Here’s Why Soft Skills Are More Important Than Technical Skills
Why We Need to “Hire the Heart and Train the Brain”
Soft skills are the backbone of leadership.
Currently, we are experiencing a genuine shortage of soft skills. Yet, the national conversation is focused on our lack of technical skills.
Technical skills do matter, and in some areas of STEM, we have a shortage of talent (while in others we have genuine surpluses). For example, software development expertise is in short supply, as is expertise related to manufacturing and skilled production.
However, our obsession with specialization and technical skill adoption has created a false divide that privileges one over the other, so much so that soft skills are discounted, dismissed, and disappearing.
As a result, soft skills are becoming more important than technical skills precisely because we aren’t paying attention to them.
Why Soft Skills Matter
“What makes someone successful in a particular role today might not tomorrow if the competitive environment shifts, the company’s strategy changes, or he or she must collaborate with or manage a different group of colleagues. So the question is not whether your company’s employees and leaders have the right skills; it’s whether they have the potential to learn new ones,” Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, “21st Century Talent-Spotting”
In a Wall Street Journal survey of over 900 executives, 92% reported soft skills, including communication, curiosity, and critical thinking are as important as technical skills. However, 89% of those same executives reported they have a very difficult or somewhat difficult time finding hires with soft skills.
Part of this problem stems from the fact that communication, curiosity, and critical thinking are harder to measure than technical skills.
It’s much easier to determine if someone can build a website than if they can navigate organizational politics. In the first case, there is a tangible product. In the second, the outcome is intangible, changeable, and depends on many factors.
Past technical experience may not transfer over to a new setting with new people. Yet if an individual cannot navigate organizational politics, that website may never get built or launched in the first place.
Executives’ struggles with these hires is not just due to the relative difficulty of spotting and measuring soft skills. There may in fact be a shortage of soft skills currently in the market. This is bad news for succession planning in leadership: leaders who retire or move on without clear replacements place their businesses at risk.
Still, we tend to put IQ (intelligence quotient) above other forms of intelligence like EQ (emotional quotient) and CQ (curiosity quotient) when we talk about what makes for top-performers or desirable hires.
But EQ and CQ play major roles in great leadership.
Individuals with high EQ are less likely to experience stress and anxiety, which allows them to manage high-pressure situations and make consistently good decisions. High EQ also indicates strong interpersonal skills, which are essential to managing teams, collaborating with peers and colleagues, and building beneficial relationships.
In a service-based economy that is increasingly automating technical tasks but reserving relationship-based responsibilities for humans, EQ is essential for nearly every worker. It governs human interaction.
CQ is similarly associated with great leadership. Individuals with high CQ are creative, inventive, and better equipped to tolerate ambiguity. Predictably, high CQ correlates with a larger investment in education and expertise over time. This is actually not the same as IQ, which measures raw intelligence but not the drive to seek out more knowledge.
EQ and CQ are critical not only to individual performance, but to overall company performance as well.
High-EQ leadership fosters a better company culture, which results in happier employees, better talent retention, and more overall collaboration. High CQ leadership breeds innovation and an entrepreneurial mindset, which creates opportunities for new tools, processes, inventions, and even spin-outs that make businesses more sustainable, competitive, and likely to remain relevant.
Hire the Heart and Train the Brain
After writing Forget Specialists Vs. Generalists — Hire Learners, I received responses from people in different industries, roles, and career stages all reiterating the same point: find people who are good for culture and have great learning potential.
I don’t discount technical skills; I want us to look at them in tandem with soft skills.
In other words, when hiring, look for people who have the baseline set of technical skills you need to get the job done. Then, spend the rest of the time looking for EQ and CQ in the existing candidate pool.
This is how to find people who have the emotional, social, and psychological characteristics that will elevate your organization (the heart) and the ability to learn the intellectual characteristics (the brain).
So, how do you hire the heart?
Jessica Tenuta, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer at Packback (which my firm Hyde Park Angels invested in), is an expert in identifying key soft skills and hiring for future, rather than past, performance.
At Packback, which creates AI-powered learning communities that improve critical thinking and support curiosity in college students, Jessica specifically assesses curiosity and learning growth potential alongside technical skills.
“As a growing startup, roles at our organization change frequently. That means we can’t simply optimize a hire for what we need right now, but also what we will need in the future,” said Jessica.
The first step in identifying curiosity is looking at self-disclosed curiosity, including what they are currently learning about and why.
Next, Jessica looks for traits that are correlated with curiosity. She defines these traits as:
1. Internal locus of control
2. Growth mindset
3. Ability to break down complex problems into smaller, more manageable pieces
Through rigorous in-person interviews that ask candidates to approach a business case or a technical challenge depending on the role, Jessica learns how candidates solve problems.
