When It Comes to Successfully Leading People, Soft Skills are the Key

“We had two very distinct corporate headquarters and now we just have one. At our corporate office in Boston, the doors were locked on the executive floor and you couldn’t get in with your badge unless you worked on that floor. 

Now everyone’s badge works on the floor. I also moved the coffee machine outside my door so people had to walk by my office to get to it. Now I can tell people to stop in and say Hi.

That statement was from CEO Linda K. Zecher of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She was recently profiled by Adam Bryant in his weekly interview series, Corner Office in The New York Times.

By the way, this weekly article allows you to peep through the crack of the C-Suite. It is a must read for HR professionals who are looking for insight from senior leadership and their thought processes.

A different scenario, indeed

However, as I read about this one with Linda Zecher I thought of my own experience and it was diametrically opposed to her version. In my version, the new CEO comes in and immediately re-launches what was a normal floor where everyone roamed into an “executive floor.”

There was new furniture, paintings, and an unwritten rule that if you did not have business on that floor to stay away.

It was a very different vision with very different results. In the latter case, it was the beginning of the cultural downfall.

I have often wondered how all the thinking gets warped whenever someone is anointed and gets an acronym as their title. Some take that as the seal of superpower, so much so that when the shirt is ripped off it unveils not the seal of Superman but of a CXO or THE “VP.”

As I write this, I think about a buddy of mine that made the grade. He would not finish a conversation unless he threw out his new title. Never would listen to his team because, as he often said, he was “the one with the initials behind his name.”

I supposed he wanted the world to know. My thought is that if you have to continually tell someone your title, there must be disbelief from your side, or maybe you feel by saying it, it empowers you more.

It’s the soft things that matter

I caution everyone that will listen to me about this. While we want to make sure that job skills are met, with senior level leaders it is paramount that we also look for the soft skills.

Collaboration with team members is becoming a big part of the every day job. While you can be a technical wizard, if you can’t get along and motivate your people, those technical skills mean nothing unless you are an individual contributor. But then, even being an independent contributor will still mean that you have to sell and convince people of your ideas.

I worry sometimes that with so much social media, people are losing the people touch. The preference of many is to text rather than have a conversation. The preference for others is to hide behind email as opposed to picking up the phone and ending the ping-pong of messages going back and forth.

Someone pitched me the other day about a new software app that “increases employee engagement” by allowing users to send thanks or Kudos to their fellow workers. My thought was pretty simple: You are working with this person or team and you need an app to remind you to say thank you for a job well done?

Sometimes, I just don’t get it. If I need technology to nudge me to do the most basic of the most human interaction, then I am in trouble.

Technical skills can get the job done but soft skills make the difference between a job that gets done and a job that gets done exceedingly well.

Stop meddling in other people’s business

On the soft skills side, they require an exceedingly high degree of skill in working with, and for, others. You are the troop leader marshaling them to work together and getting them to want to follow you into the future.

However, some leaders get side-tracked with the “I will just do it myself” syndrome.

That is the death knell of leadership. People must develop on their own and your role is to guide them through that process.

It does not matter whether you are the CEO or a project leader. The role today of a leader is not to hover; you hired them, so let them do what you felt confident enough to hire them to do.

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The 3-legged stool of today’s leader

Leadership today increasingly involves the technical, occupational, and the interpersonal. This 3-legged stool has to be mastered. If you cannot achieve internal balance, your team, department, division and the organization will suffer a similar lack of equilibrium.

This balance can be exceeding difficult to achieve, because many people define themselves by their ability to be experts in their occupational skills while viewing soft skills as secondary or incidental.

The balancing act is tough, but connecting to your direct reports is paramount for your career as well as for your organizational success.

It is like what a CEO told me a while back. He said that in his company they have over 40 nationalities.

In other words, people want to feel appreciated and respected regardless of who they are or where they come from.

Soft skills are the key!

Ron Thomas

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.