Soft skills: preparing the leaders of tomorrow

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Leadership programmes are failing the soft skills test, but L&D has a golden opportunity to help teams prepare for the future.

Rapid technology-driven changes in connectivity, knowledge, communication and geographical reach are forcing organisations to change the way they conduct their business. The problem is that our leadership development programmes are not keeping up.

The understanding that the leadership of tomorrow will increasingly be ‘context leadership’, based on relationships and collaborative thinking, is gaining wide ground.

Leadership will no longer consist of one individual leading others, but will instead increasingly be shared by teams and groups as the way we work together shifts. 

The leader will no longer be the smartest person in the room, but will need to be able to understand and motivate those who are, pick up and make sense of weak signals regardless of where they come from and have the ability to mobilise the rest of the organisation quickly.

Naturally this pushes the need for soft skills (such as collaboration, creative and strategic thinking and emotional intelligence) to the top of the list for the future.

The great imbalance

In the almost three decades I’ve worked in the professional development field, both as a COO and senior executive coach, one truth stands out: most leadership development efforts focus on developing skills and competencies on things we already know how to do rather than on trying to learn and build new skills that we will need to compete in the future. 

This is no surprise to those in the talent development area. It’s not that organisations don’t do communications and emotional intelligence training. 

The problem is that despite investments in these areas, these soft skills - particularly communications and emotional intelligence – still show a great gap, compared to where we should be. In a recent interview, LinkedIn CEO, Jeff Weiner reported how interpersonal skills are the area of greatest imbalance.

Making a business case for soft skills

While most people agree these are important skills, they find it very hard to improve because to do so requires a high level of self-awareness and consistent, focused behaviour change.

Leaders need to improve their coaching and mentoring skills in order to reach a wide range of people with different backgrounds, expertise, and needs.

Typically learning and development programmes have been stymied because, in our metrics-centred world, it is hard to have metrics around soft skills training and so these topics aren’t given the weight they deserve. I believe that this is where that L&D can offer the most value to organisations, by finding ways to show how this type of effort improves the organisation’s ability to perform. 

Embarking on a change

How do you embed self-awareness and emotional mastery into the learning programmes? The biggest changes would come from:

1. Moving from ‘one-size-fits-all’ training, where experts deliver information to participants through workshops and classrooms to highly tailored, participant-driven training.

While workshops and classes are effective in building foundational skills at mid-levels, they are not effective in creating the mindset shifts and leadership behaviors required to steer the business through turbulent and changing times, as people move up the organisation.

2. Transitioning from focusing on skills and techniques and tips to facilitating internally driven growth in areas such as insights, maturity, flexibility.

The ability to ground yourself is critical for sense-making in ‘foggy’ areas, to be able to translate and draw on experience in order to move forward when things are unstable.

Tools and techniques

So how do we do this?

1. Personalise it

Leaders need to be creative in finding ways of personalising programmes and learning experiences.

One way I’ve seen organisations do this is by deepening and broadening the role of coaching throughout a company. Coaching can help build the ability to ‘zoom in and out’ with ease, ensuring both systemic awareness as well as tight focus on individual nodules.

Coaching can be vertical or horizontal or both and can take a variety of forms, from external coaching to internal peer coaching, mentoring or job shadowing which allows people to look at work flows and outcomes from different perspectives.

This means that leaders need to improve their coaching and mentoring skills in order to reach a wide range of people with different backgrounds, expertise, and needs.

2. Sharing experiences

Organisations need to find and support explicit and sustained methods of ensuring that learning outcomes and experiences are brought back, shared and incorporated into the everyday tissue of the business.

A skilled coach can help the team, as individuals as well as a group reflect on their processes and ways to better create the future they are all working for...

Technology today is allowing people to directly link learning activities with organisational growth objectives and strategic learning plans. Through improved learning management platforms, individuals can create their own learning journey by choosing between a variety of training workshops and other packages, role-plays and other simulation software and can understand immediately what skills they are building and how they are aligned to company, department and team goals.

This can be a way to touch people where it matters, by allowing them to find learning activities that are aligned with their sense of purpose, their style of learning and still closely tied to business growth.

3. Promoting and supporting deep immersion and personal growth 

Future leaders need to be highly self-aware and grounded as well as flexible and agile.

This means building skills in areas such as self-awareness, intuition, and resilience.

Building habits supported by systems, on things like mindfulness, ease with feedback and coaching, emphasis and support in unstable, changing, high-pressure environments will help make the whole organisation more resilient. 

4. Build for the future

Focus on skills for the future by investing in experience-based, future-focused group learning. 

‘Real-time’ training – getting input and co-training as a team, while people are working on real projects and challenges – is an effective way to develop leadership skills.

A skilled coach can help the team, as individuals as well as a group reflect on their processes and ways to better create the future they are all working for through thinking, relating, brainstorming and behaving in new ways.

The key here is to actively learn, not just to improve what they are doing now. This makes the training more relevant and immediate and, more importantly, ‘sticky’.

5. Be creative

Experiment with using non-traditional methods to focus on and brainstorm big issues, such as cross-functional ‘hackathons’ (what millennials call ad-hoc working groups) to brainstorm ideas and solutions for a variety of important challenges the business is facing.

Aside from leveraging diversity of thinking and experience to come up with great ideas, participants learn to work in diverse, cross-functional teams and work on their communications and emotional intelligence skills.

It is only by adapting current learning platforms and approaches that L&D professionals can successfully boost their organisations’ ability to lead into the future.

Want to learn more about leadership? Read 'Emotional intelligence: navigating today’s leadership challenges'.

About Rose Cartolari

Rose Cartolari

Rose Cartolari is a leadership strategist and executive coach, helping leaders and organisations thrive in turbulent times.

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05th Jun 2018 10:02

Rose, great article, thank you. I'm currently working with the future leaders of our firm in developing their soft skills. It's reassuring to read about your emphasis on coaching, collaborative working and EI, in addition I've also just introduced a 360 feedback to help them become more self-aware and develop their brand. Early days but initial response is a refreshing change. More importantly the Managing Partner is fully supportive and involved in the leadership and coaching programmes, which sends out a great message.

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