and gluing felt pieces to construction paper to tell our favorite Bible story, mine at the time being about Adam and Eve, fascinated by the fact they were naked, and God, at least initially, was okay with that, which made me happy.

Unfortunately I had to pee.

Really, really bad. But our crafts instructor, a large women with big hair, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a yellow dress that reminded me of cat vomit, was in the middle of telling another story while we worked. The urge to pee didn’t come on suddenly, but I did let the pressure build up until it went well beyond the “holding back” threshold.

Yes, I had to pee badly, but I wouldn’t ask to go. The fear of interrupting and questioning the instructor, of being ridiculed publicly because I needed to do something for me that would disrupt the rest of the class, kept me fused to the hard bench under my butt. My sister saw my discomfort, poked at me and whispered, “Kevin, go.”

I just sat there, defeated, no one else to turn to other than my sister urging me to take action, ultimately consumed by my throbbing bladder, praying to the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost to end Bible school right then and there so I could go to the bathroom.

And go I did.

All over the bench and down my legs, my pants drenched with a growing dark wet spot emanating out from my crotch that couldn’t be missed, and wasn’t, the shame horrifying beyond that evening and decades later.

In fact, over 40 years later I’ve taken that lesson to heart repeatedly as a greater metaphor of life and work experience; that company culture and cultural fit has a huge impact on our day-to-day happiness, or lack thereof, and how we respond to that culture doubles down on that happiness, or – hell, you get the picture.

Being able to identify when a culture is turning bad, and what we can do about it, are obviously critical skills for managing our career happiness. If we don’t react and respond accordingly, we can and do bust a gut (and burst a bladder).

How many times do we push ourselves beyond the “holding back” threshold until the pain is excruciating? For some of us, too many to count until we affect change.

Culture originates with leadership values and the core business mission, and then emanates outward with what people inside an organization do with all of that, and eventually with what meaning is attached to all those continuously evolving behaviors.

When the accepted collective behaviors lead to conflict and strife, we’ve got a bad culture on our hands. Lots of things can create a bad culture, and a good one, but all of them can be summed up (and oversimplified) by four questions that are repeatedly asked in these happiness surveys I started taking via (heard about on a recent NPR TED Radio Hour podcast):

Are you doing something you want to do?

Are you doing something you have to do?

Are you interacting with others right now?

If so, how positive are you feeling? Not so, or extremely?

Well? And if not, why? Especially when at work, wherever and whatever that may be.

This is why mentors are so important.

I’m fortunate to have had and have many in my life, as well as reciprocating. Whether from formal mentoring programs fresh from college graduation or throughout your lifetime in professional organizations and certified associations, or continuous informal mentoring from family and friends, peers and colleagues, and managers and executive leadership, all of which can, and hopefully do, extend beyond whatever current incarnation we’re in.

When we discussed this on the TalentCulture #TChat Show – learning how to identify a bad company culture, understanding factors relevant to your decision to stay or leave, and knowing what to take out of the situation before you leave, including keeping those mentors close to you regardless – were all gladly embraced by the #TChat community, as vital as the air we breathe (and the periodic need to relieve).

Because what my personal mentors of late have reminded me of includes:

  1. When you have to pee, pee. Not pray. I don’t mean to disparage anyone’s religion or spirituality, but you can’t just hope and pray things will get better without doing anything about it. You may feel hopeless in a crappy workplace culture, maybe like a frightened child in the presence of heavy-handed leadership, but you certainly have some things under your control – and that includes getting up and going to the bathroom when you “need a break.” Holding it in beyond the threshold when you feel you’re trapped (and scared) only damages you and those around you, and if when you wet yourself at work, trust me, that shit stays with you a long, long time.
  2. And when you have to fight, fight. Not surrender. You really do; fight for what you want to do instead of only putting up with what you have to do. Passive acceptance of “where you’re at” is not the path to happiness, kids. Fighting for what you want, either as a leader or individual contributor, as long as you develop and deliver, is the critical key to self-fulfillment and ultimate success, although not always equated by compensation (but hey, who’s counting, right?). Make a little mojo magic, always, and for God’s sake, don’t put up with a crappy culture long-term. Opportunities may ebb and flow, but hear your mentors’ voices when they tell you they’re here, or over there.

