The Skills Your Managers Need Are All Soft

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Sep 23, 2019

Whether I was managing a five-person accounting firm or leading 500 professionals in a multi-office consulting corporation, one threat loomed that always gave me cause for concern: employee turnover.

I recognized early on that retaining talent needed to be a leadership priority. As a result, we invested in developing a culture where the engagement of employees was paramount — paying competitive salaries, offering exceptional healthcare, providing flexible hours, creating community goodwill, and sponsoring social gatherings.

We engaged experts and were assured that meeting or exceeding the needs of the newer generations in particular, would almost guarantee performance. While long-term career commitments from millennials is not generally expected, we were convinced we would be the standout firm when it came to retention.

As an accountant, I could quantify the cost to replace our stars, but the value of the leadership skills we taught them was immeasurable. We met their request for advancement opportunities, but mandated measurable training for consideration of a promotion. The leadership development program we created gave us, and them, a considerable competitive advantage.

In retrospect, not only was it smart on our part to identify and support leaders, we knew that the professionals we cultivated would be inclined to stay longer as well. Collectively, they would be more invested in their role, the product, and the services we provided.

Who you promote

In my book Building Blocks — Case Studies of a Serial Entrepreneur, I write,

“There’s a lot of discussion around whether people are born leaders or can acquire the skills they need. In my experience, it’s a mix. No one is born thinking they will be able to create a positive firm culture that trickles down from your office or fire people they’ve known for years. It takes a lot of thought to do difficult things in a thoughtful and caring way.”

Our biggest misstep is that in our society, we tend to promote individuals to management roles based upon:

  • Longevity – out of allegiance for the individual’s loyalty to the company.
  • Fear – losing an individual with potential or a dependable employee who shows up and does the job.
  • Laziness – not wanting to go through the tedious task of having to hire.
  • Achievements in a non-management role – essentially, an entry-level, support, or hourly position

Gallup Organization CEO Jim Clifton has said: “The single biggest decision you make in your job — bigger than all the rest — is who you name manager. When you name the wrong person manager, nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits—nothing.”

This creates higher turnover, less productivity, and significantly more cost to the organization. Gallup Organization concurs, “This is a flawed strategy with serious consequences for an organization’s engagement, financial performance, and long-term sustainability.”

There are two major causes of an employee’s unhappiness with their managers: poor communication and lack of engagement. And the solution is so simple: get soft.

Soft trumps hard skills

We spend copious amounts of money in the US on professional education and training — the “hard” skills, those technical, teachable skills that are necessary to do the job. Yet we repeatedly miss the mark in cultivating leaders when we fail to teach the skills that are needed in the workplace — the “soft” interpersonal skills.

Job satisfaction is achieved by, among other things, managers who take a vested interest in mentoring, inspiring, and caring about the individuals who work on their teams.

91% of human resources professionals surveyed by LinkedIn believe soft skills are very important for the future of recruiting. In its 2019 trends report, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) stated that workplace soft skills are important for the future or recruiting talent and exceedingly valuable for competitive organizations.

LinkedIn’s 2018 Workforce Report found that the four most in-demand soft skills are leadership, communication, collaboration, and time management. I’d add that difficult conversations, constructive feedback, and delegation be included.

Managers and engagement

According to Gallup, two-thirds of US employees are not engaged. Unengaged employees are costing your organization a lot of time, effort, and money.

Most notably, employees blame their lack of engagement on their managers. Only about half of all employees strongly indicate they know what clearly is expected of them when they go to work every day. Gallup says, “Managers account for at least 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units.”

When managers use communication effectively, it not only helps their teams work more efficiently, it also frees them up to do the things they need to do.

Manage your managers

Set managers up for successful outcomes. Consider these changes to impact the positive affect managers can have on your workforce:

  • Help managers strengthen the skills they need to make them successful by personalizing their development. Ask them to identify what knowledge they need to be more successful in their roles. Consider outside opportunities for learning including conferences and coaches. External courses taught by experts in the specific discipline is the most effective way for them to learn. Require an action plan so lessons are implemented, not forgotten, benchmark success, and continuously monitor their progress.
  • Don’t rely on annual performance evaluations as a measurement tool. Feedback should be on-going, real-time, consistent, and documented throughout the year. Afford managers an opportunity to provide a list of challenges that they need help overcoming and help them to identify competencies they need to develop and skills they need to attain. Additionally, at the time of annual evaluations ensure that the document is specific to the role. Too often, performance measures are general to the organization, not the job and its responsibilities.
  • The desire for recognition of a job well done is basic human nature. Celebrate milestones and successes. And when company goals are met, make sure you praise publicly for their contributions. When people realize their efforts actually do make a difference, they’re more inclined to contribute enthusiastically.

Employee retention is not only the job of the company, it is also the responsibility of the manager. And it is the duty of the employer to ensure that the managers have the appropriate skills, tools, and confidence to lead.

Turnover is inevitable. But the loss of promising talent can be stopped by strong, skillful managers and organizations that understand the value of soft skills.