Social skills, who needs ’em?

September 5, 2016

Almost two thirds of financial executives believe that strong leadership and effective communication skills are the most important attributes for success, according to a recent survey, which also estimated that these so-called soft skills are worth £88 billion to the UK economy.

Meanwhile, a separate study found that 85 per cent of job success comes from having well-developed soft and people skills. By contrast, just 15 percent comes from technical skills and knowledge, otherwise known as hard skills, according to the study by Harvard University, written in conjunction with the Carnegie Foundation and Stanford Research Center.

“Failure to acknowledge the importance of soft skills is a mistake that a departmental head, programme manager or senior executive will likely only make once before moving on,” says Brickendon Executive Director Dean Gammage. “Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but an organisation built on such foundations will most likely fail because the constituent parts aren’t fully invested in its success.”

So what are soft skills, and why do they matter?

According to the Oxford dictionary, soft skills are personal attributes that enable an individual to interact effectively and harmoniously with another person. They help people to communicate and collaborate more easily and underpin important qualities such as the ability to lead a team, be part of a team and communicate within a team. And, since teamwork is considered to be an essential element for organisational and personal success, developing these skills is crucial.

A chief executive of a global automotive manufacturer was recently cited as saying he was struggling to grow his business as planned due to the lack of young talent with the right soft skills. Soft skills, he said, are necessary in most types of jobs, from mechanical engineer to sales or back-office functions, and they are very hard to teach.

Pierre Velinor, engagement manager at Brickendon agrees: “Good social skills are essential within any industry, but particularly in the financial services sector.” He said it is often difficult to assess levels of social skills through the CV or on the phone and that for him, it is very important to meet all potential candidates in person.

Gammage agrees, saying that in the past, when organisational structures were more permanent and hierarchical, getting things done within a financial institution was more about doing what your boss wanted. Nowadays, most financial institutions employ a more balanced blend of permanent, contract and consulting staff, so building effective teams and attaining the highest levels of performance often involves the more subtle arts of influence, motivation and persuasion.

“Very few now wield a stick effectively, or for very long,” he added, saying: “These challenging landscapes, where the complexity is no longer just regulatory detail and technical innovation, but also culture, influence and politics, require higher levels of emotional intelligence.”

“Without this, it becomes increasingly difficult to ensure that deliveries can be made, and aggressive deadlines met, without a trail of collateral damage to the team which limits future delivery capability.”

According to the survey by recruitment firm Robert Half, the most common challenges facing financial executives are managing stress arising from crisis situations and prioritising conflicting deadlines. Learning to interact with different personalities and conveying financial information in non-financial terms were also challenges mentioned by the 200 financial executives surveyed.

Gammage believes the globalisation of the financial services industry also means that individuals and teams in high-cost locations increasingly need to provide the value to justify their costs. “Reaching these levels of performance in a sustainable and progressive manner needs a focus on people skills and really being able to understand what motivates them,” he says.

Still, despite the importance of soft skills and emotional intelligence being widely acknowledged, little is being done to address the issue. Employees continue to turn up at organisations without these softer, interpersonal and relationship-building skills. At a higher level there has been an increase in executive coaching in an attempt to prepare critical leaders for role changes and promotion, enhance personal impact and adjust behavioural limiters. However, for this to be successful and lasting, the candidates need to be open to fundamental change in themselves and their behaviour, within a culture that recognises the importance of soft-skills and incorporates them into the day-to-day culture of the organisation.

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