“If we can see that they fearlessly dove into learning about a new technology or problem, identified ways that they would want to further improve in the future, and are genuinely excited about the learnings that the experience brought them, those are great indicators of a genuine curiosity,” said Jessica.
Jessica and Packback also rely on a structured framework for conducting interviews that allows them to fully understand candidates as whole people. This framework breaks down into three rules.
1. Interviewers Talk Less Than 20% of the Time
“The more an interviewer talks, the more a candidate will learn about how to tailor their answers to suit what the interviewer wants to hear. And the more the interviewer talks, the less time you have to hear the interviewee’s answers!”
2. Ask Open-Ended Questions
Give candidates the chance to speak for themselves and surface their own examples without guiding their answers. A question like “Are you a curious person” will not give you as much useful insight into the candidate as “Explain to me the project you chose to work on and what challenges you ran into along the way.”
3. Critically Assess a Candidate’s Questions
“Are their questions surface-level or truly critical? Do they strive to understand the true weaknesses in the business, and how excited do they appear to understand them? Do they ask follow-up questions to dig in deeper to truly understand?”
Adding to Jessica’s framework, I believe crafting a master list of thoughtful questions that go beyond the surface to reveal a person’s thinking, character, and values is a necessary part of the interviewing process.
I keep a list of over 200 types of questions, including interview questions, that help me better understand people, processes, and problems. I regularly review my master list and evaluate it based on my experiences.
If some questions keep leading to superficial responses, cutting conversations short, or just not adding value, I take them off. Questions that lead to real insights and help form connections get moved to the top.
Among my favorite interview questions are:
· What is the hardest skill you ever taught yourself and why did you do it?
· How would you teach me something new right now?
· If we were in a library, which section would you gravitate to and why?
· What is your life motto?
· How do you react when team members challenge your ideas?
· How have you contributed to your own personal development?
· If you could uncover any single fact about my company, what would it be?
· What is something you could genuinely give a TED Talk about? Give me the 2-minute version.
Nurturing and Promoting Soft Skills
“Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.” ― Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
It is not enough to hire curious communicators with critical thinking skills and high EQ and CQ. We need to provide them with the resources and opportunities to sharpen their soft skills in the same way we would encourage them to get regular certifications, go to training courses, and shadow specialists to hone their technical skills.
In Drive, Daniel H. Pink identifies what individuals need in work to feel energized and motivated: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
On the flip side, an Accenture study found people leave their jobs for four main reasons. 31% leave because they don’t like their boss, another 31% because of a lack of empowerment, 35% because of internal politics, and 43% because of lack of recognition. (some listed multiple reasons, which is why those numbers add up to 139%)ßmaybe make this a footnote?
Notice that in both cases, what keeps people engaged versus what pushes them out are factors that are mostly linked to soft skills. That is why we need to make a case for developing them.
There are many ways to do this.
Stretch assignments that push employees into a diverse range of challenging and uncomfortable roles can ultimately accelerate their careers and allow for a greater sense of mastery, purpose, and empowerment. An HBR study of 823 international executives found that 71% of them cited stretch assignments as unleashing their potential.
Personalized mentoring programs foster a sense of purpose and feelings of recognition. The one-to-one approach creates personal bonds that shape culture, while also allowing for deeper learning.
At Hyde Park Angels, I have found success personally and with my direct reports through self-directed projects. I ask my employees to present themselves a core objective, like growing organic newsletter subscriptions or increasing engagement across social platforms.
Then, I ask them to create a strategy plan around it. I always provide some of the necessary resources, like examples of strategy plans, outlined ideas, or past performance data, but then I ask them to come up with totally fresh ideas, present them, and pilot them from start to finish.
If the ideas work, they get integrated into our overall approach. If they don’t, we extract key findings and either iterate or move on.
I make a point in these situations to set aside a small budget for books, online resources, and workshops to encourage knowledge acquisition as part of the process. I also make connections to others who may have expertise in the area so my employees can engage in peer-led learning.
Teams at Packback nurture and promote curiosity by trusting their team members and celebrating failure.
“Truly celebrating failure is essential to a culture of learning, because it allows people to take bigger risks and experiment without fear. We believe that curiosity flourishes in environments where the process is praised more than the solution,” said Jessica.
The failure isn’t discounted, but instead objectively studied. Packback conducts retrospectives to understand why projects failed with the intention of applying those learnings to future initiatives.
Similarly, by leading with trust, Jessica engenders a culture of autonomy where employees make their own decisions and come up with their own solutions.
“I believe that the best thing a manager can do when a team member comes to them asking for help is to apply the Socratic Method and ask a question in return, instead of giving them the answer. As a manager, I believe it is my duty to trust that the team member can solve a problem themselves and provide guidance by helping them clarify the problem, without taking ownership or accountability away from that individual.”
The best way to nurture soft skills in a changing work environment is to believe in your people.
The onus is on you to hire people you can believe in, and then create a culture that makes them feel believed in.