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The Hard Truth About Soft Skills

Among the most valued credential for today’s aspiring business professional is feeling comfortable in your own skin.  And yet when you look at the core courses of an MBA program, you’re hard-pressed to find a required class on emotional intelligence, collaboration, creativity, or leadership.  To be sure, soft skill courses have long been a staple of second-year electives, but their importance has never been greater.

There are five factors that I believe are fueling the rise of soft skills:

  1. Horizontal organizational structures are replacing traditional hierarchical models and installing more decision-making authority at a local level.  Much of that authority rests within teams where collaboration and leadership are essential.
  2. Artificial Intelligence and advances in computing are consuming more of the rote tasks that once employed legions of back-office personnel, pushing employees towards the front office where good communication and interpersonal skills are prerequisites.
  3. An increase in the complexities of our fast-paced, dynamic global economy demands new ideas and approaches.  Today’s problem solvers must be creative, open-minded thinkers willing to embrace a diversity of thought as well as gender and cultural diversity.
  4. A move towards corporate outsourcing and a rise in the number of contingent workers, aka independent consultants. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that by 2020 40% of the workforce will be defined as contingent workers.  Most independent contractors operate as small business owners who rely on a multitude of skills to win their next assignment, not the least of which include sales, communication and collaboration.
  5. An increase in “job hoppers.” Long gone are the days when workers enjoyed lifetime employment.  The BLS predicts today’s workers will have 14 jobs over the course of their careers, nearly half of them occurring before age 30.  In an attempt to attain more career options and greater financial certainty, today’s new entrants, particularly Millennial, are changing jobs more frequently and amassing technical skills at a much faster rate than previous generations. Along the way, they are also perfecting their soft skills and leapfrogging those without them.

Professional recruiters, like athletic scouts, scour the landscape in search of the next superstar – someone whose natural ability reveals itself upon first sight.  Not too long ago, the prototypical central casting CEO was a six foot two male. But ever since Michael Lewis’ 2004 book, Money Ball, and the 2011 movie by the same name, we’ve come to accept that our eyes are not always the best judge of one’s potential.  The genius revealed by Lewis is the idea that talent comes in many different shapes and sizes.

Regardless of our innate abilities, studies have shown that when it comes to executive presence and soft skills, much can be learned.  So, don’t let poor interpersonal or communications skills keep you from joining a winning team.  The corner office may be closer than you think.

Tim Landers

Categories: MBA