Be Soft, Be Strong: Understanding Soft Skills

Be Soft, Be Strong: Understanding Soft Skills

Soft skills have too long been seen by decision-makers as a desirable luxury, compared to the hard technical skills which were once perceived as the ‘bread and butter’ of business. Now, however, we’re all waking up to the fact that the new world of 21st century business makes soft skills – including emotional intelligence, adaptability, creativity and innovation – absolutely indispensable.

Creating a culture of excellence around soft skills is the only way companies will thrive in a complex economic landscape. The world of work has changed beyond recognition and continues to change at a rapid pace. When technology changes year by year, the ’hard’ skills you learn one year are obsolete the next. That is why every worker needs the capacity to adapt: the key trait at the heart of every good soft skills training programme.

James Caan CBE and McDonalds UK are currently leading a high-profile campaign to re-evaluate the UK’s approach to soft skills. Supporters include Tesco, the Duke of Edinburgh Award, Pearson, Mencap, AON, the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the National Youth Agency, Barclays, City & Guilds and LearnDirect.

McDonalds UK commissioned research for this campaign that showed soft skills – such as communication, teamwork and time management – contribute £88 billion to the national economy, a figure projected to rise to £109 billion by 2020 (Development Economics Ltd, January 2015). Without a doubt, there really are hard costs attached when soft skills are neglected.

There is a general mood of frustration in business over the difficulties caused by young people (whether graduates, apprentices or standard employees) entering the workplace without the skills needed to perform at even a basic level (indeed, these frustrations led us to set up Flying Start XP).

Greg Hewitt, Director of Rock Oil Lubricants, told BBC Radio 4 in early 2017 that the one thing he would ask Prime Minister Theresa May in her review of the UK’s post-Brexit industrial strategy would be ‘that she is going to give me a skilled workforce for the future, so that when people are coming in here they’re going to have skills which I can put to use from day one, not from six to nine months down the line’.

Mr Hewitt is not the only one concerned. Recent research shows:

  • SCHOOL-LEAVERS LACK BASIC WORKPLACE SKILLS: more than 80% of British school-leavers require “significant training” before being able to work effectively. The top areas of weakness for new recruits are people skills and business skills (Chartered Institute of Management, 2015).
  • BUSINESS LEADERS ARE WORRIED ABOUT THE SOFT SKILLS DEFICIT: 97% of employers believe soft skills are important to their current business success – and more than half rate them more highly than academic qualifications – but three-quarters believe there is already a soft skills gap in the UK workforce (Development Economics Ltd, January 2015). A PwC annual global survey of CEOs for 2016 found that 77% were concerned about skills shortages, with the most sought-after skills being creativity and innovation, leadership, and emotional intelligence.
  • THE UK NEEDS TO ADDRESS SOFT SKILLS: we are in a weak position going forward: economists project that over half a million workers will be significantly impeded by a lack of soft skills by 2020 (Development Economics Ltd, January 2015).
  • BRITISH WORKERS STRUGGLE TO UNDERSTAND THE RELEVANCE OF SOFT SKILLS: One in five UK employees would not feel confident describing their soft skills to an employer and more than half (54%) have never included soft skills on their CV (YouGov Plc, September 2014). High-performing graduates struggle to describe their own skill sets effectively to employers, suggesting confidence and employability issues.

Teaching the right soft skills: tools vs behaviours

Soft skills are not just about public speaking, teamwork or being a good leader (although those things are certainly very important). Soft skills are the personal qualities that allow people to operate strategically so they can succeed in their goals at work.

Soft skills ‘encompass an individual’s ability to listen well, to communicate effectively, to be positive, to manage conflict, accept responsibility, show respect, build trust, work well with others, manage time effectively, accept criticism, work under pressure, be likeable, and to demonstrate good manners’ (Todd Smith, Little Things Matter, 2010). Easy, right?

Approaching soft skills is perhaps less overwhelming if you group them into two camps: the tools employees use to perform, and the behaviours that underly everything they do, and which will determine their successes and failures.

Our belief is that (whilst we can and do help with tools and techniques), if you get the behaviours right, the tools will fall into place painlessly. If they are embedded through practice and understanding, these behaviours can be recalled easily when challenging situations arise. So yes, it can be easy.

Basically, young people need confidence, self-awareness and the ability to read situations and understand people. Once they have had the chance to develop those qualities in themselves, they’ll pitch confidently, they’ll ask for help with their presentations when it’s really needed, they’ll contribute usefully in a meeting and they’ll make sure they know what you want from a key report.

It’s certainly important to teach public speaking, presentation skills, meeting skills, report-writing and how to pitch an idea. If you shift your thinking and teach workplace behaviours, however, there will be a long-term positive change in your company, as everyone from the bottom up starts to think like a leader, with a personal investment in your business’ success.

Teaching the right soft skills means, as our founder James Prior put it in a recent interview, that young people will know ‘how to work a room, how to network and read situations and people to their own and the company’s best advantage’, and will know how to ‘walk in the shoes of a client and anticipate and understand their requirements from a business perspective’. It isn’t something that your company can afford to get wrong.

It takes courage to change the way we do things, but if the facts are indisputable then it’s time to take action. Accelerate your apprentices’ and graduates’ learning by challenging what you have always done and discover a quicker and more powerful solution. Save on money and time and make sure you’re leading the way.

Flying Start XP works with companies and individuals to deliver training courses designed to help young people by rapidly instilling the essential business skills and behaviours needed to become a valued team player. This enables managers to delegate and trust early starters quicker. We know investing in and developing early careers delivers long-term results.

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