Soft Skills or Bust

How Simple Skills Prevent Bankruptcy and Theft

Over the course of my professional life, I’ve always trained “soft skills.” So what, exactly, are they? Some folks might see these as natural pieces of competent communication; for others, they’re hurdles that stand in the way of strong, effective leadership.

Soft skills include:
   Listening
   Communication
   Handling Objections
   Situational Awareness
   Eavesdropping
   Empathy
And the list goes on.

When I first started my career, I trained pilots, flight attendants and reservation departments about the art of customer service. Fast-forward 25 years and I find myself in a similar role coaching owners and managers of specialty retailers these basic soft skills.

What I find fascinating is the lack of confidence so many Mann U students, owners and managers, have when it comes to being an effective coach. Although they find themselves in leadership positions, often overseeing dozens or even hundreds of people, these simple soft skills don’t just evade them, they intimidate them. Giving feedback to employees is not easy.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Lou Solomon reports that 69% of managers are uncomfortable communicating with their employees. The only surprising thing about this statistic is how low it is. I would say on average 90% of the managers and owners that attend Mann U are uncomfortable communicating with their employees. So uncomfortable, in fact, that their reluctance to communicate can have dire consequences. So uncomfortable that they may choose bankruptcy and theft over confrontation.

Yes, you heard me correctly. Bankruptcy and theft.

This past month we learned of a specialty retailer filing for bankruptcy. The reason? Poor performing managers. The excuse? “I am afraid if I confront them they will leave and I will be stuck managing nine stores.”

Again this month (June was not a good month for retail!), we stumbled upon an outrageous documented theft. There’s a video circulating of a woman who enters a store, grabs a bike, and walks right back out. The camera catches another set of events happening simultaneously, this one far less riveting: all the employees huddled around the cash wrap in casual conversation. The reason? No structure around accountability. The excuse? I am afraid to hold my staff accountable because they are my friends.

How do we build people-centric organizations while also accepting the fact that two-thirds of our managers (presumably well-paid, well-trained and integral to our success) are uncomfortable doing the essential part of their job?

We can agree that certain focused skills are essential—that hiring a pilot who can’t fly a plane, a salesperson who can’t sell or coders who can’t code is a short road to failure. And yet we don’t respond to equally integral skills with the same urgency and respect, but instead call them “soft skills” with the implication that they are optional. 

We don’t know how to measure. We don’t know how to interview. We don’t know how to be accountable. Yet being an effective manager, owner or any type of leader requires self-control, productivity, wisdom, perception and influence. It’s these basic skills that make leaders uncomfortable, but these are also the skills that can weigh the scales in large matters of failure or success.

In Mann University we spend a morning talking about leadership skills. The question we ask after the students list admirable leadership skills of people they admire is this: Are you born with these traits or do you learn them?

Of course we learn them! Infants are not good at any of these soft skills. Just because they are difficult to measure doesn’t mean we can’t improve them, can’t practice them, can’t change them. Of course we can.

Let’s talk about influence—our favorite leadership skill. What auxiliary skills fall under influence?

   Ability to deliver clear and useful criticism
   Assertiveness on behalf of ideas that matter
   Body language (reading and delivering)
   Charisma and the skill to influence others
   Clarity in language and vision
   Dispute resolution skills
   Giving feedback without ego
   Inspiring to others
  Interpersonal skills
  Leadership
  Negotiation skills
  Networking
  Presentation skills
  Persuasive
  Public speaking
  Reframing
  Selling skills
  Storytelling
  Talent management
  Team building
  Writing for impact

Is it possible to teach these real skills? Is it possible to focus on them, hire for them, reward for growth? Can we put in place programs and insights that will lead to progress in all these areas?

If we did, would it matter? Would a retail organization that excelled at these real skills be more productive, more profitable and a better place to work?

This is why Mann University was created. To create the a-ha moments. To create confidence and develop the soft skills in the leaders of specialty retail. You might call them soft, but once they’re developed they’re anything but; they’re the hard, sharp and focused skills that define able leaders—and even prevent bankruptcy and theft.

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