I have learned a ton of things over my time in the workplace. Perhaps no lesson was more transformational than the importance of "soft skills" versus "hard skills." Always being the solid student and top technician, I entered the workplace believing that my technical skills would hold the keys to my success. Nothing could have been further from the truth. For clarity, let's differentiate between hard and soft skills:
- Hard skills are those technical skills that are required to complete your job. They're the ability of an accountant to understand the income statement, balance sheet, and cash-flow statement. They're the ability of the engineer to use a computer-aided design package as well as an HP 12C. They're the ability of a graphic artist to use Photoshop. They're those skills that you learn in school or the classroom. And without these skills, you will have much difficulty being productive in the traditional sense.
- Soft skills are those skills that allow you to interact effectively with others. They're the ability to speak clearly, write clearly, work as a team member, keep confidences, and stand up for what's right. They're the skills that you learned outside the classroom.
As a leader, it's the soft skills that make all of the difference in the world. You can be the best technician on the face of the planet—but, if you cannot effectively interact with others, you'll never be a successful leader. Furthermore, the higher your leadership aspirations are, the more important these skills become.
There's a classic HBR article on this topic called "Skills of an Effective Administrator." It's written by Robert Katz and was published in 1974. In it, Katz defines three critical dimensions for success of an administrator: technical, conceptual, and interpersonal. He puts forward the premise that, in order to be effective in the workplace, you need to possess skills in each of these dimensions. I could not agree more; however, in my experience it's the conceptual and interpersonal skills that define leaders.
Katz isn't the only one to highlight the importance of soft skills. Earlier, I mentioned one of my all- time favorite books, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie’s book is a case study of life. It's a compendium of rules based on his experiences interacting with other people. I can't think of any better place to start if you're looking to develop your soft skills.
Folks, I have been in countless meetings where decisions on promotions, demotions, and staff reductions were made. Without fail, these decisions are made based on the soft skills and not the hard skills. The hard skills may get you in the door, but the soft skills are going to dictate how long you stay there and how high you rise. As a leader, you need to develop your personal soft skills and make sure that your team is receiving appropriate guidance on how to do the same.
One "soft skill" that I've had difficulty learning is knowing when to shut up. I'm closing off this chapter now, as there's no reason for me to explain what Carnegie does so brilliantly. Buy the book. Read it. Use it.
ACTION ITEM 18 - Pick up a copy of Dale Carnegie’s "How to Win Friends and Influence People" and read it. Alternately, you can get a one page summary of it here.
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