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How Good Are Your Soft Skills?

Interpersonal skills can be more important for leaders than “hard” skills. How executive education can help
Apr 27, 2012 — M. Filtz

If you're like many managers and executives, you've probably advanced your career by doing something really well. If you're an engineer, for example, you might design and build great products. If you're an accountant, you might be a number-crunching whiz.

But did you know that to be a successful leader, an understanding of the workings of the human brain might be just as important for your career as these other skills?

Take the example of giving negative feedback to colleagues. If you feel guilty about doing this, then you risk coming across “as extremely vague,” says Eva Klein from the University of Calgary's Haskayne Executive Education

“Or you may come across as harsh, because you want to get it over with,” says Klein.

Learning how to give feedback, lead teams, and negotiate are essential skills for managers. Sometimes referred to as “soft skills,” these are – at heart – people skills. Being able to effectively and confidently communicate with co-workers can mean a better workplace environment, better products, and a better business.

Experts often group these skills under the umbrella of  “emotional intelligence,” in that a good leader is aware of and sensitive to the emotional states of others. This understanding of what's going on in other peoples' brains – combined with empathy – can foster better working relationships.

But it can be extremely difficult to pick these skills up in the workplace. According to Glenda Hutchinson of the Melbourne Business School's Mt. Eliza Executive Education Center, executives “might get finance in the workplace, but the emotional component of the human mind is not something they get at work.”

Michael Devlin, associate dean of executive education at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management, says that the importance of these skills should not be underestimated.

“Leadership skills, management skills, people skills,” says Devlin, “are the absolute most important skills that any executive has to have, and they far outweigh the long-term importance of what are traditionally known as 'hard skills.'”

Devlin says many executives reach a similar conclusion during the middle of their careers, once they're asked to step up and lead teams. Accountants that have risen the ladder by being brilliant accountants, for example, may now be faced with leading other accountants – a skill they have never been taught.

Fortunately, executive education courses can help. Short, intensive workshops in the areas of “soft skills” or “emotional intelligence” can offer safe, constructive environments where managers can learn to hone these often unaccounted-for skills.

So, how do these courses work?

Eva Klein, who instructs courses in “Creating Effective Workplace Relationships,” and “Emotional Intelligence” at Haskayne, says that a combination of role-playing activities and background instruction in theory allows participants to begin to understand the basics of soft skill development.

Klein says that, in contrast to courses that focus on hard skills, soft skills courses “are not hugely intellectual, but much more practical,” in that they often consist of group activities where participants can safely explore many aspects of workplace dynamics.

Michael Devlin agrees. He describes Weatherhead's leadership development courses as more action-oriented than others.

“They're more interactive,” Devlin says. “The students aren't going to sit and listen for a day or a week; they're going to be very engaged participants in the learning process, and they're going to be active.”

In addition to interactivity, many courses in soft skills leverage insights from psychology and other behavior-oriented fields so that participants can get a more objective view of how people tend to respond in the workplace environment.

According to Mt. Eliza's Glenda Hutchinson, in a typical three-day leadership development course, participants generally learn about a good deal of theory in neuroscience to better understand how events can trigger different responses in different people. They can then put this understanding to use through practice-oriented activities.

Courses in soft skills can help people across a wide variety of industries and career capacities. Although many leadership programs are designed for middle- and senior- level managers, soft skill courses can help people at most career levels. Haskayne's Eva Klein notes that she also teaches an MBA course in “Competitive Advantage Through People,” which is very popular.

But for many people, just one short class or elective may not be enough. For these people, many executive education institutions offer certificate-level programs that combine a number of stackable courses. Weatherhead, for instance, offers certificates like “The Emotional Intelligent Leader” or “Coaching” that include a variety of course offerings for those needing additional help in these areas.

In the end, leadership and other soft skills can add lasting value to an executive's career. Glenda Hutchinson says that the biggest takeaways that people gain from courses in soft skills are “self-management and self-awareness,” and that often, participants leave with a new-found sense of reflection. But she says that, due to their self-reflective nature, these courses can be tiring as well.

Michael Devlin would agree with that.

“Yeah, they're hard. They're every bit as hard as acquiring the hard skills, if not harder,” says Devlin. “But they can be learned.”

 

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