There are certain soft skills every leader needs – no matter their leadership style. What are soft skills? And why are they soft? I always thought of soft skills like a gruff sailor would look at soft hands – wimpy and weak and belonging to someone who never worked. And, if there are soft skills, are there hard skills?
Yes. Hard skills tend to be easy to measure. Your ability to program in a language, your typing speed, your fluency in a foreign language, your degree in Computer Science with a GPA, etc. In other words, you can easily prove you have specific hard skills.
Soft skills are mostly about dealing with people – including yourself. They are soft because they are hard to measure proficiency. We know them when we see them. If you are not convinced you need soft skills, check out my previous article on the need for soft skills when moving from engineer or technology expert into leadership.
The number one soft skill is leadership – but since leadership is dependent on how well you do others, you will need to start with some basics in the following 5 soft skills every leader needs.
1. Understanding the Difference between Efficiency and Effectiveness
This is a soft skill I never see listed anywhere. However, if you are coming from the view of an engineer or technology expert, this one is critical.
We are used to thinking about getting more done with less. Shorter time, lower power, fewer resources, etc. So we look at work the same way. We want to just get it done. Or, we want to be efficient. But with people, this does not work. I realized this when I read the words of Steven Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People.
“You simply can’t think efficiency with people. You think effectiveness with people and efficiency with things.”
People are complex and have different styles. Two team members might react totally different to a change in a project. One might say OK and move on. The other might have a ton of issues, worries, concerns about it – even thinking the change means their job is going away. One conversation takes a lot longer than the other.
Both are fine. Both people might deliver great results. They just have different styles. They have different needs.
My desire is to have each conversation in 1-5 minutes. My reality – to be effective – is that one might take 30-60 minutes.
That is just people. And without people, I have no team. And without a team, nothing gets done, And if nothing gets done, I am not leading.
2. Effective Communication
Communication is the killer app. The number one challenge with people is poor communication. It is true at work, in non-profits, at church, and in families. We too often assume what others know and think. A whole lot of anger and bitterness is the result of unmet expectations – usually expectations that were never stated in the first place.
To become a better communicator:
- Ask. First, make sure you understand. This is very true in projects at work. Often we do not know what the real goal is, the real timeline or the expectations. I always like to ask “What does a successful outcome look like?” Often when I ask, I am met with blank stares. They have not thought it out. Now we can talk.
- Be clear on what you will deliver and when.
- When you cannot deliver or will under deliver, let others know immediately.
- Prepare for meetings and be ready to be present and concise.
- Be to the point. When writing emails – make sure the point is seen on the main screen if they are reading it on their iPhone.
- Write and speak less and communicate more.
- Draw pictures and diagrams to communicate ideas.
- Ask others if they understand what you are saying. Listen while they repeat it back and make sure.
3. Team Work
Even the simplest of projects takes more than 1 person. Complex projects like delivering or supporting products and services take a multitude of people. The biggest single challenge for companies and leaders is about teams. People seem to overall not work well together.
To be a solid team player is not a magic skill. You just need to think about others, getting the job done, and how you and your team members can get it done best.
Hints to Improve Team Work:
- Get to know your team. You do not have to be best friends but know them enough to know what is on their heart and what concerns them most.
- Realize everyone has a different style. Not better or worse – just different. Some people like to talk through details, others just want the facts.
- Before you meet with the team or even one team member, think through what you want to happen and what they need from you to make it happen. For instance, if you are meeting with a detailed thinker, they need to see the numbers and details so they understand it better. Know what they need and be ready.
- Before going into team meetings – prepare. Knowing the styles and needs of others will help you prepare.
- Ask for advice from your team. Everyone likes to be asked for advice. As long as you learn from it and do not ask the same question over and over.
- Seek to help them do their job better. What can you do that makes their job easier.
- Be on time. Deliver on time, show up to meetings on time. Everyone hates to wait.
4. Motivating People
Motivating might mean encouraging them. You will be a motivator to everyone, those on your team, those who you lead, and to those who lead you. A motivator quickly becomes a leader.
Hints to Help Motivate:
- Be a good team player. See above.
- Know what the overall mission of the team or task is and be able to state it. A lot of frustration comes from lack of clarity about what you are all trying to accomplish. If you do not know, as the team lead, or your leadership. Everyone hates working on things when they are not clear what the purpose of the work is.
- Repeat the mission to those around you. When things get tough- remind everyone what we are trying to get done here. Often we get into the weeds.
- Be an eternal optimist. I know – this will be a stretch for some – but try it. Assume that we can get it done and tell them that. Others might balk at first, but keep saying it and working toward it.
- Thank them. When someone else delivers for you, thank them. Even in the small things. Surveys in corporations show that people do not feel underpaid, they feel underappreciated. You do not need a party or a trophy to feel appreciated – sometimes you just need a thank you. Say it – and mean it.
- Remember your leaders. Even they need motivation – so treat them like you would those on your team or those you lead.
5. Communicate a Vision
I know it sounds simple – pay them more and they will do what you want. But – you might have limited power over the money. This is good because the pay is not a great motivator. In Drive, Daniel Pink shares the 3 things that motivate people – and pay is not one of them (once they are over a certain level of income – which most are). What does motivate people is being part of something that matters and having some control over their own work.
When you are leading, you have to be able to state why something matters. What is the bigger issue you are working to solve together?
You are communicating a vision. We make vision out to be something abstract – but often it is simple. In one corporate position I held, my job was to track performance in our group so we could show the financial impact to the company. A simple idea.
Once I communicated the idea to others, people started helping – not because I was a great leader – but because they felt this vision and mission was important to them.
I had no authority over the team, they just wanted to be part of something that mattered to them.
Other Leadership Soft Skills
The big ones I have already listed. They are big because they are challenging. There are other soft skills every leader needs, but they can be developed over time are:
Executive Presence (looking and acting like a leader)
A Willingness to Learn and Grow
I will get to those later.
Footnote: We all know we need soft skills for leadership. When new students come into our Engineering Management program, they tell us that soft skills are where they are weak and what they need to learn. Dealing with people, leadership, communication. They ask for the 5 soft skills every leader needs. So I know – you get it.