The Human Element in Bridging the Soft Skills Gap

Excerpt from “Bridging the Skills Gap: Teaching the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent” by Bruce Tulgan (Wiley, September 2015).

Whether you are in a large complex organization with lots of resources or a tiny business where you are the chief cook and bottle washer, the most important element in bridging the soft skills gap is the human element.

If you are not an active champion of high-priority soft skills behaviors in your sphere of influence and authority, then you can be sure that the young talent in your midst will not buy in. If key leaders are not walking the talk—and talking the walk—Gen Zers will simply roll their eyes at the best slogans and logos. No matter how vividly clear the messaging and training has been throughout the hiring and onboarding process—even if key soft skill behaviors are part of their individual performance plans—if their leaders do not emulate the high-priority behaviors themselves and emphasize them in their day-to-day management, Gen Zers will not believe the organization is serious. As much as they may seem to take their cues from peers or online sources, you can be sure they will take their cues about what aspects of performance really matter from the authority figures with whom they interact most.

Sure, you need to get your young employees to own their soft skills learning process and make available lots easy-to-use online resources so they can pursue their own self-directed learning. But that doesn’t let you off the hook. You have to spend time with them—in person whenever possible—to lead them to the purposeful self-directed learning and you need to spend time with them during the intervals between their self-directed learning sessions.

Remember: Gen Zers love grown-ups. They prefer to have a real person in the real world who is investing in their learning and growth—a real-life grown-up who is engaging with them, holding them accountable, and recognizing their success every step of the way. More important, the very nature of soft skills is such that they are very hard to develop without the help of another human being who can serve as an objective third-party observer and source of candid feedback. Ideally, that human being would be one who is a bit older and more experienced, perhaps one with greater influence and authority—one who can provide guidance, direction, and support.

What role are you—and other leaders in your organization—going to play in bridging the soft skills gap?

If you are leading, managing, or supervising any person on any project for any period of time, you have an obligation to provide regular guidance, direction, support, and coaching to that person on every aspect of that person’s performance—including that person’s performance on high-priority soft skills behaviors. The problem is that it’s so easy—in the day-to-day grind of work—to back-burner these issues. Most managers don’t spend much time talking with their employees about their soft skills development, unless they are dealing with a specific instance of failure. Right? When do managers most often talk with their direct reports about matters of self-management or critical thinking or people skills? When an employee is late or dressed inappropriately or loses something or fails to follow through or makes a “stupid’ mistake” or curses at the wrong time or has a conflict with a customer or a coworker… or something else that is a petty failure.

That’s why managers often say things like, “Do I really have to talk to my employees about these things? They are adults. They should already know how to manage themselves and solve problems and play well with others.” Sorry. You really have no choice. If you are in charge of anybody, then it is part of your job.

At the very least, you must build it in to your regular management routine: Talk about the high-priority soft skills in team meetings and talk about them in your ongoing one-on-one dialogue with every single person you manage. Focus on the high-priority behaviors in your organization, your team, in each role, or those that are particular focal points for particular individuals. Trumpet the broad performance standards regularly. Just like every other aspect of performance, build it into your team communications and talk about it on a regular basis in your one-on-one dialogues: Require it. Measure it. Reward people when they do it. Hold people to account when they don’t.

Managers often ask me, “At what point can I back off on giving them so much attention?” My answer: “Whenever you want to start losing that employee’s best efforts.”

Surely some young employees need more attention than others. But they all need your attention. The superstars want to be recognized and rewarded, but they also want managers who are in a position to help them do more, better, and faster and earn more for their hard work. Low performers are the only ones who don’t want their managers’ attention, but they need it more than anyone. And mediocre performers—the vast majority of employees who are somewhere in the middle of the performance spectrum—often don’t know what they want from a manager. But the fastest way to turn a mediocre performer into a low performer is to leave that person alone without any guidance, direction, support, or coaching. Your job is to lift up all those employees and help them do more work, faster, and better every step of the way. Not just because that’s good for business, but also because continuous improvement is the key to keeping young workers focused and motivated.

Second wave Millennials (Gen Zers) want managers who know who they are, know what they are doing, and who are in a position to help. They want managers who spend enough time with them to teach them the tricks and the shortcuts, warn them of pitfalls, and help them solve problems. They want managers who are strong enough to support them through bad days and counsel them through difficult judgment calls. They want to know you are keeping track of their successes and helping them get better and better every day.

Excerpt from “Bridging the Skills Gap: Teaching the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent” by Bruce Tulgan (Wiley, September 2015). For more information, visit http://www.amazon.com/Bridging-Soft-Skills-Gap-Missing/dp/1118725646

Based in New Haven, CT, Bruce Tulgan is a leading expert on young people in the workplace. He is an advisor to business leaders all over the world, the author or coauthor of numerous books, including the classic, “Managing Generation X” (1995); best-seller “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” (2007); “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy’ (2009); “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014); and Bridging the Skills Gap (2015). Since founding management training firm RainmakerThinking in 1993, he has been a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. Follow him on twitter @brucetulgan. He can be reached at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com.

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