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Graham Baragwanath, Managing Partner (fmr.), Deloitte Consulting Canada

The Human Element in Bridging the Soft Skills Gap

The Human Element In Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: What Role Are You Going to Play?

What role are you – and other leaders in your organization– going to play in bridging the soft skills gap?

If you are leading, managing, or supervising any person on any project for any period of time, you have an obligation to provide regular guidance, direction, support and coaching to that person on every aspect of that person’s performance – including that person’s performance on high priority soft skills behaviors. The problem is that it’s so easy —in the day to day grind of work— to back-burner these issues. Most managers don’t spend much time talking with their employees about their soft skills development, unless they are dealing with a specific instance of failure. Right? When do managers most often talk with their direct-reports about matters of self-management or critical thinking or people skills? When an employee is late or dressed inappropriately or loses something or fails to follow through or makes a ‘stupid’ mistake’ or curses at the wrong time or has a conflict with a customer or a coworker… or something else that is a petty failure.

That’s why managers often say things like, “Do I really have to talk to my employees about these things? They are adults. They should already know how to manage themselves and solve problems and play well with others.” Sorry. You really have no choice. If you are in charge of anybody, then it is part of your job.

At the very least, you must build it in to your regular management routine: Talk about the high priority soft skills in team meetings and talk about them in your ongoing one-on-one dialogue with every single person you manage. Focus on the high priority behaviors in your organization, your team, in each role, or those that are particular focal points for particular individuals. Trumpet the broad performance standards regularly. Just like every other aspect of performance, build it in to your team communications and talk about it on a regular basis in your one-on-one dialogues: Require it. Measure it. Reward people when they do it. Hold people to account when they don’t.

Managers often ask me, “At what point can I back off on giving them so much attention?” My answer: “Whenever you want to start losing that employee’s best efforts.”

Surely some young employees need more attention than others. But they all need your attention. The superstars want to be recognized and rewarded, but they also want managers who are in a position to help them do more, better, and faster and earn more for their hard work. Low performers are the only ones who don’t want their managers’ attention, but they need it more than anyone. And mediocre performers —the vast majority of employees who are somewhere in the middle of the performance spectrum— often they don’t know what they want from a manager. But the fastest way to turn a mediocre performer into a low performer is to leave that person alone without any guidance, direction, support or coaching. Your job is to lift up all those employees and help them do more work, faster, and better every step of the way. Not just because that’s good for business, but also because continuous improvement is the key to keeping young workers focused and motivated.

Second wave Millennials (Gen Zers) want managers who know who they are, know what they are doing, and are in a position to help. They want managers who spend enough time with them to teach them the tricks and the shortcuts, warn them of pitfalls, and help them solve problems. They want managers who are strong enough to support them through bad days and counsel them through difficult judgment calls. They want to know you are keeping track of their successes and helping them get better and better every day.

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