Written by
Stephen Fortune
ILM, a City & Guilds Group business

23 Nov 2017

Is it time to ditch 'soft skills'?

23 Nov 2017 • by Stephen Fortune

Branding skills as 'soft' severely undermines their impact on business performance. Ditch the term and focus on critical leadership behaviours.

This article is provided to Changeboard by our Future Talent 2018 partners, City & Guilds Group. You can see Chris Jones, CEO, in conversation with other business leaders at Changeboard's Future Talent Conference 2018 discussing the topic of digital inclusion.

For many of you, your L&D budget is being clawed back or is flat at best. And while you understand that training in ‘soft skills’ is necessary in order to build management capability at all levels, you’re struggling to demonstrate the business benefits they bring and secure support for ongoing investment. 

As HR and L&D professionals, we know that these are critical management and leadership skills, but their branding as ‘soft’ severely undermines their impact on business performance.  

Before I joined L&D I ran a large business sector – focusing on customer needs to grow the top line while focusing on the bottom line to secure annual profits. I will be honest here: I thought of L&D and training as a bit soft and fluffy, a “nice to have” on the budget wish list. This really came down to a lack of understanding, a lack of evidence, and the name.

Twelve years later, I have been enlightened and I firmly believe that the solution is two-fold: giving ‘soft skills’ a new name, and measuring their impact as we would with any other investment.

Elevating the status of 'soft skills' 

Shakespeare’s Romeo ponders if a rose would smell as sweet if it were named something else. In the case of ‘soft skills’, their essence will be the same regardless of name.

But, a new title that emphasises their weight on business success will elevate their status and encourage those approving the budget to take them seriously. Ideas have been thrown around for several years now: interpersonal skills, leadership skills, critical skills. Communications guru Seth Godin even proposes ‘real skills’. Perhaps ‘human skills’, ‘essential behaviours’ or ‘business relationship skills’ might work? I’d love to hear your ideas.

If you are serious about investing in your future leaders, you need to think about how you position your offering and the business benefits internally to get the budget you need.

So, I encourage you to find a new name and use it yourself. When this new, more appropriate, name has been chosen the challenge will be to embed it in your organisation’s lexicon and eradicate the use of ‘soft skills’ entirely.

Linking skills training and business performance

We intuitively know that it’s important to measure the success of any training we deploy, but collectively we aren’t terribly good at making a direct link between the investment of ‘soft skills’ training and business performance.

A study found that 69% of those involved in providing manager development say their leadership doesn’t see an extremely strong link between effective manager training and business performance. (Root, 2015)

Measurement of the impact of ‘soft skills’ training at a personal level, like staff satisfaction and individual and team confidence, is essential.

However, for this to be seen as a lever to improve the business performance, it needs to be measured against higher, overall business objectives.

And it’s not that it can’t be done – people just aren’t investing the same time and effort collecting this information as they would for technical training.

This measurement needs to be started up front before training takes place. Sit down with your training supplier and ask how you are going to measure success, being sure to define what this success looks like in quantitative terms related to overall business objectives – increased productivity, reduced staff turnover, increased profits or customer satisfaction.

In this way, the client and supplier work together for mutual benefit: the supplier knows what impact the course is having and if any changes need to be made, and the client can justify the expenditure to the board.

Measurement doesn’t have to be complicated, either. In addition to 360s, interviews and staff satisfaction surveys, make a point of collecting information on business performance (sales, productivity, client satisfaction, staff turnover) before, and at intervals after, ‘soft skills’ training. This allows you to correlate any improvements in business metrics with the training you’ve implemented.

How can I show return on investment?

Looking at this situation from a more positive perspective, where we demonstrate the business impact of investing in these critical skills we will see managers doing these top 10 things:

  1. Grasping the nettle to have the conversations that need to be had about dysfunctional behaviour, resulting in improved performance by the team and the business
  2. Knowing how to build trust and engagement resulting in engaged people who are willing to give discretionary time and effort and have a sense of organisational purpose
  3. Providing clarity through simple tools of communication and storytelling
  4. Being skilful at delegating, managing performance of others and managing their own time
  5. Feeling comfortable giving feedback in a very human way and linking the feedback to expected behaviours and outcomes
  6. Stepping up to have those difficult conversations and thereby avoiding escalating issues to senior managers and HR, freeing up everyone’s time
  7. Knowing what motivates people and how to get the best from every single team member
  8. Being brilliant at creating high performing teams who focus on accountability and business results
  9. Coaching their staff to develop for the future – the number one desired skills capability for front-line managers (according to senior executives)
  10. Developing themselves into the future Leaders of the organisation – the number one issue for CEOs.

Being good at ‘soft skills’ is hard. Getting investment to train people in these essential skills is even harder – and isn’t helped by a fluffy name and a lack of hard data to back up their impact on business performance.

As an HR or L&D professional, it’s time to ditch ‘soft skills’ and promote a set of key behaviours that make a quantifiable difference to an organisation’s performance.


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ILM, a City & Guilds Group business