Unlocking the Power of Soft Skills

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

Show me an organization with a strong, positive corporate culture and I will show you an organization that is very clear about exactly which soft skill behaviors are high priority and sings about those high-priority behaviors from the rooftops often. They don’t just focus on their young talent, of course, but their emphasis on key soft skill behaviors makes everybody in the organization much better—even the youngest, least experienced employees. To make it easy for you to picture, I’ll ask you to think of the United States Marine Corps or Disney. Both organizations, in very different lines of work, employ a lot of young people and both famously imbue a huge number of the soft skill behaviors in their workforce. There are many other examples:

  • There is a quick service restaurant chain that stands out as the very best in every single market in which it operates: Its employees, from top to bottom, of all ages, are always super clean cut, wearing tidy uniforms, prompt and attentive, excessively polite, and always going the extra mile to ensure quality and service. I always jokingly reference “Ned Flanders” from The Simpsons—the “goody goody” next door neighbor—when I’m describing the personnel in this organization. Everybody who works there is like “Ned Flanders.” The organization is surely not a model of diversity, but it is a model of incredible soft skills throughout the organization. Whether you like Ned Flanders or not, you could see how he would do a great job in a role where what matters most is cleanliness, fresh hot food, and great customer service. Right?
  • There is a rental car chain that is consistently rated the best and also has been the most profitable and fastest growing for years on end. Why? Self-presentation. Quality. Teamwork. Initiative. Problem solving.
  • There is a health care system where key metrics—wait time in emergency rooms, cost per care incident, safety, patient satisfaction, etc.—far surpass those of comparable hospitals. The reason is its incessant focus on a handful of high-priority behaviors among health-care delivery personnel: Pace. Quality. Decision-making. Teamwork. Service.

These powerful corporate cultures don’t just happen. They are the result of an organization that knows exactly what its high-priority behaviors are, focuses on them relentlessly, and systematically drives those behaviors throughout the organization in all of its human capital management practices. When it works, it really works.

To be clear, these organizations do not necessarily use the same terms for key behaviors as they are named and described in our competency model. But if you drill down, you will see the same key soft skill behaviors recurring over and over again, underpinning these powerful cultures.

Most organizations with powerful cultures develop their own poignant language and symbols—slogans and logos—internally and externally. Of course, the best organizations align their employer branding with their branding in the consumer marketplace. Slogans and logos—branding—with compelling messages are an important part of creating the shared meaning in an organization that helps define the culture. But it takes a whole lot more than slogans and logos to drive a powerful culture.

I’ve worked with some organizations that are all talk and no action when it comes to culture. They have great slogans, but they do not drive and support and reward key behaviors among employees that are in alignment with the messages. When employees have regular run-ins with customers because management has very strict policies against merchandise exchanges and returns, then it really doesn’t matter how many placards there are in the store that say, “The customer is always right!” The slogans start to sound pretty empty.

I’ve also worked with organizations in which the leadership gets very serious about changing their corporate culture—all of a sudden. It’s as if these leaders have an epiphany and realize what they’ve been missing and decide they want a strong positive culture and they want it now. They want culture change overnight, by decree: “From now on, our culture will be ___________!” Fill in the blank: “honesty!” “teamwork!” “innovation!” But you can’t force culture change overnight. It takes time because behavior change takes time.

Of course, there are also plenty of leaders who pay no attention to corporate culture whatsoever. I’ve had many senior executives tell me, “It was never an issue before these Millennials came along. Employees just did their jobs and behaved like grown-ups. Now that we have this generation gap, we are talking for the first time about our ‘culture.’”

I always tell these leaders, “Just because you have never paid any attention to culture, doesn’t mean you don’t have a corporate culture. It just means you have a culture by default instead of by design.” Every organization has a corporate culture: Your corporate culture is simply the combined web of prevailing shared beliefs, meaning, language, practices, and traditions that have developed over time between and among the people in your organization.

Take a few minutes to think: How would you describe the culture of your organization? What about your team? Are they aligned?

Is your culture by default or design?

If your organization has a strong positive culture by design, then you need to be in alignment. What are the high-priority behaviors? What are you doing in your sphere to drive and support and reward those behaviors in everything you do as a leader?

If your organization has a less than strong positive culture—or a culture by default—then it’s all up to you. You need to create your own culture within your own sphere—not just for the young talent, but for everybody. You don’t need to start a revolution. But you can be a little bit of a maverick. You certainly can be a change leader. Believe me: Your results will speak for themselves—your team will stand out, not just in its business outcomes, but in cohesiveness, morale, and retention.

What are the high-priority behaviors that are most important in your sphere? Crucial to success? Or jet fuel for competitive differentiation? Make them the foundation of your culture. Focus on them relentlessly, and systematically drive those behaviors throughout your sphere in all of your human capital management practices. Develop your own poignant language and symbols—slogans and logos. Make sure it aligns with your organization’s “brand.” Then sing it from the rooftops—make it 1,000 percent clear. And start doing everything within your power to drive and support and reward those high-priority behaviors in every employee within your sphere.

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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