These are the keys to surviving the bad culture, and staying happy, whether that’s in a 100K-person global enterprise, or your own little company of one (hey, it happens to even the most successful solopreneurs and consultants). And sometimes you just have to leave.

It’s easy to state the obvious at this point, but mercy me, forgive yourself a prayer every now and again, but never, ever surrender without a fight.


photo credit: thejuniorpartner via photopin cc

Welcome Everyone To Job Fair

“Dreams flow across the heartland
Feeding on the fires
Dreams transport desires
Drive you when you’re down
Dreams transport the ones who need to get out of town…”

—Neil Peart


Or the ones who need to get out of jail.

“Welcome to Job Fair everyone!”

The auditorium filled with clapping and laughter, every seat taken by women of all shapes and sizes, from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, but most of them simply wore gray and orange jumpsuits.

Women in various outfits ranging from office professional to “street” professional lined the stage. A Dress for Success representative proceeded to review each outfit, not hesitating to ridicule all but two of the women.

One woman, dressed like a cutesy sailor girl, and another like a call girl, were called out.

“Ladies, companies don’t hire whores or children, they hire adults.”

The crowd whooped it up, and the two women not ridiculed were selected for the next round of Job Fair.

On stage, an executive from Phillip Morris then interviewed the two well-dressed women. Yes, the cigarette company. One of the women was much more prepped than the other, much more professional in her demeanor, much more thoughtful in her interview answers. The other, not so much.

“The winner is, Tasha Jefferson!” announced the Phillip Morris executive.

A few minutes later, Tasha stopped the assistant warden and asked her about getting the actual job she had just “won” in the Job Fair contest. The assistant warden proceeded to tell her nobody wins a job in prison.

Tasha was crestfallen.

“Okay,” the assistant warden conceded, “you’ll get ten dollars added to your personal account.”

Tasha smiled. “That’s something,” she said.

But none of this was real, at least, not quite. It was a scene from a Netflix show based on one women’s experience in prison called Orange Is the New Black. (Funny they called it “Job Fair” as in an official, proper name, not “the job fair.”)

It struck me as I watched this particular episode that, with the dismal employee engagement numbers and voluntary attrition rates as they are, especially for hires during their first year of employment, many of us feel as if we’re in prison, chaffing against the repetition, straining against the faith,” trapped with not even continuous development “conjugal” visits to temper the daily grind.

Peers and colleagues help, of course, but most are just as trapped as you are, some even in solitary. But mercy me, many of us are on stage everyday at Job Fair trying to be seen, to be heard, to be considered for other internal opportunities should they make themselves apparent as well as being an apparent fit.

Apparently not, although maybe there’s a little extra added to our paychecks, because indeed we are somewhat valued. That’s why it should be no surprise why companies struggle to retain top talent from the moment the ink is dry on the new hire paperwork (hopefully that’s online paperwork, you know?).

The good news?

Listening to talent leaders like Tracey Arnish, SVP of Talent at SAP, talk about how they foster development from the recruiting front end for all new employees, and how they empower career paths and opportunities right from the first-day get-go, a refreshing one-size-fits-one approach.

And how they themselves have experienced longevity in the organization because they had the opportunity to work up and across the business (think like a lattice), gaining valuable insight for where they ultimately ended up at this point. Not everyone will end up on the leadership path, but everyone should end up on a development one that continually maximizes their value for both individual and collective.

Which is why we should always:

  • Welcome. This may include assigning buddies and peer-to-peer networks seamlessly before day one even starts, so the new employees feel welcome and have support, regardless of role, classification or location (in the office or remote). Incremental and attainable individual and group goals can also be set up with their first 3-6 months to ensure complete workplace and cultural immersion as well as shortening their initial time to contribution.
  • Everyone to Job Fair. Once onboarded, networked and contributing, every single person — full-time to part-time to temp to contingent — is a perpetual candidate and a growth opportunity for the company at large. In turn, providing a continuous mobility experience to your workforce that includes the flexibility to dial up and down their level of contribution, while ensuring they’re career paths are personalized growth opportunities, are the keys to retaining knowledge and your competitive edge.

Companies invest a lot in their talent up front and to lose them quickly because of little to no nurturing empowers their competitors. Why look outside first when you already have a highly competitive and trained internal talent community and referral network?

Nobody wants to work in a prison. Let the Job Fair rehabilitation begin.