The value of going soft

From the April 2023 print edition

How to squeeze a dollar out of 10 cents? Irrespective of industry or market, worldwide we are constantly faced with the dilemma of getting more for less in the face of rising costs of goods and services.

Whether we are starting out in our first job, continuing professional development, or changing career paths, soft skills are essential for long-term employability. So how do we develop our soft skills?

Maria A. Greaves-Cacevski is senior category sourcing lead, indirect, at Chemtrade Logistics.


Our early childhood memories are filled with being told to ‘play nice in the sandbox.’ Early childhood educators inadvertently develop our first exposure to heterogeneous social networks within the classroom through activities advocating inclusion and diversity from a young age. In fact, market researchers have proved that lack of cooperation and trust lead to lower economic results because there is limited-to-no unity and collaboration among (team) members. As a result, soft skills in communication, collaboration, and creativity are ongoing and essential to transition from technical roles to managerial positions.

Retaining and attracting talent
Organizations are recognizing the importance of soft skills in the workforce, given the global dynamics within the market. Recent HR industry reports indicate that there is a shortage in highly skilled talent worldwide which is negatively impacting the intangible capital of organizations to retain and attract the proverbial ‘best and brightest’ while preventing burnout, as well as from fallout due to the so-called Great Resignation within the current labour force. That gap comes from the lack of formal training in skills that focus on multinational teamwork, critical thinking, and problem solving within tertiary institutions. Therefore, the talent pipeline is struggling to keep pace with cross-training interpersonal skills to develop managerial capabilities in tandem with technical skills to replace the demographic changes caused by various socioeconomic factors.

In the LinkedIn Global Talent Trends Report 2022, employees say that they are prioritizing organizations that offer upskilling. This is because the likelihood of employee retention for more than three years increased from 45 per cent to 64 per cent if given the opportunity of an internal promotion or lateral move. Modern-day managers need to develop team camaraderie,
given the challenges of hybrid work environments and the complexities of global team dynamics.

At the same time, technology enables real-time connectivity, and leaders need to have purposeful interactions both top-down and laterally to foster the open and honest sharing of ideas. Employees work better when engaged and empowered but a productive team is developed through genuine and mutual respect for each member. Soft skills are the foundation for establishing and maintaining a highly functional business unit.

Unprecedented change
The uncertainty of the present economy is driving change at an unprecedented rate. There are numerous studies that support the cost to hire right the first time and the lost productivity from high-employee turnover and low-employee morale.
The infamous quote “hire for attitude, train for skills” by Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, reinforces that importance of interpersonal attributes that are unique to each person. The longevity of a successful career is largely dependent on 15 per cent technical knowledge and 85 per cent personal qualities and traits that influence a compatible and positive work attitude. Therefore, the development of soft skills for career success should be viewed as a continuous and lifelong journey.

Although, soft skills are not customizable, there are steps that can be taken to cultivate them. These steps focus on taking accountability and responsibility for identifying any specific soft skillset that needs to be improved through exploring subjective bias with humility and through the guidance of a mentor, manager, or trusted colleague.

This first step is in itself a sign of emotional intelligence. Having emotional intelligence (EI) means that you are self-aware and motivated to critically analyze internally where there are areas for improvement within how you self-manage, as well as how you manage others.

Here are five steps that you can take on this journey:

Step One: Complete a self-assessment or ask for feedback
There are multiple free of cost online questionnaires that have short questions to analyze responses as it pertains to specific or general soft skills. Alternatively, intra-company Human Resources Learning, and Development portal may provide free access to proprietary information on soft skills assessment tools. A self-assessment tool for soft-skills is commonly used to identify areas of strength and areas to improve when interacting within team dynamic and personal development. Therefore, the ideal self-assessment tool for soft skills should have access to critical feedback on the responses and suggest strategies, courses, or techniques to strengthen or improve soft skills.

Feedback from mentors or intra-company performance management activities are secondary sources for identifying specific soft skills that can be included as part of professional development, skills training for future roles, or prioritizing the soft skills for enrichment.

The purpose of using a self-assessment tool or feedback is to reflect and evaluate soft skills objectively to set a baseline and prioritize the area(s) to focus on enhancing professional skills influencing workplace conduct towards achieving goals.

Step Two: Self-register for courses, webinars, or podcasts
Instructional guidance through course work, reading, and listening are strongly recommended to improve or strengthen specific soft skills. The available access to free online teaching and learning materials allows for flexible scheduling of professional development within a global classroom setting. Alternatively, there are options for in-person professional development through international recognized and accredited organizations who specialize in development of soft skills.

To decide the creditability of the soft skills course, webinar or podcast, a certificate or designation is not always required but there should be a metric to assess how much information you acquired over the duration of the learning experience and the offer to provide refresher or additional learning resources are indicators of a reputable learning option. The quality of the learning experience positively impacts the success in developing new skills and knowledge transfer.

The growing focus on soft-skills development worldwide, offers a plethora of options ranging in price from open educational resources (OER), open access (OA), or qualified bricks and mortar institutions that offer courses, webinars, or podcasts to support any style of learning. It is important to understand what learning medium the most effective given personal and professional timelines, other priorities, and budget constraints.

Step Three: Volunteer or seek opportunities to practice
Like technical or physical skills, to reinforce newly acquired information, it is recommended to “use it or lose it.” This concept is applicable for soft skills to continually practice. In some roles this may not be possible, so it is encouraged to seek out other opportunities to practice soft skills in volunteer roles where there is a task that requires soft skills. Stepping outside of typical role and volunteering within the community, offering to support an intra-company event or taking part in a cross-functional department project, are typical examples of real-life scenarios where soft skills can be proved and performance evaluated to assess progress.

Step Four: Give back, coach or mentor others
The continuous or repetitive use of soft skills strengthen and improve aptitude because there is a heighten level of confidence. To remain productive or to practice a newly acquired soft skill, the immediate workplace environment may not offer this exposure, nor may the current role require the desired level of soft skill expertise. It is recommended to step out of the proverbial comfort zone to engage soft skills that are not typically used in a daily role or job task. For example, those managers aspiring to become transformational leaders may consider mentorship opportunities to be mentors to new employees or to become mentees to senior leaders within the organization.

There are also numerous community initiatives that will provide a structure position to practice soft skills, such as leadership, time management, public speaking and/or communication skills. Some other examples include joining the parent-teacher school board, working on a municipal board as a committee member or chairperson, volunteer member within local chapter of industry or professional association, coaching a local sports team or reaching out to social programs that support mentorship of entrepreneurs, women, newcomers or the vulnerable groups within the population.

Step Five: Re-evaluate and ask for feedback
The cycle of continuous improvement applies to learning because there needs to a tangible metric that proves that a change has occurred, whether positive or negative. The desired outcome is a positive change whereby there is supporting proof or evidence that a soft skill has been successfully learned or developed. At which point, it is important to continue activities that engage this newly acquired soft skill while identifying a new soft skill to re-start the 5-step cycle. The point of upskilling is continually developing soft skills for career advancement.

The focus on personality traits that characterize a highly adaptable mindset with transferrable skills in communication, public speaking, conflict management, time management, teamwork, coaching, decision making, and professional ethics are in demand for the sustainable future. Supply chain professionals should develop these skills going forward, to benefit not only their own performance but that of their teams and organizations.