Saturday 24 March 2018

Message is clear: soft skills are critical part of success

Here in the business world, it's high time to get serious about soft skills.
Here in the business world, it's high time to get serious about soft skills.

Gina London

It's back to school week for the kids. While we prepare to deal with the school-run surge in morning traffic, my daughter Lulu and the rest of Ireland's students are (blessedly) preparing to sling on their book bags again.

Which reminds me, I spoke last Tuesday to a group of HR directors from an assortment of top tech companies including McKesson, VM Ware, Logitech and Red Hat. Why do these professionals remind me of schoolchildren? Because we grown-up employees have a lot in common with not-yet-grown-up pupils.

The HR directors shared some of the biggest issues employees say they're facing. Top concerns centred around well-being and communications. They're connected - and they're issues children face as well.

When I lived in Italy, Lulu went to Aliotti, the most progressive primary school in town. There, under the guidance of director Donata Baroni and English instructor Pavlina Checcacci, students are taught so-called 'soft-skills' alongside other subjects as part of core curriculum. "You can't teach only knowledge anymore," Pavlina says. "Twenty years ago, you went to university and studied a subject like engineering. The methodologies didn't change for about every 10 years. Now it's every five years. So, when you get out of school, what you learned is already out of date. Today, we need people who can communicate. That makes the difference.

"If two people have the same amount of knowledge, yet one also has soft skills and the other one does not, the difference in their success is significant. Your success in business starts in primary school," Pavlina says.

Likewise, here in Ireland, John Doran, guidance counsellor at Patrician Secondary School in Newbridge, is championing his own approach called 'Ways to Wellbeing', which, he says, "encourages students to adopt a growth mindset and to communicate with confidence". It is currently being taught in 120 schools in Ireland and Europe. "If we don't consciously teach young people to communicate, find their voice and create a literacy around emotional intelligence, we may end up with a generation in a fast-changing world that is unemployed, under-employed, or unemployable," John states.

Here in the business world, it's high time to get serious about soft skills. They're not soft, they're critical. So, for today's back-to-school edition of 'The Communicator', let's compare some student approaches to what we can do in our own professional lives.

1 Learn to give and receive constructive feedback

Here's an example from Aliotti: Each child draws a picture. The artwork is put up on the wall. Each child is given a Post-it note and instructed to write one thing they like about the picture, one suggestion of what to do differently next time and then another thing they like. The classic "compliment sandwich". At an early age and with a distinct twist. The children aren't allowed to simply write something they "don't like" in the middle. They must frame the criticism as a suggestion for the future. Each artist reads the feedback aloud and thanks the writers. It's structured and it's a big deal. Imagine how more effective our business meeting de-briefs would be if we had all learned, as children, how to organise our thoughts this way. Productivity would surely increase if we spent less time getting personally offended and defensive from feedback. Learning not to punish the past but empower the future is a trademark of effective communicators.

2 Learn to work in groups

The HR directors who gathered at McKesson Cork's remodelled offices, checked out the new "collaboration pods" - designed to get employees away from individual work stations and come together as teams. More and more firms are updating work environments this way. Similarly, John's 'Ways to Wellbeing' programme encourages group sharing for his students and Aliotti's Pavlina says they're committed to stop requiring children to work quietly alone. "When in your life will you sit in a room of 30 adults and not take opportunities to discuss things? We can't prepare kids for a reality that doesn't exist."

3 Learn to be kind to others and yourself

Studies show the number one factor in team effectiveness is emotional sensitivity to the others. Learning empathy is key because effective teams make sure everyone speaks and contributes to get a lot of ideas on the table and build consensus around the best idea.

Ways to Wellbeing, too, stresses techniques to help develop more positive and constructive relationships. "We help them change their emotional state from one of fear and anxiety to one of effort and application," says John.

4 Learn how to learn from your mistakes

Aliotti concentrates less on grades and more on the process of problem-solving. Pavlina puts it this way: "Life is all about the mistakes and errors and learning from them. So, we don't just correct tests, we ask questions like 'What did you do? Why did you do that? What can you do differently next time?' We find the child who gets perfect grades and never makes mistakes may actually have difficulty as they get older. Children who learn how to try again and again may have an advantage."

Top university business schools like Stanford and Harvard are also adding highly interactive classes and exercises to develop these types of people to people skills. Your place of employment can introduce them too. After all, we're all students in this school called life.

Is your company doing things to help you learn empathy and other advantage-creating "soft-skills"? Tell me and I can spread the word here! Write to Gina in care of Gina London is a former CNN anchor and international campaign strategist who is now a director with Fuzion Communications. She serves as media commentator, emcee and corporate consultant. @TheGinaLondon

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