Let's Get Rid of the Term 'Soft Skills'
It’s unfortunate that some of the most important characteristics needed for success in business are stuck with the label “soft skills.” If “soft” means unimportant or trivial to you, then you need to think again.
According to indeed.com, soft skills are “…abilities that relate to how you work and how you interact with other people. Popular soft skills include communication, teamwork and other interpersonal skills. Employers look for soft skills in candidates because these skills are hard to teach and are important for long-term success…”
Personally, I think the term “soft skills” is as useless and outdated as my Price Waterhouse ID badge. Although the term is used to refer to non-technical (translation: less important) skills, successful companies have realized that soft skills are critically important these days. Actually, I prefer the term “enhanced people skills” or EPS for short (my fellow CPAs will appreciate that acronym!), because it’s a better description of what these skills involve.
EPS can include a variety of emotional intelligence skills relevant to an organization. And although you may think that EPS is non-scientific, touchy-feely stuff, it can actually be defined, improved and measured. In fact, there has been significant research that shows EPS is not only important, but critical to career success. One such study highlighted by world-renowned researcher Dr. Travis Bradberry showed that for supervisors up to and including the CEO, 60 percent of job performance is related to emotional intelligence elements that can be included in EPS, and 90 percent of top performers were high in EPS (source: youtu.be/auXNnTmhHsk - at the 10:55 mark). Just Google “empathy and leadership” and you will find lots of articles on that one specific element of EPS. The importance of EPS has actually increased after the global changes brought on by the pandemic.
Building Your EPS
How can you tell when it’s time to start building your EPS? It’s never too early to work on those skills. Colleges and universities are certainly responding to the needs of the business community in this area. One example is Rice University, which has been a pioneer in this field and developed a leadership institute in 2015 to address the EPS need (the Ann and John Doerr Institute for New Leaders). The meticulously crafted programs at Rice are documented in the book Leadership Reckoning by Thomas Kolditz, Ph.D., Libby Gill and Ryan P. Brown, Ph.D. The book proposes that college-level students are not being prepared for the leadership responsibilities they will face in the business world. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming, and more academic research is being done every year on this subject. In fact, the learning and leadership training industry has exploded in the last several years to fill the need for better EPS training.
Like all good CPAs, I’m a sucker for formulas, and I’ve found a quick analytical measure to determine if you should place a focus on EPS at the current stage of your career. For a typical work week, simply take the number of hours in a week that you work directly with others divided by 40 hours. For example, if you work with others (e.g., meetings, teams, one-on-one) about 20 hours a week, then you have a .5 EPS (20/40). I think it’s never too early to start building your EPS, but once you hit the .5 EPS ratio, you should clearly be conscious of developing strong EPS behaviors. By the way, if your ratio is over 1.0 that’s a big red flag! At that point it’s time to reassess how you are spending your time. The EPS ratio is a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation you can do to document where you are on your EPS journey.
Here are the five “As” that will help you to build your EPS and manage your career:
- Awareness. Know your EPS ratio or another metric that will give you insight into where you are on the EPS scale. You can also use past performance appraisals for further insights. It’s only when you are fully conscious of where you are that you can move forward.
- Assessment. Ask for feedback from your stakeholders (e.g., immediate supervisor, peers, subordinates, clients). This is an example of 360 feedback where you ask everyone you work with for constructive comments. Tell everyone your intention and what you hope to accomplish. Most people are more than happy to assist. There are many tools to capture data, and your firm or company may already have such tools readily available. An example of one tool is the 360 Emotional Quotient Inventory 2.0 (EQ-i 2.0). It is a widely used, statistically validated tool. You can also create your own 360 with a few targeted questions.
- Analysis. What are the two or three EPS skills that you can immediately work on based on the data? Share the results with your stakeholders to let them know you will be working in these areas. From the data gathered, what is the best course of action?
- Action. What goals have you defined for yourself based on the data? Determine what course of action you will take to reach those goals. Is there an internal course you can take, an external course you can register for or a relationship with a mentor you can establish? The purpose is to move forward and enhance your EPS skills. For example, if you need to present in front of others, will something like Toastmasters International help you increase your skill in that area? Is there a person who inspires you who has the skills you want to enhance? Can that person be a mentor?
- Accountability. How will you hold yourself accountable for the changes you’re making? Will you have an internal/external coach keeping you on track? Are your HR partners aware of your plan and helping you to stay the course? Will you have periodic meetings with your supervisor to discuss progress? Did you include any EPS topics in your formal appraisal process? Can family or friends be a sounding board?
It’s never too early (or too late) to start building the skills to advance your career. Unfortunately, enhancing EPS skills has not always been part of proper career planning in the business world. Times have changed, however, and now actively managing and monitoring your EPS will yield dividends on your career investment.
Thomas W. Metelski
Thomas Metelski, CPA, is an International Coaching Federation (ICF) accredited coach and founder of Jump Coaching & Consulting, LLC. He has 20 years of experience working with top tier global companies in the telecommunications, chemical, medical device and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industries.
This article appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of New Jersey CPA magazine. Read the full issue.